His first Red Sox manager was Grady Little. He was here before “Fever Pitch” and the new version of “Tessie.’’ In his early days as a Red Sox pinch hitter, he warmed the bench alongside Lou Merloni.
David Ortiz goes back. Trupiano Way Back. He was in uniform with the Red Sox the night Aaron Boone broke New England’s heart and he was in the dugout when Robert Andino ended Boston’s 2011 season in Baltimore.
Ortiz hit more homers in a season than anyone in the history of the Red Sox (54 in 2006). Among Sox sluggers, he ranks in the top 10 in hits, runs, doubles, homers, RBIs, extra-base hits, and walks. His career slugging percentage in Boston puts him in a four-man club alongside Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, and Manny Ramirez.
Big Papi is the only surviving member of the 2004 Red Sox. He is the last of the Jack Daniel’s-swiggin’, curse-bustin’, Duck Boat-ridin’ sons of Tito Francona. The Sox and Ortiz last week agreed to a deal (two years, $26 million, plus incentives) that will keep Ortiz in Boston through 2014 — probably for the rest of his career.
The agreement brought relief to Red Sox Nation. It’s great to know the Sox will have a big thumper in the middle of the lineup for another couple of seasons. It’s even better to know that we won’t hear Big Papi complaining about his contract for at least a year.
Ortiz moaning about “lack of respect” had become a time-tested Sox tradition right up there with Pedro Martinez staying home in the Dominican Republic for his dad’s birthday during spring training.
Now Papi has lost the right to complain.
The Sox have done right by their slugger. More than right. They have caved to his request, even though they probably could have let him test the market and brought him back on a one-year deal (does anyone really think another team would have paid a 37-year-old DH $26 million over two years?).
Ortiz earned this contract. But it’s troubling in a couple of aspects.
1. One-year deals seemed to bring out the best in the big fella. Now that he has been stripped of this urgency, can we expect the same commitment and drive?
2. Ortiz turns 37 this month. Jim Rice was already retired by this age. Ortiz strained his right Achilles’ tendon rounding second base on a home run by Adrian Gonzalez in July and played only one game the rest of the year. He hit 23 homers with 60 RBIs, but played only 90 games. Injuries and age go together like peas and carrots.
His has been a career with extraordinary highs and lows. He was signed out of the Dominican Republic just after turning 17 and played four minor league seasons in the Seattle Mariners system as David Ortiz Arias. There are “David Arias” baseball cards.
He dropped “Arias” when he was traded to the Twins for Dave Hollins in 1996. Twins manager Tom Kelly never liked Ortiz, and the Twins (then managed by Ron Gardenhire) let Ortiz walk for nothing after he hit 20 homers at the age of 26 in 2002. Curious.
Theo Epstein gets credit for signing Ortiz, but he had help. Sox scout Dave Jauss recommended Papi after watching Ortiz in winter ball.
Martinez and Ramirez implored the Sox front office to sign their countryman. Epstein took a shot, signing Ortiz to a one-year, $1.25 million deal shortly before spring training in 2003.
Ortiz had only two homers in his first two months with the Red Sox. Sharing at-bats with Jeremy Giambi, he played in only 31 of the first 54 games. He didn’t play every day until the Sox traded Shea Hillenbrand to Arizona in May. Then he went on a tear for the rest of the season.
Ortiz wound up with 31 homers and finished fifth in MVP voting in 2003. A year later, he was Big Papi, Boston baseball’s best clutch hitter since Carl Yastrzemski.
He was dominant from 2004-07, knocking in 139, 148, 137, and 117 runs. He injured his wrist in 2008. Ortiz looked like he was finished in 2009 when he hit .238.
He struggled badly again at the start of 2010 (a year in which he would strike out 145 times). He lost his power for a while and couldn’t hit lefthanders. Francona moved him down the lineup. Tito sent Mike Lowell up to pinch hit for Ortiz. The idea of the Sox signing Ortiz to another multiyear deal was laughable.
Then it all came back. Ortiz reversed the aging process. He hit .309 in 2011. He cut his strikeouts in half. He was even better in 2012. He looked 29 years old . . . until he got hurt running the bases.
Now he has his two-year deal. Free of the burden of paying Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett, the last-place Sox were able to make their slugger happy again.
It’s a nice arrangement. Ortiz is a great presence in the community, he brings joy to the workplace, and he delivers.
The rebuilding has started. Manager John Farrell is in place and the Face of the Franchise is smiling again.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at email@example.com.