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
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.
"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.
"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.)
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.