It was the night before the seventh and deciding game of the 2004 American League Championship Series, although you wouldn't have been able to tell by seeing David Ortiz.
The affable slugger had learned his lesson the year before when his Red Sox were slated to head into Yankee Stadium for the final showdown of the '03 ALCS. The evening before that game, Ortiz had hunkered down in his hotel room, going to bed early and seemingly leaving nothing to chance. The result was an air of sluggishness that the designated hitter just couldn't shake, lingering all the way through until Aaron Boone ended Boston's season.
But the wee hours of Oct. 19, 2004 were going to be treated differently. Ortiz went out that night, enjoying dinner until the early morning hours at a restaurant in Queens. And when the slugger did decide to the leave the restaurant he was greeted by a group of Yankees fans from his home country, the Dominican Republic.
The heckling began, inferring that Ortiz would never be able to function in a game which was to be played later that same day. The Sox star turned to his audience and proclaimed his intentions.
"I tell you what I'm going to do," he said. "I'm going to hit a home run in my very first at-bat."
The group of Dominicans laughed and yelled, feeling secure in continuing their taunts right through Ortiz's exit. Seventeen hours later, those same hecklers were seen sprinting out of the same restaurant in disbelief. With two outs in the top of the first inning, Ortiz stepped to the plate, saw one pitch from New York starter Kevin Brown, and deposited into the right field stands.
It had to be done, so Ortiz did it. The process was almost mechanical in its execution, and continues to be that way each and every time such a challenge is presented (as exemplified most recently by an eighth-inning, game-winning home run Friday night).
But how? But why?
This has become the questions befuddling those professionals who are supposed to know those types of answers. How is it possible that one player can execute so flawlessly in the kind of situations for which failure is almost expected?
"I'm trying to find the subtle clues because the bottom line for those guys is finding out how they are able to get in that zone," said Red Sox mental performance coach Don Kalkstein. "It's a challenge."
The study regarding bottling the kind of magic that Ortiz appears to possess could have no better case study than Boston's designated hitter. Since the start of '03, he has notched the game-winning RBI in the eighth inning or later 23 times. According to Elias Sports Bureau, no other major leaguer has more than 19 in that span.
The analysis stretches from a player's upbringing, to their personality, to the consistency of their preparation. There might not be a lot of answers in regards to solving the mystery that is deciphering Ortiz's mastery, but that doesn't mean people aren't trying.
The moment at Fenway Park last Monday, when Ortiz hit his third walk-off home run of the season, not only continued to help construct the hitter's lore, but it also offered Kalkstein another stab at solving the riddle.
That night the coach, upon emptying out of the home team's dugout on the way to greeting Ortiz at home plate, noticed something - there was almost no expression on the hero's face as he came down the third base line.
So Kalkstein went back into the coaches' room later that night and watched the replay of the game's final at-bat. A clue had been uncovered.
"If you go back and look at his demeanor walking to the plate, it's totally different than his other at-bats," Kalkstein observed. "And if you look at when he's running the bases, normally he has a big smile on his face. But if you look at the kind of expression he has when he's running the bases this time he still has the look that his mind is in another place.
"He's still in the job even though technically the job is already done."
According to those whose job it is to unearth this kind of phenomenon, the athlete's ability to enter into another frame of mind upon approaching the task is perhaps the most important aspect in the entire process.
"What they're able to do is stay comfortable in the moment," said Cleveland Indians sports psychologist Charlie Maher, who has been working in professional baseball for the past 21 years. "Somebody will look at a clutch situation as the moment, but to the player their mind is in the moment. It's almost like a comfort zone for them. Their mind is focused on one thing, and that is seeing the ball and hitting the ball."
Some common themes for those walking down that path to inner-peace during the most uneasy circumstances are routine, preparation, and, perhaps even a little bit of superstition.
While Ortiz doesn't possess many rock-solid rituals when it comes to easing into the late-inning fun, he does usually integrate a consistent use of video watching, and hitting off the tee before facing his fate.
"There is usually a way to get him emotionally and mentally ready," Maher said. "It's something to get them into their competitive comfort zone. For a fan that may seem superstitious, but for the most part it isn't. When somebody is in the batter's box they want to feel comfortable, and when they are they can have a quiet mind before becoming aggressive. It's almost a paradox, but, for them, it's sacred territory.
"Whatever happens, whether it's a foul ball or whatever, then they have seven to 10 seconds to relax and get back in their comfort zone. And, in Ortiz's case, because of it he can stay within the moment even with 36,000 people in Fenway Park chanting 'MVP!' He is able to address one thing."
The ability to adapt to the surroundings is one thing, actually using the moment in a positive way is another. That's where the mind is really put to the test.
According studies done by Dr. Roland Carlstedt, the Chairman of the American Board of Sports Psychology, an athlete's ability to shift thinking from the left side of the brain (where strategic planning takes place), to the right (the impetus for action) is key.
"This left shift then gives way to more right hemispheric activation milliseconds into the commencement of the action, when a player's 'Just do it!' mode takes over and locks in on carrying out the task, such as hitting," said Carlstedt, the author of the book 'Critical Moments During Competition: A Mind-Body Model of Sport Performance When it Counts the Most' (Psychology Press, 2004).
"These brain dynamics occur in all players prior to action. However, they can be, or are more likely to be, disrupted or not disrupted as a function of an athlete's profile."
Carlstedt has gone to great lengths to identify which athletes fit into which categories, analyzing more than 700 subjects, including a group of elite baseball players. The result of the study showed remarkably definitive traits between those who excelled in the clutch, and those who wilted.
Successful clutch performers, according the study, are low in neuroticism/subliminal reactivity, and high in repressive coping/subliminal coping; whereas those who fail are just the opposite.
"Critical moments induce a stress state that leads to intrusive thoughts and fears in players who possess the worst constellation of these measures," Carlstedt explained. "while pressure players have developed brain-motor responses that are impervious to negative thoughts."
Considering Carlstedt's model successfully predicted critical moment performance in the range of 70-90 percent, increasing as critical moments increased, the analysis presents a valuable tool in searching for the magic of Ortiz's moments. But there is also much more to THIS man, which even the most steely-eyed performer can't match up to.
Some studies, such as one done by psychologist Salvatore Maddi, suggest that something as subtle as Ortiz's upbringing could have an affect on his success when it counted. Growing up in the Dominican, he was the oldest of three children in a family and an environment with few luxuries.
According to Maddi, the co-author of the book, "Resilience at Work," people like Ortiz often look at a tough situation as the most grandiose of opportunities.
"The people who survived and thrived the upheaval described an early life that was stressful, but their parents were very supportive and their parents actually defined them as the hope of the family," Maddi told Neil Gladstone for a 2005 story on the Web site 'Citypaper.net' out of Philadelphia. "And they accepted that role."
When it comes to Ortiz, you can't really argue that he has done anything but embrace the role of late-inning savior, and everything that goes with it.
"You find these types of players have layers," said Maher, who worked extensively with Manny Ramirez during the outfielder's time in Cleveland. "They are always good students, and always want to learn more, but at the same time they are trying to simplify things. They are not over-analytical types of players."
They just do the work, and leave us to figure how exactly how it happened.
"The perception that a guy is going to do it again is powerful," Kalkstein said. "When David steps up, everybody believes he is going to come through again."