David Ortiz is headed to the All-Star Game, again, to publicly embarrass the Twins, again, and the celebration of his last season has attracted attention to one of the biggest mistakes in Minnesota sports history, again.
Ortiz is tearing up big-league pitching, again, and leading a playoff contender, again, and Twins General Manager Terry Ryan is falling on his sword, again.
I was sat in a dugout in the Dominican Republic with Ortiz shortly after he learned the Twins had released him in December 2002. He was devastated. That night, he hit a home run in Santo Domingo. He has been hitting them for teams other than the Twins ever since.
Ryan’s decision to release Ortiz became symbolic of Twins’ failures real and concocted. They asked their power hitters to give themselves up to advance runners and hit the ball the other way. They couldn’t develop power hitters. They believed in small ball. They were tough on young players.
Twins fans angered by their failures this decade have kept the angst alive.
Here’s my question for those who treat Ortiz as a persecuted saint and the Twins’ bosses as stumblebums:
Why doesn’t anyone ever get mad at Ortiz?
The Twins made a terrible mistake. But why is Ortiz given a pass?
The Twins traded for Ortiz. They gave him a big-league job. In 2001 and 2002 they gave him a spot in the middle of the order of a contender.
When they released him, Ortiz worked harder, got into better shape, and suddenly became a much better hitter.
Why didn’t he do that for the Twins?
Ortiz was always noticeably flabby as a Twin. He couldn’t stay healthy. Then the Red Sox signed him and he became a big, strong, durable star.
Twins players complained throughout the 2000s that they needed one more slugger to win it all. Ortiz should have been that slugger.
Place a quality power hitter in a lineup with Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter and Michael Cuddyer and the Twins may have won a World Series, or at least might have won a series against the Yankees.
Instead, Ortiz left, blossomed and reportedly failed a test for performance-enhancing drugs. Ortiz even admitted that he was tested more than any other player, under a program that allows MLB to test players with past failed tests more often.
Ryan is culpable for choosing former first-round draft pick Matthew LeCroy over Ortiz as the team’s designated hitter. Ortiz should be held accountable for failing to obliterate LeCroy as a competitor while both were in Twins uniforms.
The Twins’ decision, although ridiculed for the past 13 years, also was consistent with all of baseball’s view of Ortiz at the time. The Twins released him because they didn’t think he was worth a $2 million, one-year contract to be a part-time player. They could not find a team willing to trade even an A-ball prospect for him.
Ortiz sat on the market for more than a month, then signed a one-year contract for $1.25 million — far less than a good utility player was making in 2003.
Ortiz became a free agent. He became a backup first baseman for the Red Sox behind Jeremy Giambi, the lesser Giambi. Ortiz played sparingly for two months and was given a chance to become a regular only because of Giambi’s failures.
Ortiz’s performance to that point in his career had every decisionmaker in baseball viewing him as a part-time, low-wage player. Then he suddenly turned into the David Ortiz who is celebrated today.
Had he applied himself earlier in his career, the Twins’ decade of success in the 2000s may have turned into one long championship parade. Instead, he saved his best for a team that signed him as Jeremy Giambi’s backup.
Feel free to blame the bosses for making a mistake. Feel free to blame the player, too.