What is baseball’s most powerful statistic?
Forget average, OPS, or WAR. Set aside ERA and strikeout rates. One simple number looms as the most profound in the game, and it’s the same one that confronts nearly every walk of life: Age.
The age-based baseball drama plays out in different ways. It defines the promise of 22-year-old Mookie Betts, the prime of 26-year-old Rick Porcello, the potential decline of 40 -year-old Koji Uehara. And then, there is the relationship of David Ortiz to his age, which the 39-year-old has treated less as a description than an ongoing confrontation on shifting terrain.
Ortiz’s professional career commenced officially on Nov. 28, 1992, when his agreement with the Mariners — one that had been secure enough that he’d already been working out at Seattle’s baseball facility in the Dominican for months — was finalized.
Two elements of that agreement laid the groundwork for subsequent confusion. First, as is common in the Dominican, Ortiz listed both his father’s surname (Ortiz) and his mother’s (Arias), in that order. And so, within the Mariners system, David Americo Ortiz (Arias) was known as David Arias.
Secondly, and somewhat more inexplicably, Ortiz had his date of birth listed as Feb. 18, 1975, instead of his present listed date of birth of Nov. 18, 1975.
Typically, an altered birthday represents a red flag. But in this case, the 17-year-old seemingly had no incentive to doctor his birth date. The new listed birth date would have made him nine months older than his actual birth date, making him less attractive as a prospect.
Players were (and are) allowed to sign when they turned 16. There are instances (such as with Adrian Beltre) where ages were forged so that players could sign before turning 16. But in Ortiz’s case, he was already 16 and his agreement came just after he turned 17.
So what happened?
“I think that day, Feb. 18, came based on the Dominican paperwork at the facility where you get all your paperwork done. It was a number that they wrote wrong. Instead of putting down 18.11.75, they put down 18.2.75,” Ortiz recalled. “Maybe the guy who did the paperwork had a hangover, had gone out the night before. The thing is, when he wrote the date, he did it wrong.
“I figured that out later,” he said. “But it wasn’t anything related to changing age or anything like that.”
It wasn’t until the Twins acquired Ortiz from the Mariners as a player to be named for third baseman Dave Hollins in 1996 that they recognized two errors they assumed to be clerical in nature.
Ortiz brought the correct age to the attention of the Twins at the same time he adjusted the team’s understanding of his preferred surname. Minnesota officials were unbothered by either disclosure, instead focusing on the skill set of the player.
“If it happened, who cares?” said Twins GM Terry Ryan. “One year doesn’t make much of a difference. If you’re talking about five years or something like that, you might have a case. But one year isn’t going to make much of a difference on a player’s ability or not. Whether or not David was a year older or a year younger, it wasn’t going to affect our projection or evaluation.”
Of course, that didn’t stop the Twins from admittedly whiffing on their future evaluation of Ortiz, releasing him after the 2002 season. And it was in no small part his age that attracted him to the franchise for whom he’d become an icon.
Part of the reason the Sox were enamored of Ortiz when the Twins released him was because, at 27, he remained a player with his prime years in front of him. That view was validated when he exploded into stardom in 2003 and continued to travel an upward trajectory thereafter.
That didn’t mean there weren’t questions about his age. Red Sox senior adviser of baseball operations Bill James explained in an e-mail that he recalled hearing conversations about “how old Ortiz ‘really’ was.”
James wanted to approach the subject objectively.
“I decided to try to match up his career numbers . . . career progressions . . . with most-similar players,” said James. “The conclusion was that the most-similar players were exactly the same age Ortiz was, if his listed age was correct. So I have always believed that his listed age is probably the age that he actually is.”
No one disputed that notion until 2009, when Ortiz’s drastic struggles over the first two months led to whispers in the scouting community about whether Ortiz was his listed age (33) or several years older. Even now, such speculation distresses Ortiz, not on a personal level but instead because of what he sees as a failure to understand the drastic life choices confronting players from the Dominican.
“It made me mad that people wanted to make fun of Dominican players changing their age. It wasn’t my case, just to make that clear, but people used to come around, American players, saying, ‘What the hell was [Fausto] Carmona thinking changing his age?’ ” said Ortiz. “You’re talking about this guy, because he lied about his age, making a different life for him and his family. If he doesn’t do that, he wasn’t going to make it. He wasn’t going get the opportunity. I’m not saying that is the right thing to do, but bro, it’s either that or the other way. You tell me, what would you choose?”
The questions about the validity of Ortiz’s age subsided when his production returned to elite levels. The focus turned instead to how he has continued to perform in a way that ignores typical aging curves.
He’s an outlier, a 39-year-old, middle-of-the-order presence. This is the final front of Ortiz’s battle against age, one for which he’s been preparing himself over 22 professional seasons and 18 years inside a big league clubhouse.
“It’s not easy. I totally get it. I understand where people are going when they talk about age and you look around, and yeah, everybody [in baseball] is freaking 20 right now. You see nothing but baby faces,” said Ortiz. “My body is not the same. I’m not going to lie to you. But I spend my hours at the gym, which is something that players my age don’t normally do. Players my age, they just want to come in the clubhouse, get a cup of coffee, and just wait for the hours to do their thing and show up.”
“There are days when I don’t feel like doing anything. I battle against that. I push, I push, I push myself. I can’t just sit down,” he said. “I like competition. I like to hear people say I’m a bad [expletive]. I like that. To keep up with that, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. That’s what I know, and as long as I’m playing baseball, I’m going to keep chasing that dream.”
It is a dream that, in his case at least, has persisted beyond standard expiration dates. There is no clearly defined end point, no age to circle — something that, in its own way, may represent Ortiz’s ultimate triumph.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.