Although the Red Sox have had a fine start of the season considering the injuries and illnesses they’ve had to fight through over the last month, it’s been frustrating to watch them at times. The offense has yet to click, and it just generally feels like something is missing. Obviously, one of the things that could be missing is a legendary slugger who isn’t coming back. At least, he’s not going to come back to play. While David Ortiz is certainly, and deservedly, enjoying his retirement, it’s only a matter of time until he comes back to Boston in some non-playing capacity. He’s no longer the face of the franchise, but he’s still one of the faces of the city, and he will be for the rest of time.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way, and his path to becoming this larger-than-life figure is one of the most improbable in baseball history. There are so many different paths Ortiz’ story could’ve taken, but everything aligned to him becoming the legend we all know and adore today. We’ve all heard this story before, but it’s always worth reminiscing about how all of this came to be.
David Arias was signed by the Mariners out of the Dominican Republic way back in 1992. He made his way up through Seattle’s minor-league system, and eventually turned himself into a mini-legend by defeating superstar Alex Rodriguez in an impromptu home run derby. By the time 1996 rolled around, he had established himself as one of the team’s more exciting prospects, but was still dealt to the Twins that fall.
Upon his arrival in Minnesota, the man we now know as Big Papi (and apparently Cookie Monster, according to Baseball-Reference) informed the team that he wanted to go by David Ortiz, not David Arias. He had a new name, but he still hit like the man he was before. He quickly made his way up to the majors, making his debut in September of 1997. He’d spend the next five years in Minnesota, never really latching on to the star role that some expected from him but still putting up solid numbers throughout his career. Despite all that, the Twins released Ortiz to avoid having to pay him the $2 million raise he was expected to receive that offseason.
As the story goes, Ortiz was blindsided by the decision. He was left without a team and without a long line of clubs looking to bring him in. In fact, nobody was interested in signing him. Enter: Pedro Martinez. Martinez had been close to Ortiz for a long time thanks to their connection to the Dominican Republic. When the former Boston ace found out that his friend and fellow countryman was left without a team, he called everyone he could to make sure the Red Sox extended an offer.
And when I say he called everyone, I mean he called everyone. When he couldn’t get a hold of Theo Epstein, he moved on to Larry Lucchino. Eventually, he made a call to the team’s travelling secretary. The Red Sox were in need of help at DH, and Martinez wasn’t going to risk them going in a different direction rather than taking a chance on Ortiz. According to Epstein, Ortiz was on their list of players to target, but he was just one amongst many names who were potential fits. At this time — in 2002 — the Red Sox were focused on keeping Martinez happy, and so they listened to their star pitcher and brought Ortiz in on a non-guaranteed deal with an invite to spring training. He’d compete for a job with a group of players including Jeremy Giambi, Kevin Millar, Shea Hillenbrand and Bill Mueller. All of them made the Opening Day roster, but eventually Ortiz won the everyday role, and the rest is history.
He’d go on to become the most clutch player any of us have ever seen, leading the Red Sox to three championships including the holy grail in 2004. He’d go on to become more than just a baseball player, leaving his mark on the city with numerous charitable endeavors and the Marathon Speech that we’ll all remember for the rest of our lives.
And it all could have been so different. The Twins could have realized that $2 million was well worth the price of a young slugger who had performed in the majors and had shown so much potential in the minors. Hell, going back even further the Mariners could have seen that potential and never traded him in the first place. Once he was released, any number of teams could have taken a chance. According to Ortiz, the Red Sox’ offer was the only one he got during that period of extreme uncertainty. Martinez could have never found out about Ortiz’ release until it was too late, never getting the opportunity to basically demand the Red Sox sign his friend.
The odds of everything lining up correctly for the Red Sox to end up with David Ortiz is something that we all take for granted every single day. He is gone from the game now, but his mark on our baseball fandom and the city of Boston is one that is going to last a lifetime. At some point down the road, hopefully he’ll find his way to having a public role in this city, connecting with us as often as possible. For now, though, Ortiz will enjoy his much-deserved retirement and we’ll all thank whatever higher being we believe in for the miraculous series of events that led to the greatest and most improbable career in Red Sox history and one of the most important figures in the recent history of "our f***n city."