THE SUPERPOWERS ARE GONE. The Yankees are just another team. The Red Sox, winners of the World Series last year, losers of 93 games the year before, are in last place now, iconic in name but pedestrian in stature. Derek Jeter is retiring, the remainder of his career measured by innings, not seasons.
When the leaves change and Jeter says his last goodbye, 38-year-old David Ortiz will be all that's left of a time when the Red Sox and Yankees ruled baseball in payrolls, triumphs and claims on the public imagination. Torre and Francona, Damon and Bernie Williams, Clemens and Pedro have all moved on. Alex Rodriguez and his 654 toxic home runs are in limbo. So are Manny Ramirez and his 555. Aware of his own waning days but still putting up impressive power numbers, Ortiz remains uniquely relevant. Shadowed like many of his era by steroid suspicions, and angry about it, he has yet to surrender center stage.
Maybe it has something to do with how he got there.
"Everyone knew that from day one, Derek Jeter was going to be the starting shortstop for the Yankees for a long, long time," he says. "It wasn't that way for me."
He made his debut with the Twins as a 21-year-old in 1997. Current Red Sox infielder Xander Bogaerts was 4 years old. Ortiz had been the player to be named later in a deal that sent journeyman Dave Hollins from Minnesota to the Mariners. After six injury-riddled seasons in Minnesota, he was released. Before the 2003 season, the Red Sox took a chance, offering him a one-year deal because Theo Epstein thought he might have "a high ceiling."
Ortiz is proud of that humble beginning and of developing into the player Bostonians now most identify with the Red Sox's standing up to the Yankees. It was in the era of the superpowers that he became himself. From the time he arrived in 2003 to when Boston won a second championship in four years in 2007, the Red Sox and Yankees played each other 108 times, including 14 playoff games. Each team won a classic ALCS, but Boston won the war, evolving from a long-suffering Yankees foil into a true rival New York had to fear in October. Ortiz totaled 208 home runs and 642 RBIs in those five years. "We were killing everybody. It was just us," he says. "That was the greatest time."
Red Sox Hall of Famer Jim Rice, sitting next to Ortiz in the Sox's dugout on a recent afternoon, knows how fast time can pass. The 61-year-old says the reflexes go first. You don't see things as quickly. You have to make adjustments. Think more. Pick your spots. Ortiz, who entered August within striking distance of Jose Abreu for the AL home run crown, nods his head. "I can't do it all on raw ability anymore, but I'm smarter," he says. "I went 11-for-16 in the World Series last year, all on fastballs. I can still roll out of bed and hit a fastball."
The hard part now, Ortiz says, is connecting with teammates who weren't born when he signed his first pro contract. Sometimes he defies the clock. Other times he sounds wistful. The kids look up to him, but he's the voice of experience more than one of the boys these days. "The younger players look to me like, 'What's next?'" he says. "When we struggle, they want to know how I handle it."
He remembers being 17 in Seattle, wishing he knew what Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez knew. He reflects on being mentored by Kirby Puckett and having Mo Vaughn take him under his wing. He's not sure if he gets across the same way. Rice says he felt something similar when his career was winding down. It's the cycle of the game. Nostalgia is inevitable. To have once been part of something great is to later long for it. To have lived in a golden age is to find the present dull by comparison.
"When I came up, there were at least two guys on every team ... you wanted to be," Ortiz says, for the first time sounding all of his 38 years. "These kids are different. Why would a kid who has made $100 million before he's even 30 feel like he has to listen to anyone?"
Then, like a hitter who's still dangerous, he shakes it off: "What's it mean? It means I'm old, dude."