Slugger takes 23-year-old Vargas under wing during Spring Training
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- David Ortiz knows how difficult it can be for young players coming up through the Minors trying to make their way to the big leagues. After all, Ortiz, who is 38 and entering his 18th season in the Majors, was once in their shoes, with nobody to act as his mentor.
"Not at all. Not at all," Ortiz said. "But once I started getting into the big leagues, I make a lot of friends and a lot of guys give me a lot of good advice."
So, when he gets the opportunity to act as a mentor -- coach, advisor, big brother, friend -- to a young player, he takes it.
A few years ago, Ortiz was introduced to a young player in the Twins organization. A kid who reminded him a lot of himself. A kid whose renown for hitting baseballs a very long way is growing. A kid who both agree can punish a baseball even more than Ortiz.
"Oh, yeah. No question," Ortiz said. "I heard he hit a light pole the other day. Nobody's hit a ball out there ever."
'He' is Kennys Vargas, the Twins' 23-year-old first-base/designated-hitter prospect who is listed at 6-feet-5 and 273 pounds. Vargas was nicknamed "La Muralla" -- or "The Wall" -- as a kid growing up in Puerto Rico before joining the Twins as an undrafted free agent in 2009. Last week, Vargas launched a ball into the upper reaches of the Hammond Stadium light tower in right-center field during batting practice, leaving many observers shaking their heads in admiration.
"When you got that kind of power and you learn the things you got to do at the plate, you can be dangerous," Ortiz said.
Ortiz knows. He's got 431 career home runs on his resume, with another 17 in the postseason. Some of his roundtrippers are legendary -- walk-offs, game-changers, and postseason changers, like the grand slam he hit off Detroit's Joaquin Benoit in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series this past October.
It's those kinds of topics, and others, that Vargas and Ortiz, who spent six seasons in the Twins organization before joining the Red Sox, talk about when they exchange daily text messages or get together a couple of times a week for dinner during Spring Training.
"He and me are good friends," Vargas said. "He picks me up a lot of times to go to dinner at his house. He talks to me a lot about my career and what I have to do. Like take care of myself. How I can try to make the team. He wants to help me.
"He tells me, when he played on the Twins, he was no better than me. He says, 'You're much better than I was.' He says, 'You want to stay on the Twins, take care of your weight.'"
A few years ago, Vargas wanted to meet Ortiz, his favorite player. So teammate Miguel Sano -- who, like Ortiz, is from the Dominican Republic -- arranged an introduction. But it was last year when Ortiz, who stayed behind in Fort Myers to continue to rehab an injured Achilles tendon when the Red Sox headed north after Spring Training, that Vargas, who played for the Class A Advanced Fort Myers Miracle in 2013, caught his attention.
"I watched this kid that basically kind of looked like me playing out there," Ortiz said. "And I was like, 'Wow.' It gave me some flashbacks from when I played at this level in the Florida State League. And watching him play last year, outstanding power, good kid. Pretty much all the tools to get to be a Major Lleague baseball player.
"He's a very talented kid, good kid, works really hard. I give him some advice. We got a good relationship."
Vargas is bigger than the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Ortiz.
"Oh, yeah," Ortiz said. "When I was his age, I wasn't that big. He's a big kid."
"Yeah, I have more power," Vargas said. "I'm taller than Big Papi. ... He's a big guy. When he wears the uniform, he looks big. But I can hit it farther, I think."
Ortiz is a left-handed hitter. Vargas, a natural right-handed hitter, began switch-hitting at the suggestion of his Little League coach. Now, he said, he feels more comfortable from the left side, the side that gives him more power.
"We talk about hitting a lot," Ortiz said. "He's pretty good at first base, too. The baseball game is something that you never stop learning. As much as you learn, the better it can be for you in the long run. So I think he's going to be a superstar.
"In his case, he's one of those kids that he wants to learn. He puts a lot of attention when you're talking to him."
But Ortiz, Vargas said, doesn't talk about his own hitting style. It's that of a former Red Sox slugger Ortiz praises.
"He talks about hitting all the time. [But] he talks a lot about Manny Ramirez," Vargas said. "He says he's the greatest hitter he's ever seen. He talks to me about Manny, Manny, Manny, Manny. I say, 'I want to hear about you, not Manny.' He says, 'I can't explain what I do. To know what to do, I watched Manny.' ... He says Manny Ramirez is his best friend. He calls sometimes, and he gives the phone to me -- here, it's Manny."
But there are other topics Ortiz covers with the younger player.
"You know, stay humble, make sure that you are making good decisions off the field because whatever you do off the field it can affect your game one way or the other," Ortiz said. "So just be humble and make sure that the decisions you make are good decisions."
And what about a home run derby between the two?
"No," Ortiz said, with a laugh while he shakes his head. "I don't think I could get into a home run derby with that kid. He's like me when I was that age."