Tuesday July 13th, 2010

ANAHEIM -- In the corner of the interview room, LMontro held David Ortiz's bat, "keeping it warm for him," he explained.

So as the slugger spoke, the barber, a good friend of the Red Sox designated hitter's, kept his hands on the Nokona maple, its dark brown head bearing a cacophony of circular white splotches, the remnants of 32 violent collisions in which the baseball was propelled out of Angel Stadium.

At the podium Ortiz recalled his early-season struggles and the loss of his good friend Jose Lima and celebrated having won the 2010 Home Run Derby by besting the Marlins' Hanley Ramirez 11-5 in the third and final round of the competition.

"The beginning of the season is something that I guess was supposed to happen," Ortiz said. "I figured things out and I just keep on rolling."

In April it would have been impossible to think Ortiz would be anywhere this week but taking a vacation, because of his struggles to use that bat.

He endured his second straight season-starting slump, this time hitting just .143 with one home run in April. He had become a platoon player and was even pinch-hit for in a few late-game situations. Critics piled on, claiming Ortiz was over the hill, if not completely washed up. The idea of him rebounding to become an All-Star was farfetched at best.

Ortiz, however, rallied. Since May 1 he has hit .297 with 17 home runs. His .421 on-base and .641 slugging percentages combine for the majors' third-best OPS in that span, trailing only the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera and the Rangers' Josh Hamilton. Ortiz's press conference hardly acknowledged the celebration of the moment, drifting at times into a diatribe about ignoring the doubters and persevering through the hard times.

"There's a lot of people that they don't know how hard we work to play this game, how many ups and downs we have," Ortiz said. "Not everything is roses and flowers."

The Derby championship, his first in four tries, also gave Ortiz the platform to dedicate the trophy to Lima, the former major-league pitcher who died of a heart attack at age 37 in May. Ortiz also turned to the a representative of State Farm, the Derby's sponsor, to thank him for his company's donation of $573,000 to the Boys & Girls Club of America.

Those were the heavier moments of the Derby's otherwise light, albeit lengthy, fare. The three-round derby can at times seem eternal -- which is also about how long the relentless soundtrack of obnoxious, pulsating techno beats and dance remixes of recent pop songs will remain in every fan's head -- and was only interrupted further by the frequent visits to the plate not only of each player's son or sons bearing Gatorade and a towel but also from each other.

The Derby took on a remarkably fraternal bent, given that Ortiz used to mentor Ramirez when the younger Dominican was a prospect in Boston's minor-league system before being traded to the Marlins. The two exchanged a good-luck chest bump before the final round, and Ortiz himself carried his own offering of a break for Ramirez.

"I told him, 'Hey, take it easy, don't get too tired, take your time," Ortiz recalled afterwards.

That was a common refrain of Ortiz's after the Derby, his experience having taught him to pace himself. In the first round he hit eight home runs, good for third, but was about the most economical hitter, averaging only 403 feet per blast and conserving his strength for the final two rounds.

Such respites were needed given the sheer number of home runs. This was the first Derby in which three players each had a round of at least 12 homers, as the Brewers' Corey Hart hit 13 in the first-round, and in the second round Ortiz hit 13 and Ramirez 12. The Cardinals' Matt Holliday clubbed the evening's longest home run, a 497-foot bomb down the left-field line, and Cabrera routinely impressed with five opposite-field home runs, including the evening's second-deepest homer, a 485-foot shot to right-center.

Among the other highlights were the antics of Ortiz's son DeAngelo, in full uniform in front of the third-base dugout. The six-year-old nervously paced and excitedly cheered his dad on, mimicking Papi's swing from a righty's stance, even at times pounding hands together like his father, just without the lubricating spit first.

Ortiz has always crushed Yankees pitching -- the 2004 ALCS comes to mind -- so perhaps it was only appropriate that he selected New York bench coach Tony Peña to pitch to him in the derby. Ortiz admitted he had noticed Peña's great mechanics in throwing batting practice anytime the rivals faced each other, so he asked if he'd be willing to throw to him.

"It's not a Yankee and Boston situation," Ortiz recalled Peña telling him. "We can do it."

Earlier in the day Angels centerfielder Torii Hunter picked the winner, predicting that Ortiz would win in part because his lefty power stroke was a better fit for the ballpark.

Ortiz was likely unaware of the prediction but went about making sure he looked the part of the champ, having received a trim from his barber earlier in the day.

"He's superstitious," said LMontro, whose real name is Angel Lucas Pena. "When you look good, you play good."

From first-month chump to Home Run Derby champ, Ortiz has turned around his 2010 season and it's started to look really good.

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