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Gary Washburn

Coming to Red Sox changed David Ortiz’s career, and he changed course of history for franchise

It was moments like these — David Ortiz's walkoff home run in the 12th inning of Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS — that changed the course of the Red Sox franchise.The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

Nineteen years ago, the Minnesota Twins made a matter-of-fact roster move that would change the face of the Red Sox franchise.

They released an inconsistent first baseman/designated hitter Dec. 16, 2002, and for five weeks, David Ortiz was a free agent, uncertain of his future and looking for an opportunity.

Ortiz making the Red Sox roster and etching out a solid, respectable career was an unlikely scenario. But to become one of the best power hitters of his generation, a Boston icon, an imposing Dominican figure whose personality, bravado, style and graciousness transcended race is beyond the best movie script. Ortiz’s rise to prominence is astounding.

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And the three-time World Series champion, 10-time All-Star, one of the most clutch players of all time and one of the most likeable sports figures in this city’s rich history is now a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Ortiz is just five years removed from leading the American League in doubles and RBIs. He left the game at his apex, still possessing all of his super powers. Red Sox fans thankfully never saw an Ortiz in major decline or just hanging on, he did nothing to dispel from his image as a Herculean power hitter with the bright smile who left the game with so many admirers.

David Ortiz smiles during spring training in 2020.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

“What really [matters] is how you did it,” he said. “And how much you cared about people. This man next to me [father] and my mom, rest in peace, encouraged me and educated me that everybody around you is important, no matter where you come from, no matter who you are, everybody counts, everybody matters. That’s why I treat people the way I treat people. It’s not all about who has the greatest talent, it’s how you use your talent.

“I’m a Hall of Famer today and I’m sure a lot of you guys paid attention to [that].”

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The only hiccup to Ortiz’s career was an alleged positive PED test in 2003 that was disputed by not only Ortiz but baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, but it was a legitimate concern for some Hall of Fame voters.

What’s fascinating about those days, and the exclusion of Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds from the Hall after 10 years of eligibility, is that Major League Baseball did such a putrid and moronic job of approaching the steroid era and enforcing PED rules for more than a decade.

Ortiz was part of that generation but it’s still uncertain whether he was a user or was mistakenly tagged for a substance that was not actually banned under the MLB program. What put Ortiz over the top for the voters was his dominance well into his 30s and well past the steroid era.

David Ortiz helped deliver a World Series to Boston in 2004.Grossfeld, StanGlobe Staff

He was one of the best hitters in the game in the 2010 decade, years after baseball finally realized it needed to regulate PED substances and set guidelines, years after baseball no longer needed sluggers such as Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire to mash home runs to revive a sport that nearly killed itself in 1994.

Ortiz ushered in a new era of baseball, a game that was more enjoyable to watch because more players were clean, a game that was more intriguing because the Red Sox were no longer a team incapable of winning the big one, no longer a team synonymous with heartbreak.

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Ortiz was the face of a franchise that was the last to integrate, 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. He became the face of a franchise that had an openly racist owner in the 1960s, an icon in a city that had a reputation of being unwelcoming for people of color.

Ortiz is one of the more significant figures in Boston sports history. When the city was reeling after the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013, Ortiz made his famous speech prior to the April 20 game at Fenway Park, cementing his status for an entire region, representing an entire sport.

David Ortiz blasts a grand slam against the Tigers in Game 2 of the 2013 ALCS.Barry Chin

His ascension to greatness was so stunning, so unexpected that it still remains implausible, and that’s what makes Ortiz so magnetic, so polarizing. And when he received the official call in his native Dominican Republic, surrounded by Martinez, family and friends, he broke out with his trademark smile.

In many ways, though it was nearly two decades ago, Ortiz still deeply recalls those days of being discarded by the Twins, being a 27-year-old flamed-out prospect seeking a second opportunity, clamoring Grady Little for more playing time in 2003 and then turning himself into an All-Star a year later with the first of three consecutive 40-plus-home run seasons and a World Series title.

He finished with a whopping 483 home runs and 1,530 RBI as a Red Sox. He led the entire Major Leagues in OPS in his final season.

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And while the accolades pour in, a first-ballot induction into the most difficult Hall of Fame to crack with the most discriminant voters who are allowed to remain anonymous is the ultimate achievement. It vindicates Ortiz’s improbable journey, verifies his greatness and caps a miraculous career.

David Ortiz admits he "still doesn't believe" he belongs in the place reserved for baseball's immortals during a Tuesday night press conference after he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.ERIKA SANTELICES/afp/AFP via Getty Images

“It’s a next-level type of thing,” he said. “You don’t see this every day. I accomplished so many things during my career, I won so many championships, I got so many good hits, I put so many smiles on people’s face. A lot of people ask me, ‘What are one of those moments that stick with you?’ I have so many great and wonderful times while I play. But this one is the type of baby you just want to hold on to it and never let go.”

No question Ortiz is a Hall of Famer, and his impact on the Red Sox, this city, the sports culture and Boston is immeasurable.

Read more about the Hall of Fame


Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.