How David Ortiz became David Ortiz

From the Seattle Times, Aug. 11, 1996:

David Arias has stirred up a lot of excitement with his hitting for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers.

The young first baseman leads Seattle's Midwest League farm club in average (.331), hits (134), home runs (17), runs batted in (80), total bases (218) and runs scored (80).

"He continues to swing the bat," Wisconsin Manager Mike Goff said. "He's been streaky. He'll get seven or eight hits in 10 at-bats, then he'll go seven or eight at-bats with nothing. But that's just a matter of maturity. The older he gets, the better he's going to be."

Larry Beinfast (sic), Seattle Mariner player-development director, said Arias has worked hard and "gotten a lot stronger" since he was signed as a free agent in the Dominican Republic after the 1992 season. Baseball America recently rated Arias the Class A Midwest League's "most exciting player."

Arias was also named the Midwest League's best defensive first baseman. On Aug. 29, 1996, the Mariners were battling for a playoff spot and acquired third baseman Dave Hollins from the Twins for a player to be named. Hollins did hit .351 and drive in 25 runs in 28 games with the Mariners, but they missed the playoffs anyway. On Sept. 13, they shipped Arias to the Twins.

In September of 1997, the Twins called up Arias -- now known as David Ortiz -- from the minors. "Maybe he got married or something," quipped Twins manager Tom Kelly. Ortiz proved himself enough in 1997 that the Twins protected him in that year's expansion draft. However, he wasn't guaranteed a starting job in 1998. From the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Jan. 13, 1998:

He doesn't have the bat of Cecil Fielder or the name recognition of even Darren Daulton, both of whom the Twins pursued earlier this offseason, but odds are Orlando Merced will line up at first base for manager Tom Kelly's club on opening day.

Merced, who suffered through an injury-riddled 1997 season in Toronto, signed a minor-league contract with an invitation to major league spring training on Monday and will compete with Scott Stahoviak and David Ortiz for the first base job this spring.

"He's not as big of a threat as Fielder, obviously, but he is a proven major league hitter and should be a good addition to our order," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "Hopefully, he'll be a good fit here. Last year was a tough year for him but, historically, he's been a good hitter. And I think this park (the Metrodome) will help his power numbers some."

Ortiz hit .277/.371/.446 for the Twins in 86 games as a rookie in 1998, hitting four home runs in April but then missing the next two months after breaking the hamate bone in his right hand. The Pioneer Press, March 30, 1999:

The sharp decline of David Ortiz bottomed out during an early-morning Twins bloodletting Monday when Ortiz and pitcher Frankie Rodriguez, two players who were supposed to figure in the club's future, were optioned to Class AAA Salt Lake. ...

Ortiz appeared back on track this winter with solid play in the Dominican Republic Winter League. After he poked the winning single in the Carribean World Series, the Twins hoped an improved stroke and added confidence would bolster Ortiz this spring.

Instead, he appeared lost from day one.

"You can see he's been frustrated over the past couple of weeks, throwing his helmet," Kelly said. "He really didn't hit that much."

Ortiz couldn't pinpoint his slow start.

"I wasn't really concentrating this spring," he said before vaguely alluding to a personal problem, becoming teary-eyed and ending the interview.

Ortiz spent nearly all of 1999 at Triple-A, hitting .315 with 30 home runs, before going 0-for-20 in September. He hit .282/.364/.446, playing in 130 games but platooned a lot. But there was a reason he hit only 10 home runs.

The Sporting News, April 30, 2001:

A year ago, the Twins tried to get DH David Ortiz to shorten his stroke and punch balls up the middle and to the opposite field. The results were decent: a .282 batting average, 10 homers and 63 RBIs in 415 at-bats. This season, the club would like to see Ortiz take advantage of the power potential in his 6-4, 230-pound frame. He has made several adjustments, including lowering his hand position in his stance and shortening his leg kick. After 16 games, he was batting .365 and leading the team in homers with four. If Ortiz stays focused, he has the opportunity to have a breakout year offensively.

A few days after that was written, Ortiz broke his wrist. At the time of the injury on May 4 he was hitting .311/.386/.611. He returned July 21 and finished the season at .234/.324/.475.

In 2002, Ortiz got off to a slow start, bothered by a sore knee that kept him out of action for nearly a month in April and May. The Twins, who had nearly been contracted the year before, won their first division title since 1991. Ortiz hit .272/.339/.500 with 20 home runs in 412 at-bats, ranking third on the team in OPS, homers and RBIs. He hit .299/.371/.548 against right-handers but just .203/.256/.381 against lefties.

That winter Ortiz became eligible for arbitration. On Dec. 17, the Twins designated Ortiz for assignment to make room on the roster for shortstop Jose Morban, who had been selected from Texas in the Rule 5 draft. (Morban was waived in March.)

"I would've liked to have found a home for him," Ryan said. "We exhausted every avenue, but in essence it turned out to be an Ortiz-for-Morban type of thing." From the Pioneer Press:

The Twins finally solved their math problems Monday, even as they struggled with chemistry during the final day of baseball's winter meetings.

In a move that trimmed payroll and opened a spot in a left-leaning lineup for their promising, young right-handed hitters, the Twins released charismatic designated hitter David Ortiz, perhaps the most popular player in the clubhouse.

"He's very disappointed. Very disappointed," said Ortiz's agent, Diego Benz. "He's really close to a lot of those guys there. It'll be a few days before he's upbeat again." ...

Ortiz, who was in his second winter of arbitration eligibility, made $950,000 last season and figured to command a 2003 salary in the $2 million range. By eliminating his salary, general manager Terry Ryan can be competitive in contract negotiations with all-star center fielder Torii Hunter and survive arbitration with left fielder Jacque Jones and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz without going beyond a payroll budget of just more than $50 million.

"This isn't the most ideal scenario," said Ryan, who spent the past several weeks right up until Monday morning trying to trade Ortiz. "I would have much preferred to be able to trade him and to find a home for him with another club. We just couldn't get it done."

Ryan was chosen as Executive of the Year in 2002.

Teams make mistakes all the time and, to be fair, this one did appear to involve money. The Twins claimed to be losing $15 million a year. They needed to give a big raise to Hunter. Still, you can argue they essentially chose Mientkiewicz's glove (he'd hit .261 with 10 home runs in 2002) over Ortiz's bat. (Mientkiewicz would soon play his way out of Minnesota, getting traded to Boston in 2004). Ortiz had battled a long list of injuries -- a broken hamate bone, a broken wrist, a knee injury -- and those injuries had certainly played a role in his production. But there were clearly signs he could hit and hit for power, at least when he wasn't being asked to shorten his swing.

In January, Ortiz signed a one-year deal with the Red Sox. From the Boston Herald:

"I'm just 27 years old. I'm working out hard this winter to see if I can be an everyday first baseman like I used to be," said Ortiz, who will be paid a base salary of $1.25 million. "If they need me to be a (designated hitter) I'll do that, but I want to be in the field." ...

"I think, our scouts think and our analysis dictates that he has a really high ceiling," said Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "You're looking at a player that has a chance to be an impact player in the middle of the lineup in the big leagues. That's his ceiling and I hope he reaches it with us." ...

Ortiz underwent knee surgery to remove bone chips at the end of last season and attributed his problems to the artificial surface at the Metrodome.

"That was one of the big reasons I picked Boston," Ortiz said of Fenway's playing surface.

Still, the Red Sox, or manager Grady Little, didn't completely believe in Ortiz. Early on in 2003, Ortiz was still sharing time with Jeremy Giambi. From the Boston Globe, May 25, 2003:

But someday he'd like to walk into the clubhouse and see his name on the lineup card on an everyday basis.

"I hope that time comes, that I'm in there," said Ortiz. "I'm seeing the ball good right now. I got some good hits."

Ramirez has helped Ortiz stay ready to hit when the time comes. Ortiz's biggest obstacle is not being able to get into a rhythm, the feeling of every part-time hitter that he has to do too much with each at-bat.

"I'm all about balance," said Ortiz, whose home run in the first was a scorching shot to right field. "That's what Manny (Ramirez) is good with. Some pitchers throw nasty stuff and I swing hard and I know I have to wait more."

Ortiz eventually beat out Giambi, of course, in part because Giambi hit under .200 (he never again played in the majors). After hitting four home runs through June, Ortiz would hit eight in July, 11 in August and eight more in September.

He was finally on that lineup card every day. He improved against left-handed pitchers. He learned from Manny Ramirez. He learned how to attack the Green Monster with opposite-field doubles. He'd become David Ortiz.

The rest, as they say, is history. (Well, other than that time when everyone wanted the Red Sox to release him.)