"I'm going to introduce myself to that fence," Ortiz told a Yankee Stadium usher. Big Papi then turned to a few observers and laughed. "You think it wants to meet me?" Ortiz wondered, grinning like an alligator that has just spied a guppy.
This was before Tuesday night's game against New York, before the Boston Red Sox added a two-game sweep of the Yankees to their three-game sweep last month in Boston. Ortiz never did say howdy to the fence in the Red Sox's 7-3 win – he's now gone 102 at-bats without a home run – but he was just a sub-plot in a remarkable pitching performance by the Yankees' Joba Chamberlain.
Strange, how Ortiz had to come to New York to escape a magnifying glass shining hard on his early slump. It's a brutal slump, to be sure, one that Ortiz calls "probably the worst" he's ever experienced, if only because he's convinced it's more mental than physical, and at age 33, with 13 years in the bigs, his brain ought to know how to pull rank over rebelling body parts.
"But, you know, if I let frustration win, then that's not staying very positive," Ortiz said.
"I'm just trying to clear out my head, that's all I need to do. Clean up my focus, clear out my head, and we'll be good."
As Ortiz leaned against a soggy fence post and allowed reporters to poke around his psyche, the Yankees might as well have posted a "Doctor Is In" sign outside their clubhouse. The Pinstripes are ailing, dragging, out of synch on their pristine new field and mired in controversy away from it.
Jorge Posada landed on the disabled list Tuesday with a hamstring injury and will likely miss up to three weeks. And no matter how much manager Joe Girardi wishes his players' personal lives were out of bounds, everyone was curious to see how Chamberlain would perform one night after it was reported his estranged mother, Jacqueline Standley, was arrested for allegedly dealing methamphetamine in Nebraska.
When Chamberlain began falling behind in the count and mumbling on the mound, it looked like the Yankees were in for a miserable night. Jason Bay, Manny Ramirez's replacement, might not yet be a Yankee killer, but he sure is learning how to shovel on the dirt. Batting fourth behind Big Papi, Bay followed Ortiz' first-inning RBI single with a three-run homer that cleared the left-field fence. The pitch to Bay was belt high, just off the plate. It was the sort of pitch Ortiz used to mercilessly crush.
But down 4-0, after giving up hits to the first five batters, Chamberlain unveiled the guts that made him such a fearsome reliever. Throwing a dazzling mixture of fastballs, sliders and changeups, he struck out nine-of-13 through the middle innings, including eight straight. In the fifth inning, with two outs, Chamberlain thought he whiffed Ortiz on a 96 mph pitch. But it was called a ball, and after Chamberlain walked Ortiz, he plunked Bay in the meat of his shoulder. That was Chamberlain's final mistake.
He caught Mike Lowell looking at a nasty slider to strike out the side, and the twirling, fist-jabbing Chamberlain had even fans in the discounted $2,500 seats acting like European soccer fans. But Joba is on a strict pitch count, the Yankees intent on babying his arm, and he was done after 108 pitches. If he had gone hard after Boston batters early on, the Yankees might not be winless against the Red Sox.
Chamberlain's marvelous outing buried the news that Alex Rodriguez is due to return by the weekend, and it's not a fortuitous coincidence that he'll play his first game of the season in Baltimore, away from the New York noise and in a ballpark he has all but owned. It's far too early to start questioning how the aging Yankees will leapfrog over Toronto or Boston, but there is little doubt April was, in the immortal words of Queen Elizabeth II, one heck of an annus horribilis.
"The baseball gods are trying to teach me patience."
-- David Ortiz Ortiz, a seasoned Yankee observer, has watched the fuss from afar and is sincere when he says he derives no joy from the Pinstripes' pain. On the matter of Rodriguez allegedly tipping pitches to opposing batters, an accusation laid out in the newly released book, "A-Rod," Ortiz is particularly animated.
"If that happened, and I don't believe it did, I'd beat the guy down if one of my guys was tipping pitches," Ortiz said. "It goes against everything we're supposed to believe, but I don't believe he'd do that. No, I really don't.
"There's a lot of drama over there," Ortiz said, gesturing toward the Yankees' side of the field. "But we've had drama, too. Good teams know how to (get) beyond all that stuff and the Yankees are a good team."
It's probably no accident the Red Sox are as mellow as a sunset now that Ramirez is in Los Angeles, maturing into a happy soldier with Joe Torre's Dodgers. Ortiz says that while he misses Ramirez' friendship and zaniness, he can't blame his struggles on his buddy's departure. Ortiz was hitless in his previous four games before arriving in New York, and he left with three hits in six at-bats, two RBI and zero home runs.
"The baseball gods want me to learn patience," he said, before failing to christen the Stadium's beckoning fences.
Ortiz hears the whispers; he knows that in this supposed post-steroid era his early-season drop-off at the plate inspires questions, if not tell-all books. Connecting the dots has become as much a part of the pastime as keeping score: in Ortiz's case, he is a monster of a man who once hit monster home runs (and probably will again), and his body looks different than it did when he was plagued by injuries and inconsistency in Minnesota, and he once said there is a chance he unwittingly might have taken now-banned substances as a child growing up in the Dominican Republic, where unscrupulous scouts and coaches were known to go to incredible lengths to get players signed to a contract.
Yankee fans, especially, believe something is amiss. (They also believe Curt Schilling somehow faked his bloody sock and is the devil's spawn.) They wonder how it is so many Yankees are linked to performance-enhancing drugs while the Red Sox have mostly avoided the scourge. They think it sure is interesting that Senator George Mitchell, the man who led baseball's infamous report on steroids, is a Red Sox director.
During spring training, Ortiz did the equivalent of bringing a tree trunk to the plate when he said any player who tested positive for steroids should be banned "for the whole year," and not just 50 games. He also called for random testing, three or four times a year. If Ortiz's name ever turns up on the list of 104 players who did test positive for PEDs in 2003, if he reveals himself to be as big a hypocrite as A-Rod and Roger Clemens, Yankee fans will never shut up.
"But it won't," said Ortiz, declining to say more about steroids or sullied brethren or anything negative that might cloud his head.
He doesn't even want to tease Yankee fans who are still convinced the new Stadium is forever jinxed after a construction worker who happened to be a Red Sox fan planted a Big Papi jersey in the concrete outside the visitor's clubhouse. The jersey was eventually removed with a jackhammer, and sold to the Jimmy Fund charity for $175,000. The rivalry can't seem to escape curses and ghosts, but Ortiz isn't interested in adding to the legend.
"Why me?" Ortiz said to reporters Monday, as the Red Sox got their first glimpse of baseball's Taj Mahal. "I don't like all that curse stuff and voodoo stuff."
The first game of this short series lacked the usual Boston-New York buzz, the passion that passes for unbridled hatred. I watched Tuesday from the comfort of a suite, hardly the place to judge whether the rivalry will eventually gain some of the juice from the joint across the street. But on a stroll around the concourse and over to the bleachers, where the hoi polloi stomped their feet as Chamberlain mowed down batter after batter, there was little doubt who the faithful most wanted him to get out.
And when Chamberlain blew a third-strike fastball past Big Papi in the third inning, the crowd erupted as if it were early autumn, the pennant race in full throttle. Those baseball gods counseling Ortiz? It sure will be fun to see what he learns between now and October.