BOSTON -- Brian Cashman isn't the least bit interested in shattering David Ortiz's illusion, especially as the iconic Boston Red Sox slugger goes through his final season. But Cashman was asked to set the record straight, so here it is:
No, the New York Yankees general manager insists, the late George Steinbrenner never reamed him out for not signing Ortiz before the Sox did during the winter of 2002-03.
"It's an urban myth," Cashman said in a phone interview. "Essentially what occurred here was, any time the Red Sox signed anybody, anything that was on ESPN -- 'The Boston Red Sox today announced the acquisition of whoever,' a free agent, a trade, whatever -- George would turn to me and say, 'Why didn't you sign him? I've always liked him. He better not be any good.' And I would tell The Boss, 'You only can have 25 guys on a roster, Boss.' At that time, we had [designated hitter Jason] Giambi and [first baseman] Nick Johnson. Did George know who David Ortiz was? No, he had no idea."
It didn't take long, of course, for Big Stein to get familiar with Big Papi. Since 2003, his first season with the Red Sox, Ortiz has tormented the Yankees. From his walk-off two-run home run off reliever Paul Quantrill in the 12th inning of Game 4 of the 2004 AL Championship Series to each and every one of his 49 regular-season homers against New York, he has ranked with Reggie Miller and Bill Belichick on any list of Big Apple sports villains.
And among the most prominent figures in the age-old Red Sox-Yankees morality play, Ortiz's name is cemented -- almost literally, it turns out -- alongside the likes of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone, Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez and Don Zimmer, Carlton Fisk and Thurman Munson, Alex Rodriguez and Jason Varitek, Randy Levine and Larry Lucchino, even Babe Ruth. In 2008, during the construction of the new Yankee Stadium, a replica No. 34 Ortiz jersey was buried by a Red Sox fan in an attempt to hex the Yankees and dug up from under two feet of concrete at the behest of Yankees officials.
"That was some stupid s---, bro, because the guy who did it ended up losing his job," Ortiz said, chuckling as he recalled seeing video of the excavation of the jersey, which later sold for $175,100 in an auction to benefit the Jimmy Fund, the Red Sox's official charity that is affiliated with Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. "With the Red Sox and the Yankees, people are always wanting to do something crazy. It's fun, though. It's cool to be part of that whole [rivalry] thing."
The Red Sox and Yankees have been at odds for more than 100 years, the feud taking shape after Boston owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth to New York in 1919. But while the rivalry percolated at various stages over the years, Ortiz joined the fray just as it was reaching its zenith.
In 2003, the Sox and Yanks met up in the ALCS. The series went the distance, and in the 11th inning of Game 7 in the Bronx, Boone sent the Red Sox home with a solo homer off knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. A year later, when the teams returned to the ALCS, it was Ortiz who notched walk-off hits in Games 4 and 5 to propel the Red Sox from the brink of elimination to a seven-game triumph.
While Ortiz almost certainly would've gone on to have a stellar career without his postseason theatrics in 2004, his performance against the Yankees elevated him to the stature of being regarded as one of the most clutch hitters of all time.
"If you step forward and get things done, that puts you on the map," Ortiz said. "I think that's what happened to me in '03 and '04. Things always start one way, and '03-04, my first years here, being able to dominate and put up numbers, especially against the Yankees, it's a big part of what I am."
Since then, the rivalry has cooled, the Red Sox and Yankees rarely contending at the same time. They finished first and second in the AL East standings in 2005, 2007 and 2009, but haven't qualified for the playoffs in the same season since 2009.
With Ortiz planning to retire at season's end, 2016 represents one final chance for him to inflict damage on the Yankees. Entering this weekend's series at Fenway Park, which concludes with ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, he was tied with Harmon Killebrew and Rafael Palmeiro for the sixth-most regular-season homers against the Yankees, trailing Jimmie Foxx (70), Williams (62), Manny Ramirez (55), Hank Greenberg (53) and Carl Yastrzemski (52).
Not bad considering he was cast aside by the Minnesota Twins after the 2002 season and had to beat out Jeremy Giambi, Shea Hillenbrand, Doug Mientkiewicz and others to earn playing time with the Red Sox. At one point early in the 2003 season, Ortiz even gave then-Sox general manager Theo Epstein an ultimatum to play him or release him.
"From our standpoint, he's played the villain role, there's no doubt about that, extremely well since he's been there," Cashman said. "He's been vitally important for the Boston Red Sox. He's been a lethal weapon for them ever since he found his stride in 2003. He's been nothing but a beast."
It's no wonder Ortiz believed it years ago when he was told by "a lot of different people" that Steinbrenner berated Cashman over not beating the Red Sox to the punch after the Twins released Ortiz.
Sorry, Cashman says. Nobody, not even Steinbrenner, saw Ortiz's success coming.
"I think everybody was surprised," Cashman said. "I don't want to speak for the industry, but [Twins GM] Terry Ryan is as astute a baseball executive as they come. Because [Ortiz] became what he became, obviously what looks like a future Hall of Famer -- and then a Yankee killer, on top of that -- it became a false narrative of I refused to sign him over The Boss' directive, and then the fan base and social media decided to hop on to that. It was not true at all.
"Listen, when The Boss wanted somebody, he got him. I wanted Vlad Guerrero [after the 2003 season], he signed Gary Sheffield instead. That's just the way it worked. And if he wanted David Ortiz, David would've been here."
It didn't exactly cause a Ruthian shift in the Red Sox-Yankees balance of power, but Bostonians certainly don't mind the way it turned out. Since Ortiz signed with the Red Sox, they have won three World Series (2004, 2007, 2013) to the Yankees' one (2009).
"The Yankees were the team to beat back then," Ortiz said. "Being able to do what we did [in 2004] was something that was very special. It was career-lifting. People pretty much get to know you better, focus a little bit more on you. If you continue to be successful, you can build a career out of it."