Ortiz flashes signature smile

NASHUA – Cailyn Costa likes all the Boston Red Sox players, but her favorite is David Ortiz.

That could be because the 28-year-old designated hitter has a reputation as an upbeat, sincere team player, or because he led the team in slugging percentage (.592), was second in home runs (31) and third in RBIs (101) in 2003.

But for Cailyn, a 7-year-old T-ball player from Windham, it’s because he has the best smile. And he’s a lefty, just like she is.

Accompanied by her dad Tom, Cailyn, her wide eyes well shaded by a blue Red Sox cap, was among the hundreds of area residents who queued up even before the doors opened at Nashua Sports Collectibles at 135 Main St., Sunday night to meet Ortiz and get his autograph.

The slugger, a former Minnesota Twin who came to Boston as a free agent last season and is already well on his way to becoming the newest darling of Red Sox Nation, joined an impressive lineup of Boston pro athletes who have made appearances at Bill and Roseanne McLaughlin’s memorabilia and collectables shop since they bought it in June 2002.

So far, Bill McLaughlin said, the biggest draw was New England Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri, who attracted 850 people when he came a year ago. McLaughlin said he tries to hold a signing session about once a _month; the next appearance will be by former Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, sometime in January.

“I do these signings because it’s a good way for kids to meet these guys,” McLaughlin said. “They’re not accessible at games the way they once were.”

Ortiz arrived early with plenty of impressive gold jewelry catching the light as he pre-signed a stack of 8-by-10 photos showing him following through a swing. He joked often with store personnel, and even talked a little baseball.

“This is a nice little town here,” Ortiz said of his first trip to Nashua. “We drove around, got lost for a while, but we made it,” he added, flashing a smile.

He expressed a typical hitter’s reaction to the Red Sox’ recent acquisition of star Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling.

“It feels good to me – now I don’t have to face him,” Ortiz said.

“I heard the other side of the street (rival New York Yankees) was trying to get him,” he said, breaking another grin. “They’ll have to find someone else now.”

As for the rest of the team, he hopes for the status quo.

“I really hope we keep the same group of guys on the team as this year,” Ortiz said of the 2004 season.

Matt Griffin of Milford figured he’d surprise his Sox-fanatic wife, Carol, by bringing her to see Ortiz. All she knew, she said, was that they were going to something sports-related in Nashua.

They made the most of it. After Ortiz signed her bat, Carol Griffin asked if he’d mind a photo with her and the bat.

“Only if you don’t swing it at me,” Ortiz said, jokingly.

An anxious moment ensued when the flash on Matt Griffin’s camera didn’t go off, but a patient Ortiz waited for another try, giving Carol Griffin a chance to ask Ortiz the question of the day: “You’ll be back next year, right?”

“I was squeezing the back of his neck during the photo and he said he would be,” Carol Griffin said with a laugh. “He’d better be – he’s awesome.”

The store takes on a festive atmosphere during the signings, McLaughlin said, and the employees, who get to meet and work with the athletes, gladly volunteer to come in and help out.

McLaughlin’s daughter, Nicole, joined friend Lyra Clark, who works at the store’s seasonal kiosk at Pheasant Lane Mall, in keeping the line orderly and moving along. McLaughlin wore one of her trademark, hand-made shirts – this one, of course, bearing “Ortiz” and a big number 34 on the back.

“I make one for each signing,” she said.

Overlooking its slightly disproportionate design, Ortiz would later sign it for her, undoubtedly reprising that friendly smile once again.