After 20 years, Ortiz leaving on his own terms — and on top
BOSTON >> The Mariners traded him. The Twins released him. And even the Boston fans gave up on David Ortiz a couple of times after he struggled to start the spring or limped away before the year was over.
But when this Red Sox season is done and Ortiz's career ends along with it, it will be by his choice. The 10-time All-Star and three-time World Series champion — with a chance for a fourth, if all goes well — is having one of his best seasons and one of the best finales in baseball history.
So the question becomes: Is it Ortiz, this time, who is giving up on himself too early?
"They wanted him to retire seven years ago. And now that he wants to retire, nobody wants him to retire," former Twins teammate Torii Hunter said when Ortiz passed through Minnesota this summer for the last time. "I definitely think to go out on top, that's the way to go."
Ortiz insists this is really it, saying his feet hurt too much and it is too difficult already at 40 years old to consider grinding through another season.
A look at some of the times people gave up on Boston's big slugger or otherwise doubted him:
Seattle signed Ortiz, who was then known as David Arias, as a 16-year-old in the Dominican Republic in 1992. He was batting .322 with 18 homers and 93 RBIs in his first year of full-season Single-A ball a few years later when the organization looked around, saw that it already had a pretty good designated hitter in Edgar Martinez, a pitching ace in Randy Johnson and a couple of rising stars in Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez.
The Mariners lost in the ALCS in 1995 and decided to go for it the following season. Sitting five games out in the division on Aug. 29, they acquired infielder Dave Hollins from Minnesota for a player to be named. Seattle closed to within one game of first place with a week to go but finished third, behind the Yankees and Orioles, and missed the postseason. Hollins batted .351 in 28 games for the Mariners and became a free agent after the season.
On Sept. 13, 1996, Ortiz was sent to the Twins to complete the trade.
Ortiz climbed through the minors the next season and made his major-league debut as a September call-up. In 2002, he hit .272 with 20 homers and 75 RBIs in 125 games.
After the season, the Twins had a decision to make.
Looking at Ortiz's injury history, his defensive shortcomings and the fact that he was expected to get a raise in arbitration to about $2 million for 2003, general manager Terry Ryan released him to free up a roster spot for a recently drafted infielder named Jose Morban. The Red Sox signed Ortiz about a month later for $1.25 million, with a plan to let him compete for at-bats at first base and designated hitter with Jeremy Giambi and Kevin Millar.
By June, Ortiz was an everyday player in Boston. He hit eight home runs in July and 11 in August, ending the season with 31 homers in 128 games and placing fifth in the AL MVP voting — the first of five straight top five finishes.
"Obviously, it was a mistake on my behalf," Ryan said this year, "and I've owned up to it way too many times."
Everyone in baseball remembers Ortiz's postseason heroics, but it didn't start out that way.
He went hitless in his first 16 playoff at-bats for Boston in the 2003 ALDS before a two-run double in the eighth inning of Game 4 helped the Red Sox avoid elimination. They went on to lose to the New York Yankees in the ALCS in seven games.
It was the following season that Ortiz became the "Big Papi" who carried the team to its greatest success. He had four hits and three RBIs in Game 3 against Anaheim in the ALDS, hitting a two-run, walkoff homer in the 10th inning to eliminate the Angels. Then came the ALCS rematch against the Yankees, who won the first three games of the best-of-seven series to put Boston on the brink of elimination.
In Game 4, Ortiz erased a 2-1 deficit in the fifth with a two-run single, then he hit a two-run, game-ending homer in the 12th. Less than 24 hours later, Ortiz had an RBI single, a solo homer and another walkoff hit — this time a 14th-inning single. The Red Sox won Games 6 and 7 — Ortiz had a two-run homer in the first inning of the clincher — to become the first team to rally from a 3-0 deficit in a seven-game series.
Ortiz was the ALCS MVP.
Ortiz was batting below .200 in the second week of June in 2009, and well into May the following season.
In 2012, he played just one game in the last 10 weeks of the season because of a right Achilles tendon injury; without him, the Red Sox finished last with their worst record in almost half a century. In 2014, the year after he won his third title in Boston and a World Series MVP award, the Red Sox stumbled home in last place and Ortiz missed most of the last week of the season because of a sore wrist.
On June 9, 2015, he was batting .219 with six homers and 21 RBIs. After finishing with 37 homers with 108 RBIs — both the most for him in almost a decade — Ortiz reflected on the need to repeatedly prove himself to the fans in a city where he had accomplished so much.
"They forgot about just about everything I have done here. They just throw that in the garbage. It's not like they're talking about somebody that just got here," he said before the home finale last year. "It seems like they wait for me to struggle so they can start talking trash. Whenever this time of year shows up, I just laugh."
A month later, on his 40th birthday, Ortiz announced that the 2016 season would be his last .
GOING OUT ON TOP
Still, no one could have expected this.
Entering the final weekend of this season, Ortiz was leading the league in doubles, slugging percentage and OPS. He has already hit more homers in his final year than any other player in baseball history.
And the Red Sox, after two straight last-place finishes, are back in the playoffs.
More doubts. This time: Will he really walk away?
"I don't think 'Big Papi' is going to retire. I keep telling him that," Angels outfielder Mike Trout said at the All-Star Game. "With those numbers, I wouldn't."
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.