The Twins reached the American League Championship Series in 2002 for the first time since 1991.
They went to the winter meetings in Nashville and made one transaction: On Dec. 16, the Twins released designated hitter David Ortiz, clearing roster space in order to select infielder Jose Morban from Texas for $50,000 in the Rule 5 draft.
Eleven seasons later, Ortiz has hit 373 home runs, driven in 1,191 runs and slugged .572 for the Boston Red Sox.
That’s just in the regular season. The true legend of “Big Papi” has been built in the postseason.
His most recent heroics came on Sunday night, when his line-drive grand slam took the Red Sox from a 5-1 deficit to a 5-5 tie, and set up an ALCS-tying victory in Game 2.
Ortiz had played 64 games with 238 at-bats in the postseason for Boston, with 15 home runs and 50 RBI. Basically, he has hit with the same production in the playoffs and World Series as he has against the lesser menu of pitching in the regular season, making him a true Mr. October.
Morban? Eh, that didn’t work out quite so well for the Twins. He was put on waivers in spring training and claimed by Baltimore. Eventually, he had 71 at-bats for the Orioles in 2003, batting .141 with two home runs and five RBI, and never again played in the big leagues.
On that Monday in Nashville, Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said: “This is not exactly an easy thing to do. I like David personally. I liked some of the things he does with the bat.”
And then came the justifications: Ortiz was subpar in the field as a first baseman, limiting him to the DH role. He hit only .205 against lefthanded pitching and .240 with runners in scoring position. He also went on the disabled list for a second consecutive season.
Mostly, there was the money. Ortiz made $950,000 in 2002 and, being arbitration eligible, his salary would grow to $2 million or more in 2003. The Twins’ payroll was headed past $50 million, and that was a bit rich for the confines of the Metrodome.
“Hey, we tried to trade David and there was no market,” the Twins said in the spring of 2003, and can say today.
“Shucks, it took David most of the offseason to get a $1.25 million, one-year deal with the Red Sox,” the Twins said then, and can say a decade later.
The justifications do not change these facts: A) It is the fundamental task of any professional sports operation to be correct in its critical personnel decisions; and B) flinching at $2 million for Ortiz, a 26-year-old, lefthanded power hitter in December 2002, stands as the second-worst manpower decision in the 53 years the Twin Cities have been a major league sports market.
No. 1: The Herschel Walker trade, of course.
In truth, the Twins conduct toward Ortiz was strange, even before the decision to not offer him a contract.
Ortiz made the Twins as a 22-year-old rookie in 1998. He missed a couple of months after wrist surgery, but still hit nine home runs with 46 RBI in 278 at-bats. Double that for a full season and that’s reasonable power for a team without much of it.
Yet when Ortiz failed to hit in spring training of 1999, the Twins sent him to Class AAA Salt Lake City. Ron Coomer led the Twins with 16 home runs and Marty Cordova with 70 RBI. In Salt Lake, Ortiz batted .315 with 30 home runs and 110 RBI, and didn’t get called up until mid-September.
Manager Tom Kelly was consistent in criticizing Ortiz’s fielding. He also wanted Ortiz to be able to hit the pitch away to left field (which he has done to considerable effect in Fenway Park), rather than trying to yank every pitch.
After his heroics in the 2004 ALCS, Ortiz sat in the home dugout at Fenway Park on the day before the start of the World Series. Asked what the difference was in Boston by a couple of Minnesota sportswriters, Ortiz used a graphic description to say the Twins wanted him to hit like a weakling.
Maybe that was it. Maybe “Big Papi” would never have surfaced in Minnesota. But the fact the Twins didn’t give him a full shot, never found out if he was worth at least one multiyear contract in the middle of the last decade, remains an abomination every time we watch him in October.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500.