Who is responsible for David Ortiz landing with the Red Sox?
Even now — perhaps now more than ever — the answer is subject to contradictory accounts, a Rashomon effect revolving around the most important transaction in modern Red Sox history. Personal perspective colors how the story is retold and who retells it.
We know what has transpired since Ortiz arrived in Boston. But the beginning, the question of who can claim credit for a decision that transformed a franchise, is more difficult to discern.
Those origins exist in a fog, with competing claims about who was and was not advocating the acquisition of Ortiz in the winter of 2002-03, after the Twins released him. The list of known contributors has grown ever longer over the years.
Typically, the documented parties to a signing include the player in question, a general manager or members of the ownership group, and an agent. In the case of Ortiz, it has expanded beyond that typical circle to include voices in the team's scouting (Dave Jauss), international scouting (Louie Eljaua), and analytics (Bill James) departments, and more.
"I don't know for a fact who was responsible, but it seems like it was more than one person," said Red Sox principal owner John Henry, who also owns the Globe. "Like so many things that go well, so many decisions that go well, sometimes they have many fathers. In this instance, that seems to be the case."
There have been questions, however, of rightful paternity in Ortiz's signing of a one-year, $1.25 million deal with the Sox when he was 27. Perhaps the most disputed terrain relates to the interest of the Red Sox baseball operations department, led at the time by GM Theo Epstein, in his first offseason with the Sox.
Consider the following quotes from Epstein and Red Sox CEO/president emeritus Larry Lucchino in a summer article by ESPN's Howard Bryant.
Epstein: "I was an Ortiz fan from my time with the Padres tracking the Twins farm system. Our numbers guys liked David's performance, as he had just hit 20 homers in a partial season with the Twins. Our scouts considered him a good hitter who could get better if he could close up a couple holes in and up. We all thought he was a great fit for Fenway, as he demonstrated a real ability to hit the ball the other way. The doubts centered on his health, his defense and why the Twins were making him available."
Lucchino: "There was some disappointment about [the signing of Ortiz], and as I remember, the pushback was coming from Theo. He believed our team was set. I remember him feeling that we already had our DH, and his name was Jeremy Giambi."
Certainly, the Sox' pursuit of cost-effective offensive impact had led them to explore numerous players such as Giambi, Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, Brad Fullmer, and, according to multiple sources, Ortiz.
That said, it soon became clear that Ortiz didn't sit at the top of the preference list. The Sox added Giambi and Mueller before landing Ortiz (while claiming Millar off of waivers when they were already close to finalizing a deal with Ortiz), so it would be hard to say that anyone saw him as the centerpiece of that offseason — a notion reinforced by Ortiz's part-time role at the start of the 2003 season.
But if Epstein and the baseball operations department weren't the driving force, then who was? In Lucchino's eyes, the arrival of the most important position player in 21st century Red Sox lore owes to an effort to retain another franchise great, Pedro Martinez, who was entering the final season of a six-year deal that ran through the 2003 season.
"[Ortiz's signing] is in large part a tribute to Pedro's friendship with and loyalty to David," Lucchino said. We were in the midst of negotiating with Pedro, who was our key player as we saw it at that point. We were negotiating an extension for him. I was actively involved with his agent.
"[Martinez] called me after the Twins cut David and said, 'I'm not calling about my contract. I just want to call you directly and make a suggestion.' I said, 'Yeah, go.' He said, 'David Ortiz is out there. He just got released. It baffles me as to why he was released. But he's really a good guy, No. 1, and he can really hit, No. 2, so it would mean a lot if you can give him a chance to make the Red Sox.'
"It was that call that set in motion the events that led us to signing David Ortiz."
Call is answered
When the Twins cut Ortiz, his agent, Fern Cuza, sent faxes to every team informing them of Ortiz's availability. No team showed meaningful initial interest. Ortiz believes Martinez changed that.
"Pedro came through right away. There was no bull," Ortiz recalled earlier this year. "Pedro called, two days later I was with the Red Sox. Simple. It took two days."
It actually took a bit more than that — closer to a month from the time of his release to the moment his deal with the Red Sox became official. But no one disputes the enthusiasm with which Martinez lobbied the Red Sox.
"It's ironic," Martinez recalled. "I told him to come and hang out with me. He was like, 'Mannnnn,' and I saw him drop. I go, 'What happened?' He said, 'I just got released.' I said, 'Really? Great.' He goes, 'What do you mean great?' I'm like, 'I'm saying great because I get to take you to Boston.' And then things started coming together.
"I called Theo, like, three or four times and did not get him. But you know who is responsible also? [Red Sox traveling secretary] Jack McCormick. He answered the phone at about 1:30 in the morning, Eastern time, and he was able to reach out to Theo. That's how everything happened."
McCormick remembers the dead-of-night December call.
"I figure if they're calling at that hour, it's got to be important," said McCormick. "I leave my phone on ring. I've always made it a habit to answer, because you don't know what's on the other end. What if it were something other than that? What if they needed help?
"[Martinez] called me and said, 'Hey, Jack. David Ortiz, we need him in Boston and he's a free agent.' I said, 'Yeah, I heard about that.' And then I got off the phone and I waited until the next morning to tell Theo. I didn't want to call Theo at 1:30."
McCormick informed Epstein the next day of Martinez's interest in talking to the GM. Martinez recalled that he and Cuza (who also represented Martinez) talked by phone with Epstein and, shortly thereafter, Lucchino, at a time when Cuza and Lucchino were in regular contact regarding extension talks.
Did Martinez's influence carry the day? In the early days of Ortiz's time in Boston, some team officials used to roll their eyes a bit at the suggestion, noting that the pitcher's advocacy that offseason for righthander Jose Paniagua (who would pitch just one big league game in 2003) had gone unheeded.
Lucchino, however, insists that Martinez spoke and the owners listened — particularly given the limited nature of his request. After all, Martinez wasn't demanding that the Sox sign Ortiz to a multiyear deal. The Sox added him on a non-guaranteed, one-year contract, assuming just over $200,000 in risk if they cut him in spring.
"I said, 'Yes, [signing Ortiz] is a reasonable request,' and we would do it," said Lucchino. "I don't remember specifically, but I'm sure I talked to [Henry] and [chairman Tom Werner] about it because I kept them abreast of all the developments in the Pedro negotiations.
"As negotiators themselves, they recognized that this is something you try to do for someone you're trying to negotiate with, to develop some goodwill. It seemed like a very heartfelt endorsement. We trusted his judgment."
Would the Sox have signed Ortiz without Martinez's advocacy? That's impossible to say.
Many members of the organization from that time dispute the notion that Martinez's enthusiasm for Ortiz ran contrary to the views of the front office. After all, rather than rubber-stamping the signing of Ortiz, the Sox asked advance scout Jauss (then managing in the Dominican Winter League) to work out Ortiz at first base to determine his fit for the roster and how it might be complementary to or redundant with Giambi's.
"There was sincere interest in finding out if he could play first base," said one member of that front office. "I never got the sense that Theo didn't have genuine interest in at least finding out if it could work.
"The truth is boring. A number of people are involved to execute any signing."
Indeed, even the completion of the deal had multiple hands involved. According to Cuza, Lucchino called to let him know that the Sox would bring Ortiz into camp, with Epstein handling the final details. Epstein was candid with Cuza while conducting those talks: Ortiz wouldn't have a certain roster spot, and there would be considerable competition for the last spots, but the 27-year-old Ortiz — somehow unwanted by the baseball community after hitting cleanup in the 2002 ALCS for the Twins — would get a chance.
Whether the deal has many fathers, or one, or none, one can look beyond the question of the deal's advocates and beneficiaries to recognize a more undisputable truth.
"I was able to call the Red Sox, but I wouldn't say it was me," said Martinez. "You know who was really responsible for David being here? The Minnesota Twins, for releasing him. That is probably the most accurate answer you're going to get. The Minnesota Twins, by making that mistake.
"I happened to be in the right place at the right time and was able to make a call. But everything else is David. David is the one who did it. He's the one responsible."