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The year that began with his mother's death, 2002, would also be Ortiz's last with the Twins. He hit .272 with 20 home runs and 75 RBIs platooning at first base for a young team that reached the AL Championship Series. Minnesota, though, was not high on Ortiz, who seemed injury-prone (he missed chunks of time with wrist and knee injuries), was not a polished fielder and couldn't catch up with good fastballs on his hands. Twins G.M. Terry Ryan figured that Ortiz's development had stalled and decided to trade him. "He just wasn't getting it done here, for whatever reason," Ryan says. Then he admits, "I made a bad baseball decision."
The Red Sox gave Ortiz $1.25 million and figured he was one of five guys—along with Jeremy Giambi, Shea Hillenbrand, Kevin Millar and Bill Mueller—who would combine to fill three spots (first, third and DH). Six weeks into the season Ortiz showed so little power (two homers) that his teammates were calling him Juan Pierre (the light-hitting leadoff man who's now with the Chicago Cubs). Ortiz wanted out of Boston. "I called my agents," he recalls, "and said, 'If you guys are not here tomorrow, you guys are fired.' "
After the next day's game, Ortiz and his agents met with Epstein in the players' parking lot outside Fenway. "I told Theo, 'I want you to trade me or release me,' " Ortiz says. " 'I can't be sitting here watching this circus anymore, guys I know I can do better than. Me just watching from the bench? I'm not that kind of guy. I don't clap for something that doesn't deserve it.' "
"Give me a couple of days," Epstein recalls saying. "I promise you we've got something in the works to free up a spot for you."
On May 29, 2003, Epstein traded Hillenbrand to the Arizona Diamondbacks for righthander Byung-Hyun Kim, a forgettable trade for Boston except for the opportunity it gave Ortiz. Finally, he could smile.
Says Epstein, "We didn't know what we were getting. Nobody knew. We just let him be exactly what he is."
Ortiz, with a mechanical tune-up from hitting coach Ron Jackson, and freed of the wear and tear of playing in the field, started turning on inside pitches and closing that hole in his swing on inside fastballs. From March 30, 2003, through September 30, 2007, he slammed 208 home runs, third in the majors to Alex Rodriguez's 220 and Albert Pujols's 211. From '03 through '06 he finished fifth, fourth, second and third in AL MVP balloting while conjuring up so much late-inning magic—he has 16 walk-off hits with the Red Sox, including three in Boston's '04 postseason run to a world championship—that the team presented him with a plaque that reads, THE GREATEST CLUTCH HITTER IN THE HISTORY OF THE BOSTON RED SOX. "He loves coming up in the big spot," says Epstein, whom Ortiz has persuaded to junk the sabermetric principle that clutch hitting is not a skill.
Says Ortiz, "It's mostly confidence. If you go up there thinking you might not get it done, you're out already. I know I'm going to hit you. And I have confidence all around me here."
Ortiz is an icon in Boston. "A larger-than-life figure," says second baseman Mark Loretta of the man called Big Papi. (Ortiz, forgetful of names, has a habit of calling people Papi, a Spanish colloquialism for daddy or pop. His frequent use of the word was turned around on him long enough ago that he can't remember when it began.)
Ortiz's transformation from released player to, as Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi says, "a Hall of Famer with five more years like this" may be unprecedented. The Brooklyn Dodgers lost Roberto Clemente to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the mid-1950s version of the Rule 5 draft, but no other hitter this good has ever been willingly cut loose.