Big Papi Finds Fountain of Youth in Anaheim

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This night wasn’t supposed to belong to David “Big Papi” Ortiz.

For the past two and a half years now, fans and baseball experts alike have taken notice of his struggles. Many thought this year’s MLB Home Run Derby would be a hero’s last hurrah, one last time to hear the roar of the crowd, that same roar he used to hear nearly every time he stepped to the plate at Fenway Park.

Then Big Papi stepped to the plate and decided to prove every single one of his critics wrong. At least for one night.

By Matt Lindner

The slugger took fans at Anaheim Stadium back to the future on Monday night, belting 11 homers in the final round to best Florida’s Hanley Ramirez en route to his  annual Home Run Derby.

“”[I’m] too old doing this,” Ortiz told MLB.com’s Jenifer Langosch after the game. “It was good that they put me towards the end, because I get tired pretty easy when I hit and shut it down for a while.”

On a night that was supposed to be dominated by the youngsters, with most of the competitors in this year’s Derby nearly 10 years his junior, Papi showed them along with a worldwide audience that he can still rake.

He thrilled crowds throughout the night with a series of long balls, sending souvenir after souvenir into a crowd thrilled to see the resurgence of a hero. Rather than flame out early on, Ortiz knew from his prior Derby experience that slow and steady would eventually win this race.

Papi sent eight balls out of the yard in the first round, putting him third among all-comers. His most impressive performance was reserved for Round 2 though.

Perhaps he had an Angel helping him out, the same way Tony Danza’s character had one on his back during the final minutes of “Angels in the Outfield.” Perhaps he was tired of hearing the critics saying he was over the hill, finished. Or maybe, just maybe, that warm California sunshine was acting as a fountain of youth for the slugger. Whatever it was, it was impressive.

Ortiz unleashed his fury on the field, sending thirteen balls flying out of the yard and putting GM Theo Epstein on notice that he’s back and he’s ready for that contract extension. It’s something he says the organization has yet to discuss with him but something he tells ESPNBoston.com’s Gordon Edes that he feels as though he’s earned.

“Why should I return for one year and go through the same [stuff] I’m going through now, just because it’s my last year,” Ortiz was quoted as saying. “No. I like to be left alone when I’m playing baseball. I know how to clean my [stuff] up.”

Of course early on, it looked as though a fresh-faced newcomer was going to steal his thunder.

Corey Hart nearly started a new facial hair trend throughout Southern California, his blonde beard blowing in the wind as he sprinted out to a crowd pleasing start.

The Brewers slugger put on a show in the first round, using a swing that was as effortless as it was fearsome to put 13 balls out of the yard and put himself in the early lead. However Hart would be unable to repeat the heroics of teammate Prince Fielder in last year’s Derby, not hitting a single homer in the second round to bow out early.

The question that remains now is if either of these two sluggers will be able to build on the momentum from this year’s Derby to help their teams finish strong the rest of the way. Hart finds himself in the middle of what could potentially be a career year. His 21 HR at the break are three short of his career high set back in 2007, and he’s established himself as force in a lineup that looks more like a Harvey’s Wallbangers redux with fellow All-Stars Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun.

However with that success has come consequences as well. Hart along with Fielder currently find themselves the subject of trade rumors as the Brewers try to figure out whether they’re going to be buyers or sellers at the deadline.

A quick look at the standings suggests that it’s too early to tell. Right now the team finds themselves in third place in the NL Central. However they won their last three in a row coming into the break and St. Louis has looked vulnerable of late, finding themselves mired in a four-game losing streak to close out the first half and with things not looking any better to start the second, with eight games against the Dodgers and Phillies immediately following the break.

Meanwhile, Ortiz struggled mightily coming out of the gate, limping out to a .185 average as late as May before turning things around with a recent tear. He’s going to be 35 at the end of this season and could in fact find himself nearing the end of his dominant days. Regardless of what happens though, it’s going to be fun to watch if he can rediscover the magic that made him one of the American League’s most feared hitters throughout the 2000s.

Matt Lindner is a contributor to ESPN.com and MLB.com

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