There will be skeptics.
The doubters will say hes too old. The cynics will say hes past his prime.
It has happened before and its bound to happen again.
As David Ortiz begins the 2011 season, he re-enters the glaring spotlight of scrutiny. Every at-bat will be analyzed. Each strike out will trigger I told you so's. Ortizs production will be put under a microscope and watched meticulously by those who question whats left in the tank.
At 35 years old, he has already amassed millions of dollars, won two World Series, and made his mark on baseball as one of the games most clutch hitters.
Yet on Opening Day he will suit up to play his 1,597th Major League game.
Not because he has to, but because he still can.
This is our life, he told CSNNE.com. I still believe I'm capable to do damage. I'm just 35 years old. After all the steroid scandal happened, a lot of people don't believe that a 35-year-old can still play, which I don't know why people see it like that. But you've just got to keep on working hard and keep your mouth shut and just do what you're supposed to do in the field.
The reason why I keep on coming back is because of that, because I keep on doing what I'm supposed to.
With that ability to play ball comes the opportunity to share his talents with his teammates and the throngs of adoring fans who linger on his every swing.
The thought of walking away from it all and enjoying a life free from the pressures of being Big Papi doesnt even cross his mind.
No, he responded emphatically without hesitation. No, no, no.
Not when there is still work to be done this season.
Ortiz sat in the corner of the clubhouse in Fort Myers, huddled around a Tupperware bin that served as a makeshift table. Carl Crawford, Marco Scutaro, Adrian Gonzalez, and Kevin Youkilis pulled up chairs for a game of cards.
Jason Varitek glanced at the group across the room. That's camaraderie, he said.
When the game wrapped up, Ortiz reached to the top of his locker and pressed play on his stereo. Music blared through speakers. He let out a wide grin and bobbed his head to the beat. Darnell McDonald joined him for a few dance steps as the two shared a laugh.
Big Papis got that personality that attracts people to him, McDonald said.
Ortiz likes this team. He feels a unity among players that he believes will go far. After finishing 89-73 last season and failing to make the playoffs, Ortiz is optimistic for the 2011 club.
I think we can be very special this year, he said. We have so much talent and good chemistry. That will go a long way.
He continued, People sometimes get confused about chemistry in baseball. Chemistry in baseball, its not only everybody just gets along with each other. You have 25 men right there coming from different places, different ways of being educated, and things like that. Once in a while things are going to happen, but you know that chemistry is going to take over and make sure that everybody is cool with everything. Thats number one.
Number two, chemistry goes along with the winning way. When I see something that I feel that can help out any of the guys with, I will let them know. Its like the same thing when they see something that can help me out with to win the ball game, they will let me know. Thats chemistry. Having each others back, thats chemistry.
The reciprocal support has been vital to Ortiz over the years. When he succeeded, his teammates shared the victories with him. And when he struggled, they were there to offer encouragement.
He looks back to the start of the 2009 season when he batted .230 in April and .143 in May, hitting just one home run through the first two months. After breaking out of the slump and hitting .320 in June, Ortiz faced a steroid controversy that summer.
While some people questioned whether this was the end of the road for him, he never felt doubted by his teammates as he struggled at the plate. Ortiz finished the season second on the Red Sox in home runs and RBIs.
When I struggled really bad for the first two months, nobody was looking at me like, this guy's done, he recalled. My teammates, they were looking at me like, Hey, you'll be fine. Just keep on working. That can happen to anybody. And at one point I bounced back and I was right there with everyone. But it was because of that. You're not feeling pressure from your teammates, you're feeling support from them.
So Ortiz gives back to them. He offers advice, makes sure the younger players feel a sense of belonging, and welcomes new teammates with open arms.
You see the new guys coming in and they already look like theyve been here for a long time, and its because of chemistry, he said. A team that has no chemistry aint going nowhere. Thats what I think.
When Ortiz leaves the clubhouse and steps on the field, he feels the same sense of camaraderie with the fans. He has endured the ups and downs with Red Sox Nation for the past eight years. The enthusiastic cheers affirm his efforts and the heartbroken frowns motivate him for another title.
I think these fans deserve a World Series championship and even more, he said. You go around the league and definitely the Red Sox, we have the best fans here. Theyre very supportive. They love us and theyre passionate. If you dont have passion for the game, youre not going to get to where you want to be. And so I suffer with the fans here. I feel it.
Like when we lost in 2003, there were some times when I would walk to the plate and I would look at peoples faces when we were in that crazy situation, and I feel that fire. And thats why when we won in 2004 I was so happy, because I know the sad faces that I saw before, and they were going to be happy faces. And in 2007 it was more enjoyable. So I think another one right now, it would be right on.
Ortiz believes he can help the Red Sox can win it all this year. His fans believe the same.
He looks to avoid another slow start this season -- he hit .143 last April -- but isnt going to force anything. Ortiz aims to pick up where he left off in September, as he ended the season with a .270 batting average, a team-high 32 home runs (tied for 10th in baseball), 102 RBI, and 140 hits. He batted .250 during spring taining.
Youve got to go step by step so you can get to where you want to be, Ortiz said. You win games first to make sure you go to the playoffs. You execute in the first round so you can go to the second round, and so on.
As for the doubters who question his effectiveness this season, he only worries about what he can do at the plate. After all this time Ortiz, a .281 career hitter, is comfortable and confident in his own game -- and his role on the team.
I cant control what people say, number one, and people can't control what I do, he said. Thats just a small amount of people that come with negative things. On the other hand, you have the best fans right behind you and you have a lot of good people just looking for us to do well. So you shouldnt worry about the small group.
He adds, Every year you've got something to prove, especially in my situation as a designated hitter. I hear people sometimes talk about the DH position and they sound kind of pissed off about the situation. Like hello people, when I came here the DH was there already. People have been DHing since before I was born (laughs). So I just follow with what it is.
Ortiz admits that he didnt expect to have a Major League career of this length, and he didnt get this far by listening to naysayers.
Trust me, its not easy, he said of dealing with negativity. Thats why you see very few people at this job, because its not easy. On the other hand, I got to the point where I was like, Ive got to go out there with a smile when I come to my job and when people are around me. And thats why I try to be as nice as I can be with you guys the media, because we are blessed people. It cant get any better.
I never thought I was going to be 12 years in the big leagues. I had no clue about that. Im here today, and thats a blessing from God. So youve got to appreciate that and keep on moving.
As the 2011 season gets underway, Ortiz is ready for all the good, the bad, and the ugly that comes along with 162 games. Just as he has done year after year, he will embrace the support of his fans and block out the negativity of the cynics.
While it is uncertain what his future holds -- the Red Sox picked up a one-year option on his contract last November -- he knows what he is capable of doing this season.
I want to win another World Series here, he said. Especially this year because I dont know if this is going to be my last year here. So if Ive got to walk out of here, Id like to be like, Look, I won three World Series for my people in Boston and I was just happy to be part of the best group of fans ever.
What else can you ask for from fans besides what the fans do here to get you going?
And that still makes the game worth playing.
Jessica Camerato is on Twitter athttp:twitter.comjcameratoNBA