BOSTON — David Ortiz missed nearly half of last year’s disastrous Red Sox season with a heel injury. Then he was sidelined with it throughout spring training and the start of this season.
There were whispers that the slugger who had won two World Series titles with Boston was at the end of the line.
And Big Papi heard them.
“People are always going to talk trash,” the slugging designated hitter said Tuesday. “You’re never going to make everyone happy so what you do is just come in, do your thing and what can those people do about it? In my case, I’m done putting attention to what people have to say.”
They’ve been saying nice things going into Wednesday night’s opener against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Ortiz led the Red Sox with a .309 batting average, 30 homers and 103 RBIs this season. In Game 2 of the AL championship series against the Detroit Tigers, he hit a game-tying grand slam in the eighth. Boston won 6-5 on Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s RBI single in the ninth.
But Ortiz makes a huge contribution off the field with his bubbly personality and winning smile.
Cardinals reliever Randy Choate saw that when he was playing baseball in the Dominican Republic in the offseason.
“We had a pickup softball game and it was an off day and we were all hanging out,” he said. “I remember someone threw one and he hit one, literally, 500 feet. It was unbelievable, but he was just there having a good time and hanging out with everybody, being down to earth.”
Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks was in awe when he saw Ortiz the first time he went to spring training.
“He carries himself very well,” Middlebrooks said. “Just the confidence he has rubs off on everybody. Then last year, getting to know him, being able to work with him, all the things he’s done for this game, being there to help the rookies, he’s such an open book. That’s what surprised me the most.”
But last year was a tough one.
The Red Sox’s 69-93 record was their worst in nearly half a century. Bobby Valentine’s stint as manager ended when he was fired after his first season.
Ortiz hit .318 with 23 homers and 60 RBIs but played in just 90 games.
“What happened last year was kind of a freak of an injury,” Red Sox outfielder Daniel Nava said, “but what he was doing before that point, everyone saw that he was locked in. If there ever was a time to say ‘Papi’s got more life in him,’ it was then. He’s also become a smarter hitter.”
When Ortiz’s heel injury persisted in spring training, the fans’ worries continued. But not for the players.
“We knew what was going on,” Nava said. “Obviously, you can’t relay everything to the public, so since we had the inside track I wasn’t worried. I don’t think anyone else was worried. We knew he was going to be back.”
Now he has a chance for his third championship in 10 years, and Cardinals pitchers know the damage he can do.
“I don’t think I would be overwhelmed” facing him, starter Joe Kelly said. “I just see him as another big power left-handed hitter like Adrian Gonzalez. He’s just another guy who can do damage with guys on base if you’re not careful.”
Joaquin Benoit wasn’t careful.
So Ortiz tagged the Tigers closer for the grand slam that turned around the ALCS.
Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal saw that homer.
“I think even without that, you knew that he’s going to have the opportunity to make a huge impact with one swing,” he said.
And if he puts Boston ahead late, closer Koji Uehara is likely to save the game and then get picked up and carried over Ortiz’s shoulder — a trademark of recent wins.
“I don’t mind,” Uehara said. “He’s obviously the face of the team. If he’s doing well, our team is also going to do well.”