In heartland of America, Red Sox are transplanted into new NL game

World Series

October 26, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

ST. LOUIS - First things first for the Red Sox, now that they're in alien territory called the National League:

Finding a glove for David Ortiz.

"We're trying to buy it back off of eBay," said Red Sox first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, cracking the kind of jokes that belie an American League team that faces the so-called daunting task of playing "real" baseball.

Yesterday, the scruffy, loose and post-Yankees Red Sox officially infiltrated St. Louis, a Midwestern locale that seems way too placid to contain this motley crew.

So, too, do the NL rules seem an artificial constraint the Red Sox are eager to defy - or at least take some pratfalls trying to conquer.

It's not exactly as if the Red Sox need Ortiz in the field to enhance their chances of making errors. They've done quite well - or poorly - without him, committing four errors in each of the first two games of this World Series, including back-to-back stumbles by left fielder Manny Ramirez.

Still, the Sox reported to Busch Stadium with a 2-0 advantage. So what if this Fall Classic has been a little less than classic from a defensive standpoint?

Besides, if the Cardinals think they have an advantage with Ortiz at first, they still have to get the slugger out.

To that problem, Cards manager Tony La Russa got wise fast - which is more than you can say about the Yankees, whose manager, Joe Torre, chose to allow Ortiz to beat the Yankees not once, but twice, and steal the ALCS.

La Russa has decided Ortiz should get Barry Bonds' treatment.

"I'm not on that level. He's just unbelievable," Ortiz said yesterday, meaning it.

"Nowadays, [managers tell pitchers], `That guy can't beat you,'" Ortiz said.

"I asked Reggie Jackson how he hit three home runs in one game. You couldn't do that now. Back in the day, pitchers had heart. Now, they want to try to beat you, but as soon as you put the ball over the fence, they don't want any part of you anymore."

In other words, there's a reason why Red Sox manager Terry Francona made a concession to defense - if there's such a thing for this Red Sox team. Ortiz is such a threat, they can't run their offense without him.

That will put Mientkiewicz deeper on the bench, along with the Red Sox's regular first baseman, Kevin Millar.

"I'll tell you what. I'm going to catch everything that's around me. I'm not going to be flying around and diving like Mientkiewicz or like Superman because God doesn't give that kind of ability to everybody," Ortiz said, adding:

"It's not like going out there to play shortstop or second base."

Is this an advantage for the Cards?

All the hard evidence points to a Cardinals advantage, now that the heart of the World Series is in America's heartland, back on the Cardinals' turf.

Busch Stadium and the Gateway City have their fair share of baseball history and passion, just like Boston.

To drive home the point, statues of Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith stand sentry outside the 1960s concrete castle.

But it's not just the geography that favors the home-team Cardinals, or their proud history. Because of baseball's split personality, the Cards are back to playing by their National League rules, a situation that could unleash the quiet bats of Jim Edmonds, Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen.

"I think ... the National League club has the advantage," La Russa said yesterday.

"I think we're going to lose some of that because Pedro Martinez has pitched in the National League and is used to handling the bat and doing all the things National League pitchers do. ... But it's an advantage for us, just like the crowd is," La Russa said.

The only problem is: The Red Sox may not have been given enough reason to worry about their so-called disadvantage.

Yesterday, Martinez - the starter for tonight's scheduled Game 3 - walked out of the visitors' dugout carrying a shiny, new bat.

"Can't talk now. I've got to go hit," Martinez said.

Martinez is the pitcher with the best winning percentage in the history of baseball with at least 200 decisions. He is pitching his first World Series game. That's some pretty amazing stuff.

However, because of his playing days in Montreal and with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Martinez is pitching in St. Louis for a reason. That's to take advantage of his big-game experience in NL parks.

Now his first career World Series game will be amplified by the fact that, in addition to trying to keep the lid on Edmonds, Pujols, Rolen and Larry Walker, Martinez is going to take a few cuts.

Judging from the balls he sprayed around Busch Stadium in practice yesterday, Martinez might even have to worry about running the bases, too.

"I think he's going to bring it," Ortiz predicted about fellow Dominican Martinez.

The stage is all set for Martinez's World Series debut, but for the Red Sox to continue what they started in Boston, they'll have to do it with a twist.

They're not at all fazed.

"I've always been the one who's encouraged David," Mientkiewicz said. "We've played together a long time [in Minnesota and now Boston.] This game has a tendency to label a guy early on in his career and sometimes, it's just a label.

"David's got very good hands. He's a big guy and his range isn't great, but he's got good footwork, soft hands, he plays first base in winter ball. He's very adequate."

With such a ringing endorsement of his defensive skills, the question may be whether Ortiz is available to play left field, too.

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