FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Early Friday morning in the Boston Red Sox clubhouse, David Ortiz hobbled to his locker and grabbed a pair of headphones for an early workout. Ortiz was not hurt, but these days, walking requires a bit more effort than it used to, the aches and pains of spring training don't go away so easily, and so each step is measured and calculated.
Before he could go to his workout he was approached by a friendly visitor, whom Ortiz recognized and happily greeted, as he does most anyone who approaches his locker.
"How are you feeling?" the visitor asked.
"Old," Ortiz said, and bellowed a huge laugh.
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Soon, Ortiz will be considered something of a relic.
When Derek Jeter retires after this season, Ortiz will be only one of three active players remaining out of the 33 who played in the epic Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series between the Red Sox and the Yankees. (Jason Giambi, who also may not play past this season, and Alfonso Soriano are the others). That series that not only changed the landscape of the storied rivalry, but also helped usher in a new era in the game: A super-powered battle between the two big budget behemoths that would dominate the decade.
So Ortiz, despite his continued success and his seemingly timeless skills, is truly a player from another era.
"Everything comes to an end," Ortiz said in the dugout before Friday's game, when recalling those early contests with the Yankees.
Ortiz takes no joy in seeing his former Yankee foes leave the game one by one, making the New York roster almost unrecognizable from those glory years of the early 2000s. In fact, Ortiz seems wistful to see those retiring Yankees go. It's as if he's the last guy left at the party. Without Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jeter there might not have been a Big Papi. Seeing them retire makes Ortiz feel, well, old.
"It's part of the game, a time comes for everyone to retire, and I admire the way in which they've gone about it," Ortiz said. "They have been huge names in the game and they deserve to be recognized in the way that they have. These guys are players who you definitely enjoyed playing against. They were players who were almost perfect in what they did and how they carried themselves. You want to have those types of players in the game."
Jeter's departure especially seems to have reminded Ortiz that time moves quickly in the midst of a heated rivalry.
"Jeter is a favorite of all of us who play the game," Ortiz said. "And he's one of the players that I can tell you will be missed by the game."
If not for his own excellence -- he has combined for a remarkable .972 OPS with 82 home runs and 259 RBI for the past three seasons -- Ortiz might be considering retirement as well. But even though his body aches, and he does not move as well as he once did, Ortiz is not quite ready to join his Yankee foes on the sideline. While Jeter faces questions about his abilities at age 39, the 38-year-old Ortiz has continued to hit like he did in his prime.
"It seems like every one of his at-bats is like a World Series caliber at-bat because of what [pressure] the pitcher is putting on it," Boston outfielder Jonny Gomes said. "I'm over worrying about how old this guy is. I guess I would start worrying about him if his bat slowed down or something, but that sure the hell isn't the case."
Ortiz has kept himself in relatively good shape. Although he's a large man, he has not allowed his body to balloon. His belly is rotund, but not grotesquely so. Ortiz said he has not changed his spring training routine, but he admits that he often has to pace himself these days to make sure he doesn't enter the season fatigued.
At this point, Ortiz knows how to best take care of his body, and sometimes that means lounging in the dugout during batting practice instead of going onto the field for sprints or to shag fly balls. Nobody complains about it: Not the coaches, not his teammates, and certainly not the fans. Ortiz has more than earned it.
Gomes said teammates admire how much time and effort Ortiz puts into being a great hitter. He does not just step into the box and swing. Ortiz watches video and carefully analyzes each pitcher. And he seems to love the game as much as he ever has.
"It all depends on how you feel, how your body responds," Ortiz said. "When you figure that out, you start to make decisions on whether to play or not. I don't have a specific timeframe for my career. But I also realize that it's not like I have 10 years remaining in my career. I'm 38 years old. Last year I played well.
"If I have another season like I did last year -- I was one of three players who hit .300, hit at least 30 home runs and drove in 100 runs, which is very difficult to do. But if I can keep playing at that level I think that I'll want to keep playing. I feel good physically, a few aches and pain that comes normally with getting older, but overall, mentally and physically I feel good. We'll see what God has in store for me."
The Red Sox and Ortiz, who will be a free agent after this season, have been talking about a contract extension this spring that would take the designated hitter through 2015.
"I think it's going to work out," Ortiz said of the negotiations.
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Not many thought much of it when the Red Sox signed Ortiz to a one-year $1.25 million contract during the 2002-03 offseason. He was thought to be a role player. Instead, he became one of the most important players of his generation.
Boston has built an empire on the back of the teams that Ortiz led to prominence. Without him, the Red Sox don't win three championships in 10 years. Without those championships, the Red Sox don't become the national phenomenon they are today. Without Ortiz there may never have been Green Monster seats.
Two years ago, the Red Sox opened a stunning brand new spring training facility in Fort Myers that might be the finest in Florida. Essentially it is a Floridian version of Fenway Park, with a Green Monster in left field aerated to allow a soft breeze to flow in and out of the stadium, and probably most importantly, to allow more seating capacity.
Without Ortiz there would probably be no new spring training home either. His Red Sox career has outlived those of former Boston stars Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra and Jason Varitek. Ortiz is the only modern era Boston player to have won three World Series titles.
Even though Ortiz has not escaped the steroid era unscathed -- The New York Times reported that he was one of more than 100 players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003, the experimental survey year that led to baseball's drug-testing policy, though Ortiz has maintained that he has never knowingly taken steroids -- he remains one of the game's most popular players, among both fans and other players.
During Boston's batting practice on Friday, the Braves, having made the more than two-hour trip from Orlando, trudged onto the field and headed toward their dugout. On the way to the dugout, Ortiz greeted most every player, especially the Latin players, all of whom have a great deal of respect for him.
Ortiz will go down as one of the more notable Latin players in baseball history, not only for his contributions on the field, but for having the nerve to speak his mind on a variety of issues. He delivered the most memorable line during the ceremony at Fenway Park to honor the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing last year ("This is our f---ing city"), he was one of the few players to speak out against the imposed international amateur bonus signing cap that would undoubtedly cost his young Dominican countrymen millions of dollars, and he's not shy about speaking publicly about the contract he believes he deserves.
When Ortiz finally retires, he will leave behind a game that has increasingly been forced to accept a new generation of Latin players -- bold, opinionated and wealthy -- a change of attitude he helped bring about. Soon, Ortiz believes, Latin players will not only excel on the field, but also in field managing positions, in the front office and even in Major League Baseball's offices.
"There's more of us than ever," Ortiz said. "You see a lot of young talent coming up. It's a matter of time until you'll see more Latinos in higher positions. As Latinos, we just have to be serious in our work and show them that we're capable of having these positions. That's going to open more doors."
Yet for all that, Ortiz will most be remembered for what he accomplished on the field.
Heading into his second at bat on Friday, Ortiz slowly walked to the plate, slapped his hands together in the batter's box, and then adjusted his batting gloves -- a pre-at-bat routine familiar to anyone who has watched the game in the past 10 years. Finally, he settled into his semi-crouched stance.
Moments later, he sent a booming double into the right-centerfield alley. The ball rolled near the wall for several moments. Ortiz raced around first base and then slowed down as he headed into second. Even though he often hits these gap doubles, he seldom tries for a triple, and certainly not during a spring training game. He was never fast, but he could always hit.
"An end comes for everyone," he had said before the game.
But not yet for David Ortiz.