Sunday, May 23, 2010
Perspective on a team in transition
By Howard Bryant
As the Boston Red Sox overheat with anger and suspicion after a tumultuous week regarding their triangle of transition, a little perspective is in order. Over the first six weeks of the season, a captain, a World Series MVP and a legend have all been forced into uncomfortable space not by the press or the fans, but by the organization.
Run prevention may have been the mantra for the Red Sox this season, but the true theme of the year has always been transition. Over the past week, the soft underbelly of the Boston Red Sox -- hidden under the comfort of past successes and the promise that the early part of the calendar would afford them time -- has finally revealed itself.
David Ortiz, proud and emerging, has blamed the media -- a media that has always covered him with respect -- for his uneven start. Mike Lowell, the 2007 World Series hero against the Rockies, wants to be traded. Jason Varitek, the mainstay behind the plate through two championships, is a part-time player and opposing baserunners early this season treated his replacement, Victor Martinez, as shoplifters would a napping security guard.
In a sense, asking three accomplished players with great pride and résumés to accept reduced, altered roles was too much to ask for any team, and only Varitek seems to be handling it well. The storm that has arrived was inevitable. The lashing out has begun.
Let's start with the legend:
Ortiz is the greatest pressure hitter, the greatest difference-maker, and along with Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski, the most important player in Red Sox history. Everyone on that list he joins, it should be noted, happens to be immortalized in the baseball Hall of Fame.
Only the Beatles have more greatest hits than Ortiz. His constant demolition of the Yankees changed the narrative of Boston baseball, when it was finally a member of the Red Sox, and not DiMaggio, Mantle or Reggie, who was the most feared hitter on the field. A home run against Jarrod Washburn to end the 2004 ALDS and every one of his 12 postseason home runs and 47 RBIs mattered. The Ortiz playlist is too long to recount.
And then there was the way he broke the ham-and-egg dreams of all of those regular-season pretenders -- the Baltimores and Torontos and (back then) the Tampa Bays -- who thought they could steal a series from the Red Sox only to have the bottom of the order start a sudden rally and Ortiz or Manny Ramirez (or both) finish it.
The Red Sox clubhouse was historically a foul, brooding place. A personality fostered by the superstars and adopted by the rank and file. But visiting reporters and hometown writers alike generally acknowledge Ortiz made everyone's job easier. Yaz, Rice, Clemens, Garciaparra and Ramirez all often blanched at the responsibilities of being the star in Boston. Mo Vaughn was the exception. Ortiz turned it into the rule.
Ruth is the franchise's greatest player. Williams gave it historical permanence. Yastrzemski was the face of a revival that began in 1967 and exists to this day. Ortiz belongs because of the combination of outsized offensive feats at a most critical period and his immense role in the culture changing of the Boston franchise from unconfident to fearsome.
Ortiz, in a sense, is more important than even Manny, because Ramirez couldn't carry the team offensively by himself and Ramirez certainly did not produce a positive clubhouse aura. It wasn't until Ortiz became an everyday player, in May 2003, when the Red Sox benefited from the most fearsome offensive tandem since Aaron and Mathews.
If anything, watching him struggle at the beginning of the last two seasons created a collective sense of heartbreak around the 617 area code. Nobody wanted to see him fail, for it not only created pain for him but suggested that summer was ending for the greatest era of Red Sox prosperity since World War I.
In other words, not only will nobody forget, alter, massage or ignore what Ortiz means to the Boston Red Sox, their two championships, their unbreakable sellout streak and his individual place in the pantheon, but nobody wants to.
But Ortiz has now decided that the media is trying to destroy him. It is an easy, obvious target -- and it couldn't be more wrong.
There is one reason -- just one -- that the media or anyone else has focused on Ortiz: Because this season, for the first time in his Boston career, his bosses -- general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona -- very fundamentally and very publicly changed his role.
Sending up a hitter to hit for the great David Ortiz is, well, news.
The front office chose not to keep him as the team's cleanup hitter. Nor did it simply move him lower in the batting order but maintain his role as an everyday player. It was the Red Sox, and not the evil media, that decided that Ortiz was not going to come out of his early season haze as he did last year. They did not believe playing him every day was the best decision for the franchise. The owners, Tom Werner, Larry Lucchino and John Henry, have expressed their great admiration and loyalty to Ortiz, but Epstein and Francona nevertheless made the decision early this season to turn Ortiz into a platoon player.
They were the ones who benched him.
The Ortiz message this season has been, essentially, "For all I've done for this town, trust me." The Red Sox responded with the message that while their support was present, this year it was not absolute. "I could not tell him he was going to play every day," Francona said, in a devastating blow.
If Ortiz dislikes the narrative that time takes its chunk from every person and it is premature to say that it is time for him to pay his toll, his anger is understandable. But it is a narrative whose foundation is rooted in his manager's calling the greatest clutch hitter to the bench with the bases loaded late in a game just three weeks into the season.
And then there is Lowell, who while the Red Sox were in New York said it would be best for him to play elsewhere simply because he wasn't playing frequently enough to rediscover the touch that made him such a consistent hitter.
Unlike Ortiz, Lowell did not blame the press for his position, but also hasn't had to live with Ortiz's pressure of a bad start; Lowell wasn't starting at all. Instead, Lowell was brooding quietly inside the clubhouse, simmering like a pot on the stove, aware and unhappy that the organization has sent the signal to him -- months ago by its efforts to trade him and by acquiring Adrian Beltre in the offseason -- that it no longer believes he is an everyday player for the Red Sox.
Ortiz and Lowell have adopted a united front: They both believe they should be in the lineup, just like the old days when the Sox were champions. It is an appropriate response for accomplished players, just as it is an appropriate response for Francona to try to find the lineup that will energize his team.
And then there is Varitek, the captain revived in a reserve role, one in which he can hit .311 and belt home runs or catch a near no-hitter one day and then be on the bench the next. In a difficult role, Varitek has proved himself to be worthy of his title. Like a true captain, he has put the team ahead of himself, which is not to say that Lowell or Ortiz are acting selfishly (they aren't) but to suggest that these three key points of the Red Sox triangle are dealing with hard transition in different ways.
Ortiz is correct when he says a baseball season ends in October and not April, and very soon the leaves will change colors and the Red Sox will have to decide what to offer the legend (the team holds a 2011 club option for $12.5 million on Ortiz). At that moment, the truth of how the Red Sox feel about his future prospects as a professional baseball player will come out.
Ortiz will know then, with full columns of statistics, which is the more powerful position: the overwhelming public support from ownership or the policy shift from Epstein and Francona. He will know whether he has rebounded again, if another season of recovering from a slow start was proof that he was ultimately correct, that everyone should have trusted him or if the Red Sox have already made up their minds about his abilities. It is here -- and not the daily silliness of being mad at a press corps that universally supported him -- where the real game is being played.
|David Ortiz is missing the point in lashing out at the media, which was just doing its job in covering his early season woes.|
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.