In late 1996, the Seattle Mariners sent David Arias to Minnesota as the player to be named later in a transaction for Dave Hollins. When he arrived with the Twins, he told them that he preferred to be called David Ortiz, not David Arias. While playing in New Britain, Connecticut with the Rock Cats, Ortiz had marginal success but also suffered plenty of injuries. His years ended in 1998 and 2001 with wrist injuries. When he was called up to Minnesota, he had an on going knee problem. Even his best season in Minnesota, 2002, was marred by consistent knee ailments. He hit 20 home runs and drove in 75 runs in 2002, not a bad year, but not enough for Minnesota to keep him. After failing to trade him, the Twins released him. Ortiz was out of a job and desperately wanted another chance to prove himself, and got help from a fellow Dominican.
Pedro Martinez was coming off another masterful year with the Red Sox and always was supportive of his countrymen. He put in a good word with the new management of the Red Sox, and in January 2003, Ortiz was picked up for a song. He was behind first baseman Kevin Millar and DH Jeremy Giambi on the depth chart and did not play much. He rarely pinch hit and was a forgotten member of the 2003 roster early that year. When Giambi struggled, manager Grady Little benched him and started Ortiz. The Red Sox have not looked back since.
With the Red Sox slated to start their postseason run in Cleveland on Thursday, David Ortiz is ready for his last month of service to the organization that gave him a chance to perform. In his 14 seasons since arriving, he has given Boston more clutch baseball moments than any other player, become the face of the franchise, changed the culture of the team. He has become the most important player in the history of the Red Sox. Yes, more important than Ted Williams, Carl Yasztremski, Jim Rice, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, all of them. Not the best, but the most important.
Ted Williams is the greatest hitter in the history of the Red Sox and possibly all of baseball. Ortiz does not surpass Williams as a total hitter despite having more home runs. Williams has a career average of .344, the highest career on base percentage ever at .482, and would’ve had 600 homers easily had he not lost much of his prime to service in World War II and the Korean War. Carl Yastzremski is the best two way player in Red Sox history and his 1967 campaign is the best individual performance put on at Fenway Park. He cleared 3,000 hits, and singlehandedly lifted the Sox into the 1967 World Series with both his triple crown effort at the plate and his seven Gold Glove awards. As a designated hitter, Ortiz doesn’t have a chance to make a defensive impact, thus losing a dimension to his game. He did play 1st base for some games, namely in inter-league games and the World Series. But Yaz has him in terms of total impact on the game.
So why is Ortiz the most important player in Sox history? Because he changed the Red Sox organization from the American League’s Charlie Brown franchise into winners. Williams, for all his greatness, hit .200 with no extra base hits in his only trip to the Fall Classic in 1946. He never got another chance because of the failures of his organization, but he could not lift his team to a championship level. Yaz was similar. He performed better in the Fall Classic than Williams did, hitting .400 in 1967 and .310 in 1975, but he could not get his team over the hump and win a championship. Nor could Jim Rice, Wade Boggs, Jimmie Foxx, Bobby Doerr, Dwight Evans, or any other player in the organization from 1919 on.
By the time 2004 rolled around, the Red Sox were expected to be talented and face the Yankees in the postseason and lose in some painful way. That seemed to be certain after the soul crushing loss in game 7 of the 2003 ALCS and all but confirmed with the Yankees up 3 games to none in the 2004 ALCS with a lead in the 9th and Mariano Rivera on the hill. Then Boston tied the game in the 9th. Then Ortiz hit a homer in the 12th inning to win the game. He had driven in four of the six runs the Red Sox scored that night. He then drove in three of the five runs in game 5, including an 8th inning opposite field homer in the 8th and a walk off single in the 14th. The Sox then won games 6 and 7 in Yankee Stadium, punctuated by another Ortiz homer. Big Papi was voted the MVP of the series, and Boston celebrated Ortiz as the face of the greatest comeback in the history of baseball, maybe the greatest series ever played in the history of the sport. The Sox went on to sweep St. Louis in the World Series and break the Curse of the Bambino.
The 2004 World Series is the most important and celebrated trophy in Boston’s long and storied history. David Ortiz was the biggest offensive reason for the Red Sox’s triumph. And after that epic performance, Ortiz kept his performance up. He set a new record for homers in a season with 54 in 2006, finished his regular season career 17 all time in home runs, ahead of players like Ted Williams, Ernie Banks, Frank Thomas, Mickey Mantle, and Mel Ott, and lifted his team to the post season eight times in his career. The Sox won the World Series in 2007, with Ortiz in the middle of the lineup and performing well, and in 2013, with Ortiz taking the role as vocal and visual leader of the franchise after his famous “This is our F-$&:!# City” speech and a legendary performance in the World Series. He hit .688 in the series with an OPS (On Base percentage plus Slugging percentage) of 1.948. He has turned the expectations of the Red Sox fans from wondering what version of Shakesperean tragedy they’ll watch that night to how many rings they’ll be able to put on their fingers. He’s not the greatest player in the history of the franchise, but he has transformed the Red Sox from a losing organization into a winning one.
I believe a similar point can be made for the Celtics. In terms of talent and all around output, Larry Bird is the best player in the history of the Celtics. He had the shooting touch, could rebound, pass, run the break, and did all of this with an assassins mindset and appearing to be un-athletic and not capable to the untrained eye. However, in terms of importance to the culture of the franchise, Bill Russell is unquestionably the most important Celtic ever. He was the defensive hub of 11 championships, a feat that has never and will never be matched. Larry was easily a better scorer and offensive player than Russell, and was no slouch defensively. Bird was, in total, the better basketball player, but Russell set the culture of the Celtics as a championship organization. Similarly, Williams and Yaz are the best players in the history of the Sox. However, Ortiz has defined the culture of the Red Sox as a championship contender since his arrival in 2003 and his legendary performance in 2004.
Now Ortiz is in his final run. I have watched him for my whole life and was at Fenway on Sunday for the final game of the regular season. The pregame ceremony was a joyous celebration of all that Ortiz had brought to the city and the organization. He is the embodiment of the Red Sox run of recent success. And he will be the focal point of the Red Sox lineup this postseason. I’ll be watching as the postseason begins in Cleveland on Thursday at 4!