How Pedro Martinez and Theo Epstein saved David Ortiz's career

Guido Vitti for ESPN

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's July 18 Body Issue. Subscribe today!

Advisory: This story contains explicit language.

AFTER THE 2002 season, the Red Sox had a list of nine -- count 'em, nine -- candidates for time at first base and designated hitter. As former Red Sox beat writer Jeff Horrigan says, "The expectations were really, really low. That was clear just by the number of people they threw at the position." But Boston's new GM, Theo Epstein, and president/CEO Larry Lucchino -- with an assist from one of the greatest pitchers in team history -- saw a glimmer of something in a washout from the Twins named David Ortiz. This is the story of the months between November 2002 and May 2003, when a player nobody wanted, just one of nine, became a legend a city couldn't do without.

THEO EPSTEIN: Here's how I remember it: Going into the offseason, we knew we had a top-heavy offense and wanted to round out our roster with quality hitters to deepen the lineup. We also had to cut about $10 million from the payroll, so we were looking for inexpensive, underrated guys who had a chance to represent real value. We traded for Todd Walker early in the offseason [to play second] and had our eye on Bill Mueller to play third. We had first base and DH open, and we liked the idea of acquiring three good hitters for those two spots to let them battle it out for at-bats, deepen the lineup and improve the bench.

We had a meeting shortly after I took over [on Nov. 25] and sorted the available "value" options into tiers -- the targets and the fallbacks. The potential trade targets were David Ortiz, Kevin Millar, Erubiel Durazo and Jeremy Giambi. The potential free agents were Brad Fullmer and Lee Stevens. Ortiz was a target and high up the list but was just a guy in the mix we liked ... not a guy we felt we absolutely had to have.

"I said, 'Play me or I want out of here. Play me and I'll show you what's up.'" David Ortiz

EPSTEIN'S FALLBACK LIST included two Red Sox players who had been favored before his arrival: Cliff Floyd, a free agent who had been traded to the Red Sox in 2002 and who was owner John Henry's first choice for DH; and Shea Hillenbrand, who had been an All-Star at third in 2002 but who'd walked just 25 times in 676 plate appearances, a death sentence in a new world of on-base percentage.

CLIFF FLOYD, RED SOX OUTFIELDER/DH: I receive a call from John Henry, who tells me 2003 is going to be a big year, the Red Sox are ready to win and they need me. He says that I had a week to decide. A couple days later, I guess there were some reports that the Yankees were interested in me, and I get a call from John Henry, who now tells me I had three days. He was not going to get in a bidding war with the Yankees. I was like, "Yeah, but I still need to know what's out there." I never heard from the Red Sox again. Offer off the table. Gone. I wound up signing with the Mets.

EPSTEIN: My opinion from the beginning was that we should let Cliff sign elsewhere, take the draft picks and use the money to sign several hitters. We had to cut payroll, acquire several bats and strengthen the farm system, so it seemed like the best course.

MIKE PORT, INTERIM GENERAL MANAGER: Once Theo was named, he and his team took off at the speed of light, selling guys on what the Boston Red Sox wanted to be all about. ... I just don't feel like Shea Hillenbrand fit into the plan or gravitated into the philosophies Theo wanted to see. Between Shea and that administration, there wasn't good chemistry.

WITH FLOYD'S OFFER off the table, Epstein began trying to trade Hillenbrand. He also started to consider his free agent options to fill spots at first base and DH. His first choice, Durazo, went to Billy Beane's A's in a four-team deal at the winter meetings. Later that day, Epstein made a trade with the Phillies for his second choice: Jeremy Giambi, kid brother of 2000 AL MVP Jason Giambi. The next day, Minnesota nontendered Ortiz.

DAVID ORTIZ: The Twins? They never said anything to me. When they released me, it was like, nothing. I heard it from my agent.

BILLY BEANE, OAKLAND A's GM: The Machiavellian answer would be to say, "Yeah, we had an idea the whole time what Ortiz would be. We tried to get him. We went after him hard, but Boston beat us to him." That would be the right answer, right? But that's not true. He wasn't in our plans. He wasn't on our radar.

Who did we get? Durazo? Oooh, yay! We got Durazo! Seriously, we knew of Ortiz, but we knew him as a player who may have had some potential but had some injuries, had some trouble getting on the field. I think we trusted the Twins organization. Terry Ryan and his group have always been known as a smart group. They didn't do reckless things. They didn't make big mistakes. If they were letting him go for free, I mean, just for nothing, by our way of thinking, there had to be a reason.

KEVIN MILLAR, MARLINS OUTFIELDER: This was the start of Moneyball, and guys were being looked at differently. Different numbers now meant different things. Now they could tell you which f---ing guy hit what with two strikes on the road between the hours of 8 and 9:30. Jeremy Giambi was one of those guys, and he was Jason Giambi's brother. The brother of the guy who won an MVP? Yeah, he definitely got a look.

NEXT ON EPSTEIN'S list was Fullmer, a favorite of former GM Dan Duquette's. But he re-signed with the Angels after the winter meetings. Former Indian Stevens signed with the Devil Rays shortly after. By then, though, the Red Sox also had agreed to a deal with Julio Zuleta, a giant, 6-foot-6, 230-pound Panamanian who could hit a baseball into different time zones.

ORTIZ: Another f---ing guy everybody thought was better than me.

EPSTEIN: Zuleta, that name is a blast from the past! He was not really in the major league mix, just a flier as a minor league free agent who had serious pop.

JEFF HORRIGAN, RED SOX BEAT WRITER (BOSTON HERALD): Julio Zuleta! I remember him: big, scary guy. Shaved head. He looked like the guy from Major League. I even remember his stance, kind of a crouch. Huge power.

ORTIZ: So now you see all these guys signing, and I've got nothing. I didn't think I wasn't going to play, but I was preparing to just go to winter ball and hope something came up. So I went to winter ball and had a good winter, but I didn't have anything.

FERNANDO CUZA, AGENT TO DAVID ORTIZ: David was calling me five times a day. He was nervous as s---. I'll never forget being in that coffee shop with him at the Sheraton in Santo Domingo [capital of the Dominican Republic]. That face.

Every day that went by, you could see it. He was saying, "I'm young. I have no other skills but to play baseball, but nobody wants me. What am I going to do? How am I going to provide for my family?" I told him if you get the chance, you're gonna be a son of a bitch. You're gonna tear it up. I didn't think his career was over, because he was a great hitter.

DESPITE HIS AGENT'S words, Ortiz was in a full panic by January. Spring training was six weeks away, and he had no job. There were no offers, no workouts, no invites. The Red Sox now had Jeremy Giambi, Zuleta and Hillenbrand on the roster. Then came an intervention from an unlikely source -- perhaps the greatest Sox pitcher of all time.

LARRY LUCCHINO: The biggest priority [of the offseason] was signing Pedro Martinez to a significant extension. We had an open dialogue with Pedro. When David was let go by Minnesota, Pedro called and told us that David was a great guy and he was someone we needed to take a look at. Now, you have to remember, Pedro was our No. 1 offseason priority, and he was asking us the favor of giving David Ortiz a look. It was just an invite to spring training, but if that was going to help us with the negotiations with Pedro, well, we saw that as an easy thing to do. It was a propitious call at a propitious moment. I think the influence of Pedro Martinez in bringing David Ortiz to Boston is one of the most overlooked and under-discussed elements of the whole story.

EPSTEIN: [After Ortiz was nontendered] I called Fern Cuza to express interest in David, and Fern and I stayed in touch the next month. We had Dave Jauss work out David at first base in the Dominican to see whether he was an option there or whether we should consider him a DH only. Meanwhile, David was getting antsy. He and Pedro Martinez were close, and Pedro called everyone -- me, Larry Lucchino, Jack McCormick [Red Sox traveling secretary] -- to lobby for David and talk about what a great guy he was.

ORTIZ: All I know is that one day right in front of me, Pedro called Larry and told him to sign me. Pedro made it happen.

CUZA, WHO WAS ALSO MARTINEZ'S AGENT: Larry and I were negotiating Pedro's extension. Pedro personally called Larry. I remember Larry saying regarding David, "We can do that." I don't know what happened behind closed doors, but Theo called me and we worked out a deal. You had the star player, the best player on a team approaching the last year of his contract, asking for a favor. Do the favor and what does that really cost you? There was zero economic risk to the Red Sox. If David doesn't make it, he gets released.

ON JAN. 22, 2003, the Red Sox signed David Ortiz to a one-year, $1.25 million deal.

ORTIZ: You know how many offers I got? One. From the Red Sox. That's the truth.

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 it, 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.

NOW ORTIZ HAD a spot on the roster, but the Red Sox weren't finished. Boston was engaged in side negotiations to acquire outfielder and first baseman Millar from the Marlins, even though Millar had agreed in principle to play in Japan with the Chunichi Dragons.

MILLAR: I had spoken to the Chunichi club, and we started to negotiate. They told me they were going to pay me two years, $6 million. Six million? And I'm like, "I'm rich, biiiiitch!" Then the Marlins put me through waivers and the Red Sox claim me -- but -- I've already agreed to play in Japan. So I call my agent. They told me no matter how it played out, I wasn't going to lose money, so hell yeah, I want to play with the Red Sox.

But now we have this international incident. Bud Selig's getting involved. The Sox have some juice to make this happen, but now I'm getting scared. I'm not Barry Bonds. I'm not Sammy Sosa. I'm this common-ass white boy playing right field. I'm hearing Larry Lucchino wants to pull out of the deal, you know, like they don't need the hassle. I'm glad they didn't. The only thing left was for me to talk to the rep from Chunichi. He told me he would be dishonoring his country if he didn't bring me back with him. For real! [In the end, Chunichi released its claim and Millar was free to sign with the Red Sox.]

BY SPRING TRAINING, the Red Sox had more assets than they could manage. "We were four deep at first base taking ground balls," Millar says: Giambi, Hillenbrand, Ortiz and Millar. "May the best man win." But by the start of the season, Millar had won the job at first, in part because he was more mobile than Ortiz, and Giambi was the full-time DH. Weeks earlier, Ortiz was worried that he would not have a job in baseball to start spring training, but this was nearly as bad: being on a roster behind Giambi, sitting on the bench. There was only one thing to do: Ask for a trade. Get out of Boston.

MILLAR: There's a story that's been going around for years that it was the Latin guys, Pedro and Manny [Ramirez], who went to Grady [Little, the manager] and told him to start playing David. That's bulls--t. It came from me talking to him. Look it up. It all happened in Anaheim. Getaway day, Papi goes deep. We win. I told David to go in there and tell them, "Play me or trade me. I want to start. Or I want out."

Listen, here's the bottom line: From day one, Jeremy Giambi couldn't hold David Ortiz's jock. He couldn't hit with him in spring training. Jeremy Giambi was taking ABs away from David Ortiz because he was the MVP's little brother and the Red Sox were committed to Moneyball, but he never could hit with Papi. Never. Period. End of story.

ORTIZ: I was never really Theo's guy. There were other guys he was paying more money to. If I had been his first choice, I really think I would have been playing since day one. ... So yeah, I sat and I sat, and I kept my mouth shut because you gotta keep it professional, you know?

EPSTEIN: David and I had a few quick conversations early in the year in which I encouraged him to be patient, told him that we believed in him, expressed some empathy for his situation and reassured him that things would work themselves out. He was frustrated early but handled himself really well, not wanting to make an issue in the clubhouse or drag his teammates down.

CUZA: David was lower than whale s---. He was saying, "Maybe I screwed around. Maybe I didn't work hard enough. Maybe I wasted my chance."

ORTIZ: Finally, I just said f--- it. I went to Grady. I went to Theo. They were asking me why I was mad, and I said, "I'm not mad, but I'm better than every f---ing guy you're running out there ahead of me." So I called [my agent] Fern. I told him, "If you're not here tomorrow, you're fired." He said, "What's wrong?" I said, "I'm better. Play me or I want out of here. Play me and I'll show you what's up."

EPSTEIN: The third week of May -- when he was hitting about .250 with one homer and coming off a stretch of sitting three times in four games -- he sent his agent, Fern Cuza, to see me. It was after a game in the player parking lot at Fenway. Fern said that while David loved Boston and loved his teammates, not playing was driving him crazy. He said David wanted him to deliver an ultimatum of sorts to me -- to play him every day or trade him.

We had been working really hard since the winter to trade Hillenbrand and felt we were finally getting close with the Diamondbacks. I told Fern to keep David patient for another week and that we'd find a way to get him his opportunity.

ON MAY 29, 2003, the Red Sox traded Hillenbrand to Arizona. A week later, Ortiz became the everyday DH with the Red Sox.

CUZA: This was the turning point of his career. Right then and there, he decided to put it up a notch. He was fighting for his life. People always ask, "Why is David Ortiz so great under pressure?" That's not pressure. Pressure is living in the Dominican with no income.

David was patient, and he took it all in -- the not playing, the guys playing ahead of him that he knew he was better than -- and he was close to losing it, but it's true: We were one click away from this not happening in Boston.

AFTER THE ALL-STAR break, Ortiz went on one of the great tears in baseball history, finishing the season with 31 home runs (27 of them in the final three months of the season) and 101 RBIs. His hot streak came too late for him to make the All-Star team that year -- though he did finish fifth in MVP voting -- but he made the AL roster in 10 of the next 13 seasons, starting as DH in five of them.

JED HOYER, FORMER ASSISTANT TO THE GENERAL MANAGER: David, in the second half of 2003, what he did, and who he did it against -- and by that I mean the Yankees so many times -- all you could do was watch it. You didn't believe it. But it was happening.

CUZA: When David got in the lineup, you could see the change. He played like he knew he was never going to be in that position of being so close again. I think every professional athlete has a turning point in their career. This was his.

ORTIZ: All in all, you go through a lot. But I think it was good because it brings the best out in me. That's what happened. In my career, nothing has been given. I had to earn. It doesn't make sense, I know. It doesn't happen. I know. But you can look at me as proof that it can happen.