Maybe Yogi Berra had it right when he said, "baseball is 90 percent mental; the other half is physical." David Ortiz has said that his problem isn't in the eye of the beholder. He went to see an ophthalmologist in Boston on Monday, not to help with his anemic .197 batting average, but to find relief for his extremely dry retinas.
So why is the one-time slugger sliding down the lineup and sometimes sitting on the bench?
|David Ortiz has a lot of work to do to match his previous power output with the Red Sox. (AP)|
Or is it just a Struggle, not with his bat but with his head?
"He's a human being and his slump is causing him great anxiety," said sports psychologist Dr. John F. Murray, who hasn't treated Ortiz but who has worked with dozens of professional athletes for more than a decade. "David Ortiz used to be in an automatic state, where he wasn't even aware of his performance. Now he can't relax."
The numbers don't lie. Last year, Ortiz hit 23 home runs, 35 the year before and 54 in 2006. In 2005, he smashed 48 home runs and 41 in the World Series championship year of 2004. This year, he has two home runs, the same as Rocco Baldelli.
"Elite athletes have extreme proficiency, lightning-quick instincts and rapid responses," Murray said. "But when their computers, their minds, are getting too much information, they freeze."
Ortiz has said that his body is resting at night, but his mind is spinning. He hears the whispers, which by now have become a roar. He can't hit. His career is over. Why don't the Sox pick up Nick Johnson in a trade? For the better part of this century, Ortiz was the feared DH of a two-time World Series champion. Now, he has been dropped to sixth in the batting order, where his numbers have only slightly improved.
This isn't a social anxiety disorder, like young Zack Greinke experiences, or Dontrelle Willis claims to have. Grienke doesn't enjoy attention, in fact, he's terrified of it. The national high school player of the year coming out of Apopka, Fla., was the darling of the major leagues earlier this season when his 5-0 record for the Royals included 44 strikeouts and a shutout. But he said he has had to adjust "to being around so many people, I just don't like a talking situation."
A talking situation? Well, that has never been Big Papi's problem. He has always had the sweet swing and a sharp wit. His problem might be something as simple as his confidence at the plate. Or anxiety in its place.
"An athlete is the sum of his thoughts, his feelings, his actions and his sensations," Murray said. "Big Papi has always been able to handle the noise, the distractions and the physical demands. But as his slump continues, he's beginning to exacerbate the situation internally. His desire to help his team, to please the fans and to produce are causing him to overcompensate.
"At its most basic level, thought precedes action. Ortiz is hardwired to play at a very high level, he's been successful his entire life. But now he's confused, and this increases his distress. High intensity and high anxiety are the cruelest combination."
Red Sox manager Terry Francona has been kind. Last month, when Ortiz went 13-for-91, ending the merry month of May with a .143 batting average, Francona told me he "owes so much to David, who's been a rock here and given the fans so much," that he would give Ortiz more time.
In relative terms, Ortiz has busted out in June. He has hit in every game, including a home run against Texas, and has four RBI.
"If this is in his head, there are actual clinical steps to be taken," said Dr. Murray. "Ortiz needs a full assessment done, mental and physical, to try and pinpoint exactly when his confidence started to fail. Then he might need a deep relaxation technique, to retrain his body that he is in control of it. Deep relaxation is the gold standard for anyone who has anxiety. It's the state of body and mind that you hear about when athletes say they are 'in the zone.'"
With the Yankees in town, Red Sox fans are hoping, simply, that Big Papi's pulse will go down and his numbers will go up.