The beginning? Oh, it seemed like a beginning all right. Sept. 14, 1997, did indeed suggest a career landmark for a young Minnesota Twins player.
But David Ortiz was an afterthought. It was Twins lefthander Dan Serafini who grabbed the headlines with seven shutout innings in an 11-1 victory over the Rangers in Arlington, Texas.
Ortiz’s fourth-inning homer against righthander Julio Santana? Though it was the first round-tripper of the 21-year-old slugger’s career, it was of secondary notice, save for the tape-measure nature of the blast, which was described at the time as being the 26th to land in the upper deck at the Ballpark in Arlington.
“We used to share a room in winter ball,” said Ortiz of Santana. “That guy threw one of the best fastballs in the majors back then.
“All I remember from that was that I almost hit that [expletive] out of the stadium. That’s all I remember. That was a long time ago.”
And as a milestone paving the path to 500, that one paled in significance next to a ground out in a spring training game.
. . .
Ortiz spent parts of six seasons with the Twins, who acquired him in 1996 from the Mariners as a player to be named for Dave Hollins. There were some aspects of his time in Minnesota that he appreciated, including his first big league opportunity. But much of Ortiz’s time there felt confining.
“I was hitting 30 homers in the minor leagues, but when I got to the big leagues, every time I was swinging hard, I had the manager [Tom Kelly] screaming at me from the bench, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ ” Ortiz recalled.
“They even had me out on the field doing early work hitting line drives over the shortstop’s head and [stuff] like that. I’m like, ‘OK, I guess for me to play at this level with this organization I’ve got to approach the game the way they want me to.’
“Every time I swung like I do, the manager was screaming at me, ‘Hey! Hey! Hey!’
“And then, when you were having 10 or 15 homers at the end of the season, they’d criticize you. He wanted me to slap the ball and hit homers doing it. It doesn’t work that way, bro. A power hitter is going to strike out, but when they run into some [pitches], things are going to happen.”
That outlook aligned with the Red Sox’ view of the world in January 2003, when they signed Ortiz to a one-year, $1.25 million deal after he’d been released by the Twins in December. The first, and perhaps most important, signal of the fit between hitter and team came in Ortiz’s first spring training game with Boston.
On Feb. 27, 2003, the Sox hosted their crosstown rivals, the Twins, in the first game of the spring. Ortiz went 0 for 2 with a pair of ground outs, the first marking perhaps the most important change of Ortiz’s big league career.
“When I played for the Twins, back then, when you moved a runner over with a man on second and no outs, it was like you hit a home run,” said Ortiz. “People would high-five you and congratulate you.
“This is something I never forget about — my very first at-bat here with the Red Sox, Grady Little was the manager. It was in spring training. I’m facing my boy, Kyle Lohse. There’s a man on second, no outs. He threw me a two-seamer over there in the righthanded batter’s box. I went out there to get it, rolled over, and hit a ground ball to second to move the runner over.
“When I got back to the dugout, nobody high-fived me. Grady Little was waiting for me. He told me, ‘Next time, I’m not expecting you to move him over. I’m expecting you to bring him in.’
“When he said that to me, he had no idea of the monster that he woke up. He woke up that monster in me that I knew I could be.
“But when I played for the Twins, they basically never allowed me to be that. They never let that monster in Minnesota blow up. They were too controlling.
“Those messages, sometimes people don’t know how big they can be. I’m coming to play for the Red Sox with the mentality of moving the runner over, this and that . . . and my very first at-bat, he let me know that that was it, man.
“I was back to what I know I could be coming through the minor leagues.”
Kicking into gear
It didn’t happen immediately, though. Ortiz endured considerable initial struggles with the Red Sox, first to find playing time in an overcrowded infield that featured Bill Mueller, Jeremy Giambi, Shea Hillenbrand, and Kevin Millar.
In mid May, he was finding his way into the lineup every few days, no more. For a player who was desperate to establish himself, the situation was difficult.
“I was disappointed,” said Ortiz. “I even talked to the front office about having them get rid of me because I wanted to play. I knew I had the ability to play the game. But they were patient. I had to be a little patient.”
He was patient. He had to be.
Even as playing time arrived more steadily with an injury to Giambi and the trading of Hillenbrand to the Diamondbacks, and even as Ortiz started to amass extra-base hits and drive in runs, the home runs eluded him.
Despite a .294/.380/.486 line through the end of June, he had just four round-trippers, inspiring playful jabs from teammate Manny Ramirez, who took to calling Ortiz “Juan Pierre,” a reference to the light-hitting outfielder who never homered more than three times in a season.
Yet Ramirez had another message for Ortiz.
“That year, at the beginning, Manny was busting my [chops], ‘Let’s work. Let’s work. Let’s work – because when the opportunity comes in, you need to be ready,’ ” Ortiz recalled.
Ultimately, he was ready, and in early July, a stretch of five homers in three games — including back-to-back two-homer games against the Yankees — set in motion a cascade that has yet to stop.
No one would have seen Ortiz as a candidate to reach 500 homers when he arrived in Boston with just 58 in his rearview mirror. After all, just one of the other 26 members of the 500-homer club made it through his age 26 season with fewer than 100 (Rafael Palmeiro, 73).
But while much of Ortiz’s arrival at a slugging landmark is due to his remarkable longevity — the defiance of traditional aging curves that has permitted him to launch 34 homers this year — an inauspicious ground out represented the first step of a march into the ranks of baseball’s slugging elite.
“I didn’t know that I would reach 500,” said Ortiz. “[But] I’ve been a good hitter since I was a kid. Every league I played, I got it done.
“It was just a matter of time, making adjustments as time goes by, and learning. That’s all you do here: You learn, you learn, you learn, and you go from there.
“The opportunity came, and here we are, 14 years later. But coming to the Red Sox, watching the way everyone handled business around here, that got me back to the player, that got me back to the projection that the big leagues were expecting from me.”