When Twins general manager Terry Ryan acquired David Ortiz from the Seattle Mariners for veteran third baseman Dave Hollins in 1996, he felt he stole a top hitting prospect. Six years later, Ryan released Ortiz. Ryan has beaten himself up ever since.
“We just made a bad baseball decision,” Ryan said.
“I can’t say David ever did one thing wrong. He was one of our best hitting prospects. We put him on our 40-man roster when he was in A ball. He just stormed through our minor league system; played at three levels in one year.”
And what was Seattle GM Woody Woodward thinking?
David Arias, as Ortiz was known as at the time, hit .322 with 18 homers and 93 RBIs for Wisconsin in the Midwest League, where he was also named the top defensive first baseman.
“We had our people scout the league that year and David really stood out,” recalled Ryan. “When Seattle needed a third baseman because of an injury, they came to us and we settled on David as the player to be named later.”
Woodward seemed desperate when his third baseman, Russ Davis, was slowed by an injury. Hollins was a veteran having a good season for the Twins, and Woodward earmarked him as Seattle’s choice. Ortiz was sent to Minnesota.
In Woodward’s defense, he had four players — Alex Rodriguez (123 RBIs), Ken Griffey Jr. (140 RBIs), Jay Buhner (138 RBIs), and Edgar Martinez (103 RBIs) — having huge years. He had a first baseman — Paul Sorrento — with 93 RBIs, and Martinez was the greatest DH of his era. The Mariners scored 993 runs that season.
Ryan didn’t have that excuse.
A young Justin Morneau was behind Ortiz, but he was being converted from catcher to first base. Doug Mientkiewicz was the outstanding defensive player at first base, but the DH spot was open.
“DHs are pretty valuable, especially the ones who have done the things he has done,” said Ryan. “You want a complete guy, but that wasn’t a problem with us. There was plenty of room for a DH.”
Ortiz rocketed through the Twins’ minor league system in 1997. At three levels, he hit .317 with 31 homers and 124 RBIs.
“Minnesota did a nice job identifying David as the player they wanted,” Woodward said. “We needed a third baseman and Hollins came over and did a nice job for us. We had a lot of good hitters on the major league side, so it was hard to project David down the road on our club, but when he got to Boston . . . he’s had a great career.”
Ortiz was 19 when he played for Mike Goff for Wisconsin in the Midwest League.
“He was tough, but I really liked him and he taught me a lot,” Ortiz said. “He’d fine me all the time. Twenty-five or $50 dollars for things. I didn’t have any money. But at the end of the year, he gave it all back to me.”
Goff wouldn’t say what the fines were for.
“If I’d reveal that, David would probably shoot me,” Goff said. “He was a wonderful kid. I loved him. He had a great year for me. At the start of the season, I didn’t have a first baseman or a lefthanded hitter. People in the organization said he was having throwing problems. I just said the kid had a good year in rookie league and I need a lefthanded hitter and first baseman. They said, ‘OK, but he’ll be a 24th or 25th guy on the team.’ ”
Ortiz nearly won the Triple Crown.
Wisconsin got into the playoffs that year and lost in the league championship.
“It was right after the [final] game, and my phone rang. It was one of our farm people and I said, “Please don’t tell me David is the player to be named in the Hollins deal.”
But that’s what they told Goff.
“I lost it,” Goff said. “This was one of the best young hitters I’d ever been around. This kid was special. Imagine if we had David and Edgar Martinez on the same team?”
In fact, when he gave Ortiz his cash back, Ortiz said Goff told him, “You know why I was so hard on you? Because of all the players on this team, you’re going to be the big leaguer.”
“I’ll never forget that,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz said back then, the Seattle organization didn’t pay much attention to players who weren’t high draft picks. Latin players, he said, had a tougher time getting through the organization. Ortiz said it was a long haul for those players.
And when he was traded, “I was devastated,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz loved Martinez, a player who spoke to Ortiz a lot in spring training, much like Ortiz does now to young Dominican players.
Conversely, Ortiz has no affection for then-Twins manager Tom Kelly, and Ortiz doesn’t think there was any the other way, either. Ortiz loved John Russell and Al Newman, two managers who had him in the Twins’ lower levels. And Ortiz never blamed Ryan for dumping him.
“Terry is a good man,” Ortiz said. “Decisions are decisions. Just because you make a bad decision doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. I have a lot of respect for Terry. The decision he made wasn’t all his.”
On Kelly, Ortiz said, “I don’t think he really liked me. I don’t know why. That was his style, not just with me. He was hard on young players. He was the kind of manager who liked veteran players. He never liked me.”
Ortiz said longtime Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, who replaced Kelly in 2002, “was OK. I remember one time in 1998 after the season, I remember Gardy told me, ‘See you next year if you’re still here.’
“The following year they sent me down on the first cut. A lot of people do things they forget about, but we don’t forget. If you don’t want people saying things about you later, don’t say it,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz also remembers a bad moment in Seattle. He said he was going to receive a bat at the Kingdome for being the best hitter in the Mariners minor league system. Lou Piniella, the Mariners manager at the time, was supposed to present him with it.
“I was all excited ahead of time because I’m gonna shake the manager’s hand. [Piniella] comes out on the field and basically threw the bat at me and walked away. That was very disappointing. I was like damn . . . OK. That’s how it is? It was something I never forgot,” Ortiz said.
In Minnesota, Ortiz was platooning at DH with Matt LeCroy. Ortiz finally broke out in 2002 when he hit 20 homers and knocked in 75 runs in 412 at-bats. He was going to get about $1.5 million in arbitration that year and the Twins decided to let him go. He settled with the Red Sox after they picked him up for $1.25 million.
Ryan disputes money was the factor.
“I hit 20 and knocked in 75 runs in 400 at-bats. Imagine if you give me 500-550 at-bats what that might lead to? I knew I was good. I knew I was a stud as a hitter, but I just couldn’t prove it until I got the chance to play every day in Boston. And I had to wait for that because we had Jeremy Giambi,” Ortiz said.
Theo Epstein had to be talked into picking up Ortiz by Red Sox international scout Louis Eljaua. Epstein balked because he had Giambi, but he still signed Ortiz. It was one of the best moves Epstein ever made.
“It’s never been easy but that’s good,” Ortiz said. “That forces you to give everything you have. It’s different when you have to fight your way through it. You don’t take things for granted.”
And as for his name? Arias or Ortiz?
“I haven’t changed my name,” Ortiz said. “When I was in Seattle they used to call me my mother’s last name and sent my visa in my mother’s name. When I got to Minnesota I straightened all that out. They said if something happens in the future we should call you by your father’s last name. People think I changed my name, but I always went by Ortiz.”