David Ortiz will inhabit much of the center stage in Boston this season, with standing ovations for him likely beginning at Fenway Park on April 11 for the home opener, and continuing until his final at-bat in the old ballpark, whenever that is. There will be gifts, words and memories, new and old.
Along the way, Ortiz likely will pass Eddie Murray on the all-time home run list, and Gary Sheffield, and Mel Ott, Eddie Mathews and Ernie Banks, and maybe more. There is a rung on that ladder worth paying particular attention to: Ortiz currently has 503 homers, and Ted Williams hit 521.
Ortiz finished very strong last season, piling up 24 homers among 49 extra-base hits in the final 74 games of the regular season; in games from July 2 to the end of the season, he batted .318, with an on-base percentage of .406 and a slugging percentage of .690 — one of the best half-seasons of his career.
If Ortiz rolls into the 2016 season and continues that level of production, not only will he contend for the AL MVP Award, but there would inevitably be a conversation about whether he should play at least one more season. But the Red Sox cannot lose sight of the fact that for the first three months of last season, Ortiz struggled. On the morning of July 2, he was hitting .228, with a .313 on-base percentage and just 13 homers. In other words, he seemed like an older player in decline.
While the Red Sox hope for and anticipate one last great season from Ortiz, they should endeavor to avoid the mistakes the Yankees made with Derek Jeter before and during Jeter's final season in 2014. The Red Sox should at least prepare for the possibility that a great star could struggle as he prepares for the final goodbye of his career.
The last week of Jeter's career played out as if drawn up by the baseball gods: He had a walk-off hit in his final at-bat in Yankee Stadium, and his 3,465th hit in his last plate appearance, coincidentally at Fenway Park, before he left to loud, long and deserved cheers. The final curtain call could not have been better, in that last week, and a half-century from now, this will be what is remembered. Jeter had a better finish than what happened with Willie Mays in the 1973 World Series, when, after a moving first introduction, arguably the greatest player in history struggled to stay on his feet while running the bases and pursuing fly balls. (In Game 2, Mays entered as a pinch runner in the ninth inning, as seen here in the video from the game, starting at about the 1:59:30 mark, and what followed was just sad.)
But within the context of the Yankees' efforts to make the playoffs, Jeter's performance in his last season was a problem; he was a negative. By any analytic measure, he was one of the worst players in the league, on offense and on defense, and Jeter and the Yankees never adjusted to this reality on their way to being eliminated from the playoffs in the final days of the season. He remained in a place in the lineup, the No. 2 spot, that his performance did not merit, and he played a whole lot more games than he should have in a year in which he turned 40. Day after day, the Yankees had better shortstops elsewhere on their roster, sometimes playing other positions.
Jeter will rightly be remembered as a player who won more than anyone in his era, but there is no getting around the fact that he played a major role in the Yankees' losing in his final season, as I and others noted.