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Jennings: Back for retirement ceremony, David Ortiz still has left a void in Red Sox leadership role

June 23, 2017

When David Ortiz walked away, he stayed away.

Ortiz didn’t pop into spring training to laugh with old teammates. He didn’t make a surprise appearance on Opening Day to throw a ceremonial first pitch. He hasn’t shown up unexpectedly at Fenway Park to soak in the adulation.

It’s been nearly eight months since Ortiz took his final at-bat, and tonight’s number retirement ceremony will be his first massive public appearance in any official Red Sox capacity.

Consider it one last gift to those who shared his clubhouse and walked in his shadow.

Ortiz has done his part to let the Red Sox move on without him, to forge their own fresh identity in his all-consuming wake.

“And I think, honestly, we’re still kind of forming it,” manager John Farrell said.

For many reasons, it’s difficult to find the pulse of this Red Sox team. They’ve been injured and inconsistent. They have the second-most wins in the American League, yet still haven’t found their stride. They have some of the game’s most electric players, but they have none of the league’s biggest personalities.

That last part isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just different. Plenty of good guys in the clubhouse, plenty of lead-by-example veterans, but there’s no Big Papi.

“At the time (when the season started), I had hoped he was going to come around,” Farrell said. “Wanted to see him because we were so used to seeing him in camp. If this is part of what he intended, you know what, he’s a really smart individual. To not create a distraction for others. For (Dustin Pedroia) to be now the primary lead guy. He’s always been a leader for us, but Pedey now coming into the forefront, with the other young players starting to emerge in their own leadership ways.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if this has all been by design and intent on David’s part.”

There’s little doubt Pedroia carries the most weight among position players in the clubhouse. Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts might be the best players on the team, and Hanley Ramirez has quite the resume himself, but there’s a clear deference to Pedroia as the face of the franchise and the voice of the team.

He’s not as boisterous as Ortiz, but Pedroia was still in the game while spitting up blood on Sunday after getting hit by a pitch, and he asked back in the lineup Wednesday even though everyone could see the big, nasty, purple bruise on his back.

Those things don’t go unnoticed.

Also worth noticing: When Bogaerts finally homered this season, after going nearly two months without one, the dugout gave him the silent treatment after rounding the bases.

Asked whose idea it was, both Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr., two of the young, engaging, fun-loving personalities on the team, claimed no credit, saying only that “veteran guys” make decisions like that.

So, as much as the Red Sox might seem to be in a position to let guys like Betts, Bradley and Bogaerts take over the clubhouse, that’s just not the way it works in this game.

Eventually? Sure. Those three have the gravitas, talent and likable personality to carry that leadership torch, but it takes time for young position players to take hold of it. And it’s somewhat unusual for pitchers to do so. Chris Sale, David Price and Craig Kimbrel each have their own form of leadership roles in the clubhouse, but none is a speak-for-the-team kind of guy, and it’s uncommon for a pitcher to take on Ortiz-type status on a roster.

“I think a team needs to forge their own identity every year,” Farrell said. “And that’s going to be dependent upon the changes on your roster, the personalities that exist, and certainly the style of game that you play.”

The Red Sox are transitioning to a new core of players, and because of that, Pedroia is stuck in the middle. He’s the link between 2007 and 2017, just as easily associated with Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ellsbury as with Bogaerts and Betts.

Something similar happened to the Yankees in Derek Jeter’s final years. Jeter was the face of the Yankees franchise and an unquestioned leader, but he was also a connection to the past, and that team’s new identity didn’t emerge until the young guys took over.

Jeter, like Ortiz, elected to stay away after his retirement and let the transition happen without him. A singular identity is not a given on any roster. It’s not inherent, and it won’t form simply because someone has to fill the Ortiz void. Different teams are led in different ways.

As Ortiz steps back into the spotlight for a moment, the Red Sox celebrate his unique talent and unique presence. It will be a while before they replace either.