Even more important than the Boston Red Sox’s decision to sign David Ortiz before the 2003 season was the decision to keep him after he requested a trade.
You know the story by now: the Red Sox took a chance on Ortiz, who had been released by the Minnesota Twins in 2002. It paid off in a huge way, as Ortiz spent 14 seasons in Boston, where he won three World Series titles and established himself as a Major League Baseball legend.
But there was a point early in Ortiz’s tenure with the Red Sox where he struggled to find playing time. This caused the slugger to question his future in Boston and forced then-Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein to make a franchise-altering call.
“David Ortiz hit all of two home runs in the first (two months) of the 2003 season and in mid-May had his agent come and ask me for a trade to somewhere he could play more regularly,” Epstein, now the Chicago Cubs’ president of baseball operations, said this week on MLB.com’s “Executive Access” podcast. “Fernando Cuza came to talk to me and I told Cuza at the time that David was someone we wanted to get everyday at-bats, but we just needed to pare down the roster a little bit.
“We ended up trading (Shea) Hillenbrand instead of David Ortiz, so I guess that was a good decision in hindsight. David got regular playing time and ended up hitting close to 30 homers in the second half of the season and was off and running as Big Papi.”
Ortiz had been competing for at-bats with Kevin Millar and Jeremy Giambi, but he slowly forced his way into the lineup. Trading Hillenbrand to the Arizona Diamondbacks for reliever Byung-Hyun Kim in late May helped shape Boston’s roster and, to some extent, signified that Ortiz was here to stay.
“(Ortiz’s) signing at the time, we didn’t even have a press conference, we had a teleconference,” Epstein said. “But if you go back and listen to that at the time, I said, ‘Look, we think David Ortiz can be a middle-of-the-order bat for the Red Sox.’ So we felt like he was going to be a key bat for us, but we didn’t think he was going to do what he did.”
All Ortiz did was smash 483 regular-season home runs for the Red Sox, earn 10 All-Star selections and produce some of the biggest hits in postseason history. It’s hard to imagine an alternate universe where Hillenbrand — or anyone else, for that matter — would have replicated that success.
“Like I said, we signed David Ortiz to a one-year deal and we ended up with ‘Big Papi,’ ” Epstein said. “So we weren’t expecting that.”
Not completely. But Epstein and the Red Sox still had confidence in Ortiz, who at the time was a 27-year-old trying to find his way in The Show, and he sure rewarded them for their faith.