Life after Big Papi begins for Red Sox

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- David Ortiz isn't walking through that door.As usual, Big Papi wasn't at JetBlue Park when pitchers and catchers reported to camp, but he won't be here when the full squad arrives Friday, either. The two end-row lockers that once belonged...

Life after Big Papi begins for Red Sox

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- David Ortiz isn't walking through that door.

As usual, Big Papi wasn't at JetBlue Park when pitchers and catchers reported to camp, but he won't be here when the full squad arrives Friday, either. The two end-row lockers that once belonged to him are now occupied by Hanley Ramirez. The only trace of Ortiz is his picture on a banner of franchise legends.

Ortiz is content in retirement despite his occasional social media teasing about feeling restless. Besides, even if he were to pull a Roger Clemens, Major League Baseball rules stipulate that he needs to stay retired for the season's first 60 days, putting him out until at least June 1.

And so, for the first time since 2002, the Red Sox enter spring training without their slugging designated hitter. It's a brave new world -- and not just because of the profound hole in the middle of the order. The clubhouse will be a quieter place without Ortiz's booming laugh and outgoing personality.

Mostly, though, the Red Sox must tackle the challenge of replacing a franchise icon while trying to win a World Series without him for the first time since 1918.

"I have no idea what it may be like because I've never done it," right fielder Mookie Betts said of a season without Ortiz. "You just kind of guess and know that, obviously, you're losing a leader, best DH [in baseball], so it's going to take more than one person to pick that up. We all collectively have to try and pick up where he left off.

"I think if we know that it's going to take a group effort, it's going to be all right."

Replacing Ortiz's production -- 48 doubles, 38 home runs, 127 RBIs and a major league-leading 1.021 OPS last season -- will require strength in numbers because the Red Sox scarcely pursued free-agent Edwin Encarnacion or any other big bopper in the offseason. They're taking the dual leaps of faith of counting on a bounce-back season from third baseman Pablo Sandoval and a full season of consistent production from touted rookie Andrew Benintendi to help cushion the loss of Ortiz. Even then, the notion that they won't miss him would be wishful thinking.

But it might be easier to move on from Ortiz in other ways.

"We all collectively have to try and pick up where he left off. I think if we know that it's going to take a group effort, it's going to be all right."

Mookie Betts

Ortiz was a popular teammate, universally admired and respected throughout the sport. He was a mentor to Betts, shortstop Xander Bogaerts, center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and several other young Red Sox players who often received advice and counsel from Ortiz around the batting cage. And he was the only link between the franchise's 2004, 2007 and 2013 World Series titles.

But Ortiz also admitted last season to feeling disconnected from many teammates because of a pronounced age gap. He was eight years older than veteran second baseman Dustin Pedroia, the longest-tenured player on the roster in the post-Papi era. When Ortiz made his major league debut with the Minnesota Twins in 1997, Betts and Bogaerts were 5 years old.

The younger Red Sox didn't take a cue from the Chicago Cubs' affectionate nickname for catcher David Ross and refer to Ortiz as "Grandpa Papi," although the 33-year-old Ramirez has been known to call himself Ortiz's "little brother." Given the generational divide, Ortiz was very much the clubhouse father figure.

It was Betts, however, who organized a team dinner on the eve of the first full-squad spring training workout last year, an unusual gesture for such a young player but one that felt natural considering Betts came up through the minors with so many of his teammates.

"I just try to lead by example, do what I can there," said Betts, runner-up for the American League MVP award last season and an emerging star. "That's, for me, the best way I can be a leader. I'm only 24, so it's kind of hard to tell some 30-year-old man, 'Let's go!'"

Betts won't have to worry much. The average age of Boston's projected Opening Day lineup is only 27, with Pedroia and Ramirez the elder statesmen.

"Let's face it, David was a magnet for many things," manager John Farrell said. "But underneath that there was an ever-growing personality of this team that was evolving, particularly with the core of young players that are coming on, that now have had a year or two to establish themselves.

"That personality is coming to the surface, and I think we'll continue to see that grow."

And even if Ortiz remains retired, he is only a phone call away whenever the Red Sox need him. That's what retired franchise icons are for, according to New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia, who recalled receiving advice from both Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter in the aftermath of their respective retirements in 2013 and 2014.

"It was tough," Sabathia said in December of moving on without Rivera and Jeter, "but I always kept in contact with those guys, kind of bounced little things off them. I'm sure [Ortiz] has got some contacts in there that they'll be reaching out to him and saying, 'Hey, how do we handle this situation?'"

For David Price, that contact is ongoing. "He's definitely going to be missed in this clubhouse, but we're sure he'll still be around at some point," the ace said Monday. "I've talked to him a couple of times this offseason, text messages, and he's still here."

The Red Sox have talked with Ortiz about a post-playing role. It's possible he will wind up serving the organization in an advisory capacity similar to Pedro Martinez's.

Ortiz isn't ready to commit to anything yet. But eventually, maybe even during spring training if management doesn't fear it would be a distraction, he could walk through that door, even if it's only to pay a visit.

"Last year, after the last game, we tried to take every positive thing from David and keep it in our clubhouse, his vibe and the way he went about his business on a daily basis," Ramirez said. "Everybody knows he's going to be missed, but we've got to move forward. We've got a lot of guys in the clubhouse that can lead the way."

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