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Voices | Sam Allis

Bow out

For David Ortiz and James Levine, the time has come to graciously say goodbye

By Sam Allis
May 10, 2010

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There are legions of people wondering what the Red Sox should do with slugger David Ortiz. Bench him, sell him, what? Fans talk about it, pundits expound on it, but few appear ready to do anything about it. Not me.

I watched the slugger Tuesday night against the Angels. That was the game where he struck out twice and twice grounded into double plays. After one humiliating strikeout, he walked with his head down toward the dugout, boos cascading around him. I felt horrible for the guy. He’ll have some good games — he hit a homer the next night — but there is scant reason to believe he’s going to snap out of his long, ugly slump any time soon.

I adore the guy — I, along with the rest of Red Sox Nation — as much for his generous and ebullient personality as his past ability to strike fear into the heart of any pitcher and swat walk-off home runs. He has been a great presence to the team and to Boston. But, not to put too fine a point on it, Ortiz is paid large money to help the Red Sox win ballgames.

The rest of us couldn’t take what the man has endured. We couldn’t handle the terror in the on-deck circle, the pressure at the plate, the boos afterward. I’d be mortified to keep trying in front of more than 35,000 people each night. What I’d do is ask Terry Francona to bench me.

But pro athletes are not rigged to bench themselves. Their pride and competitive zeal are too strong, as is their concern for their careers, so they stay on the roster as long as they can. I don’t blame them. This is why God invented managers. If athletes like Ortiz cannot bench themselves, the Franconas of the world must do it for them.

By now, what plagues Ortiz most is in his head. His bat speed may be slower, but it is the mental mayhem that keeps him in irons. Imagine how hard it must be to follow a slider with the demon fear perched on his shoulder.

When I say bench him, by the way, I don’t mean permanently. But he needs time to clear his head. There is no shame for him to spend a month away from the daily pressure of the game — a few games in Pawtucket maybe — to rebuild his confidence and once-lethal performance at the plate.

Ortiz has a lot of company from all walks of life who confront the same situation. The agony over when to bench yourself for the good of the team is ubiquitous. Consider James Levine, the A-list music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Because of a rash of injuries and operations, his ability to lead the orchestra since 2004 has been compromised.

Disappointment has mushroomed with his absences. The BSO announced two months ago that back problems and attendant surgery forced Levine to cancel his appearances, including some long-planned major works, for the rest of the season. Tanglewood is a question mark. He’s an easier call than Ortiz. Levine should bow out for the good of the orchestra. We can’t count on him anymore to deliver the goods. When he does, the results can be spectacular, but they’ve become a sometime thing.

Now let’s consider a couple of examples of people who had the emotional intelligence to do the right thing. Take former Supreme Court associate justice David Souter, who retired at 69 last year in good standing and excellent health after 19 years on the court. He could have stayed for another 15 years, if not more, depending on his constitution. But his own clock told him it was time to go. He accomplished what he wanted to accomplish. Tenure on the bench was never a track and field event for him.

And then of course there is the redoubtable Cal Ripken Jr., the iron man for the Baltimore Orioles. He surpassed the consecutive-games-played record of Lou Gehrig by 502 games, only to take himself out of the lineup for the final Orioles home game of the 1998 season. He didn’t have to. He just knew it was time to leave the party.

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.

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