The one who got away: David Ortiz returns to Minnesota for final time

Before he was Big Papi, or the most prolific DH ever, David Ortiz struggled to bust through as an everyday player with the Twins -- a team that ultimately decided to let him go. Brian Bahr/Getty Images

MINNEAPOLIS -- Tucked away in Bob Tewksbury's home, among the more random mementos from his 13-year major league career, is a black Louisville Slugger C243 with a curious autograph on the barrel.

"It says, 'To Bob, Big Cat. David Ortiz,'" said Tewksbury, a former right-handed pitcher whose final two seasons (1997-98) with the Minnesota Twins coincided with Ortiz's first two. "That's what he signed on my bat. I guess he was 'Big Cat' then."

Ortiz laughs at the mention of his little-known nickname. He doesn't remember being identified as "Big Cat," but then there's a lot the retiring Boston Red Sox icon chooses to forget from his six seasons with the Twins.

Before he was Big Papi or the most prolific designated hitter of all time, long before he won three World Series with the Red Sox and became only the third player ever to notch at least 600 doubles and 500 home runs, Ortiz struggled to bust through as an everyday player in Minnesota. He hit nine homers in 278 at-bats in 1998, but spent most of 1999 in Triple-A. He went deep 18 times in 2001 despite missing two months with a wrist injury, then hit 20 homers and slugged .500 in 2002. And the Twins still released him, a decision that remains a sensitive subject with general manager Terry Ryan, who declined to be interviewed for this story.

So, it will be rather awkward Friday night when Ortiz returns to the Twin Cities for the final time in his storied career. Like a bachelor still looking for love after dumping a girl who turned into a beauty queen, the Twins will be in the uncomfortable position of honoring The One Who Got Away and essentially celebrating the worst mistake they ever made.

"I'm hopeful that he'll enjoy the little ceremony that we have for him," said Twins traveling secretary Mike Herman, one of Ortiz's closest friends in the organization. "I don't really know the details of it. But it's probably a touchy thing for our executives to praise him for the work that he's done when we wish it could've been done here."

Said Tewksbury: "I don't think TK [former Twins manager Tom Kelly] will be the one bringing out the plaque."

But although the union between Ortiz and the Twins didn't end the way either side intended, it would be short-sighted to look back on his tenure there as a failure. Indeed, Ortiz's years in Minnesota formed the foundation of a career that will merit consideration for the Hall of Fame, his disappointment over being cast aside providing the fuel for him to become one of the most feared sluggers of his generation.

"He's proof that perseverance, stick-to-itiveness pays off," said Washington Nationals assistant hitting coach Jacque Jones, a former outfielder who came up through the minors with Ortiz and played with him in the big leagues from 1999 to 2002. "You just never know when your shot's going to come, and when your shot comes, you've got to take advantage of it, which is all the things that he did. Because he was kind of left for dead [in Minnesota]. Even in Boston, he didn't get off to a great start. He just got hot at the right time in the second half [in 2003] and that was the history of his career."

'A genuinely happy person'

The Twins weren't the only team that gave up on Ortiz.

If releasing Ortiz is the biggest regret of Ryan's career, acquiring him as the player to be named in a 1996 trade that sent third baseman Dave Hollins to the Seattle Mariners must be considered one of his best moves.

And Ortiz blazed through the Twins' farm system in 1997, climbing from Class A Fort Myers to Double-A New Britain to Triple-A Salt Lake and finally to Minnesota as a September call-up. He hit his first home run on Sept. 14, 1997, in Texas against reliever Julio Santana, and batted .327 with a .353 on-base percentage in his initial exposure to the big leagues.

Ortiz was at the forefront of the Twins' late-'90s youth movement, a bumper crop that included center fielder Torii Hunter, Jones, third baseman Corey Koskie, shortstop Cristian Guzman, first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, catcher A.J. Pierzynski, second baseman Luis Rivas, and pitchers Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins, some of whom are expected to attend Friday night's pregame ceremony.

"They were all like brothers," said Herman, then a Twins public relations intern. "All those guys kind of came up together and won together in the minor leagues. You hear stories about them playing practical jokes on each other, like Koskie putting peanut butter in David's underwear. It was so accurate, so funny. It was like the older brothers picking on the younger brother, and it always seemed like David was the younger brother."

Back then, Ortiz was still learning to speak English. But it didn't stop him from volunteering for public appearances. His favorite, according to Herman: the Minnesota State Fair, a 12-day event leading up to Labor Day that annually draws more than a million people.

"There was a local Mexican restaurant and it must've been a sponsor of ours because we always had to bring a player to their booth," Herman recalled. "David loved going there because they would let him make his personal homemade guacamole. He would literally get up there with a jersey and an apron and a chef's hat and just have fun, kind of like he was just one of the Minnesotans there for the day.

"And I remember he would always ask, 'Can we go back? I want to go back.' I was like, 'No, David, just one time a year. The State Fair isn't every week.' He was the same genuinely happy person that you see now. That's how I remember him."

"I'm not going to lie to you, that was tough. Minnesota has a lot of good people. I had a lot of friends there. None of them are playing anymore -- I'm like the last dinosaur roaming from there -- but I had to leave my boys. That wasn't easy." David Ortiz, on getting released by the Twins in 2002

You never would have known that Ortiz's career wasn't taking flight.

Injuries were part of Ortiz's problem. He missed two months with a fractured right wrist in 1998 and underwent surgery on the wrist three years later. In 2002, he had bone chips removed from his left knee. And for a big man, playing on the unforgiving artificial turf at the old Metrodome wasn't exactly conducive to staying healthy.

"I got to the big leagues when I was 21, and a year later, I had so much pain in my body because of that turf," Ortiz said. "It was the worst. I went to Fenway, and the pain was gone."

But there were other reasons Ortiz never seemed like a fit with the Twins.

With 41-year-old future Hall of Famer Paul Molitor entrenched at DH, Ortiz was used in 1998 at first base. And although Jones described him as "nimble" for his size (a possible reason for the "Big Cat" moniker, perhaps as an homage to hulking former first baseman Andres Galarraga), Kelly didn't believe he could play the position every day.

Ortiz often clashed with Kelly over his style of hitting, too. An old-school manager and Minnesota institution who steered the Twins to World Series titles in 1987 and 1991, Kelly demanded that Ortiz conform to the organization's small-ball philosophy by using the opposite field and moving runners. Ortiz, of course, wanted mostly to pull home runs to right field.

"I remember David would get frustrated because they wanted him to be something different than what he was," Tewksbury said. "If there was a guy on second, the Twin thing to do was pull the ball on the ground and get the guy to third. He's a left-handed hitter with power, and you're making him go the other way to the biggest part of the field at the Metrodome. It was definitely challenging for him."

Grass was greener

Ortiz said he nevertheless was "crushed" on Dec. 16, 2002, when the Twins told him he was being released.

"I'm not going to lie to you, that was tough," Ortiz said. "Minnesota has a lot of good people. I had a lot of friends there. None of them are playing anymore -- I'm like the last dinosaur roaming from there -- but I had to leave my boys. That wasn't easy."

Ryan has insisted the decision to dump Ortiz wasn't driven by money, even though Ortiz was due to make about $2 million through salary arbitration at a time when the club's payroll was only about $15 million. The Twins simply chose Matt LeCroy over Ortiz to be their primary DH, and for one year, they didn't regret it.

LeCroy batted .287 with 17 homers and an .832 OPS in 2003, helping the Twins take the AL Central crown with 90 wins. But he dealt with injuries over the next few years, hitting only 28 more homers from 2004 to '07 before retiring.

Ortiz, meanwhile, was free to be himself with the Red Sox. All but 58 of his 519 career homers have come since he signed with Boston, and 208 have been hit at Fenway Park, where he peppers the bleachers in right field.

Looking back, though, Jones believes Kelly's tough love made Ortiz a better hitter. For one thing, Jones said being forced to hit the ball to left field prepared Ortiz for what he would eventually need to do to beat the defensive shifts that have been employed against him for the better part of the past 13 years.

"I got to the big leagues when I was 21, and a year later, I had so much pain in my body because of that turf [at the Metrodome]. It was the worst. I went to Fenway, and the pain was gone." David Ortiz

"He's a really good hitter now, but I think he was a better hitter when I first saw him in A-ball because he actually went the other way [to left field] way more than he does now," Jones said. "He studied pitchers and what they were trying to do, and he went through a little spell with the shift that he wasn't too happy about. But he learned to hit the ball where it was pitched and let the chips fall where they may."

In a way, then, maybe the whole Minnesota experience was good for Ortiz, not that he misses playing here. One visit per year since 2003 has been just enough to see old friends like Herman and remind the Twins that they erred by getting rid of him.

And make no mistake, Ortiz has tormented the Twins. He's a .323 career hitter with 20 homers and a 1.042 OPS in 67 games against them. Since Target Field replaced the Metrodome in 2010, Ortiz has hit nine homers and slugged .899 in only 69 at-bats there.

Herman caught up with Ortiz for about an hour one day during spring training and asked the question so many fans have been posing, especially with Ortiz on pace for 71 doubles, 43 homers and 151 RBIs.

"I was like, 'What are you thinking [with the decision to retire at season's end]?' And he's like, 'Oh, Mikey. Big Papi's got to go home,'" Herman said. "I wasn't going to get into it that deep with him to see if he was ever going to reconsider, but then again, that was before he started hitting .380 or whatever he's hitting."

There will be time for that this weekend.

"I see David once or twice a year, and we could sit and laugh and ham it up like we never missed a beat. That's how it is with him," Herman said. "I'll miss running into him because you never know what you're going to get. He could air you out, he could hug you and pick you up. I have trouble calling him Big Papi. To me, he's just Davey."

Hey, it's better than "Big Cat."

"They used to call me a lot of names in Minnesota," Ortiz said, chuckling. "Bro, I have no idea why anyone would even ask me for a bat back then anyway."

Said Tewksbury: "I know. Why did I have some rookie sign a bat for me? There must've been something. It appears to be a collector's item. I was forward-thinking, I guess."

As Ortiz comes to town one last time, the Twins must wish they could say the same.