September 19, 2019
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Before David Ortiz was shot, the Red Sox were struggling. Now, they’re coping.

Elise Amendola | AP
Elise Amendola | AP
In this April 29, 2016, file photo, Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz celebrates his two-run home run against the New York Yankees during the eighth inning of a baseball game at Fenway Park, in Boston.

BALTIMORE – Eduardo Nunez was at a reggaeton concert in Boston on Sunday night, enjoying a rare and carefree respite from the daily grind of the baseball season, when, just after 9 p.m., his phone started buzzing with text messages and voice mails. By the time he could find somewhere quiet to gather himself, there were more than a hundred of them. In some ways, his life hasn’t been the same since.

On Friday night, Nunez, a veteran infielder and native of the Dominican Republic, and his Boston Red Sox teammates were at Camden Yards for the start of a six-game trip to Baltimore and Minneapolis – the first time they had been away from Boston since the shocking news that former Red Sox slugger and eternal Boston icon David Ortiz had been shot and wounded Sunday night in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo.

Less than a week later, Ortiz, 43, remains in stable condition in the intensive care unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston – having been transported out of Santo Domingo by an air ambulance the day after the shooting – and Nunez, who turned 32 on Saturday, remains the only Red Sox player known to have spoken to Ortiz since the incident.

The conversation happened Tuesday, by which point Ortiz had already twice undergone surgery to repair damage to his liver and intestines. Fern Cuza, the agent who represents both, called Nunez, told him to wait a moment, and suddenly Ortiz was on the phone.

“How you doing, homeboy?” Ortiz said in Spanish, Nunez recalled Friday. “Where you at right now?” When Nunez told him he was at Fenway Park getting ready for a game, Ortiz said, “You got to come and see me” – and started to laugh.

Maybe Ortiz – who retired in 2016 after 20 big league seasons and three World Series titles, and now works as a special assistant for the team – was trying to put Nunez at ease by trying to sound better than he actually felt, knowing the conversation would be relayed to the rest of the team. But if that was the case, it worked.

“It was good to hear. He didn’t even sound like he was hurt,” Nunez said. “You couldn’t even tell. Whenever I hear his voice, I feel really good.”

By Friday, from a distance of almost a week and of some 400 miles of Atlantic coastline, the Red Sox were able to feel at least somewhat removed from the immediate trauma of the Ortiz news. Aside from a team meeting on Monday at Fenway Park, by which point Ortiz was still in Santo Domingo, the Red Sox have made a point of trying to put that situation out of their minds when they arrive to work each day.

“It’s tough for everyone here. We love him so much,” Nunez said. “Something like that is bigger than baseball. It’s life. But at the end of the day we have a job to do.”

It’s not as if the Red Sox don’t already have enough to worry about. At 36-34 entering Friday night’s series opener against the Orioles, they have yet to find the form that carried them to 108 wins and the World Series title in 2018. Their current issues run from a slumping MVP (Mookie Betts, who is hitting .184 with a .344 on-base percentage and .367 slugging percentage this month, got a night off Friday) to an injured list full of key performers (Nathan Eovaldi, Steve Pearce, Tyler Thornburg and, as of Friday, Heath Hembree) to a bullpen that has struggled at times to close games – and may require reinforcements at the trade deadline.

Despite all that, and a 7-6 record in June entering Friday night, the Red Sox, solidly in third place in the American League East, have managed to shave three games off their deficit in the past 12 days.

“For how inconsistent we’ve been, it’s only 6½ [games out of first place]. We have a lot of room for improvement,” Red Sox Manager Alex Cora said. “I do believe for a while there, it’s not that we were feeling sorry for ourselves, but we were searching too much. Now it’s kind of like: ‘This is what we are. This is where we’re at. Let’s get going.’”

Much as he did in October, when as a rookie manager he drew rave reviews for his big-hearted steering of the Red Sox through the emotional jungle of the postseason, it is Cora – a teammate of Ortiz’s in Boston from 2005 to 2008 – who has taken on the role of conduit between the Ortiz family and the clubhouse as the big slugger recuperates.

It is Cora who speaks daily to Ortiz’s wife, Tiffany, and it is Cora who is already organizing a team excursion to visit Ortiz – circumstances permitting – on Thursday, a rare off day at home for the Red Sox.

“Hopefully on that off day when we get back,” Cora said, “we’ll get a chance to go visit him and spend some time with him and be there with him, Tiff and the kids.”

But there was still almost a week’s worth of healing, and a week’s worth of baseball, to follow between now and then.

“In the beginning, right after it happened, it was tougher,” Nunez said of the effect on the clubhouse. “Right now, we know he’s stable. We know he’s not in a dangerous position anymore, so it’s a little easier now.”

 



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