Red Sox retire No. 34: Curious case of Ortiz
The Boston Red Sox retired David “Big Papi” Ortiz’s number, 34, on Friday night to all of the pomp and circumstance expected.
He led the Sawx to three world titles, and let’s face it — his performance in 2004 against the Yankees alone, expunging the ghost of Babe Ruth in Boston’s comeback against the Bronx Bombers, doubtless made this honor possible.
One can only wonder how many 12-year-olds named Big Papi Sullivan or David Ortiz Kelly are running around in the Boston area.
And, of course, Ortiz became a Boston icon with his speech — “This is our (expletive) city” — in the wake of the marathon bombing in 2013.
Despite the fact that he could become the mayor of Boston with 98 percent of the vote, there are two curious facts about Big Papi’s career that should give us pause.
• Why did the Minnesota Twins release this guy in 2002 and how did he go on to be such a star?
• How did David Ortiz keep being a productive player in his late 30s and into his age-40 season?
In some trivia, the Seattle Mariners actually signed Ortiz. Four years later, the Mariners dealt him to the Twins. He spent three years (1997-99) bouncing between the big club and the minors before sticking with Minnesota in 2000.
Ortiz hit .282 with 10 homers and 63 RBI in 2000, followed by .234/18/48 in 2001 and .272/20/75 the next year. If you prefer the more advanced slash line of batting average/ on-base percentage/ and slugging percentage, then here you go:
2000 season: .282/.364/.446.
Those are decent numbers, but nothing to write home about.
With Ortiz arbitration eligible and the Twins watching their pennies, they released the 26-year-old. The Red Sox signed him and the rest is history.
Of course, baseball history is littered with incomprehensible moves and trades. But what happened here?
Between his age 26 and 27 seasons and being released, Ortiz turned into a legend. In three-quarters of a season in 2003, Ortiz hits .288 with 31 HRs and 101 RBIs. By 2004, he has a monstrous season with 41 home runs, 139 RBI and bats .301.
His 2004 slash line of .301/.380/.592 bears no resemblance to his times with the Twins and is the beginning of a rise in those numbers.
The ballpark factor doesn’t come into play because Minnesota was still playing in the Metrodome, aka “The Homer Dome,” at the time. Ortiz wasn’t coming to Fenway from a pitcher’s park.
That’s pretty curious.
On par with Ted?
Ortiz got to the Red Sox and never stopped hitting. What is really remarkable is how he kept chugging after he turned 35.
Ortiz had 192 home runs when 35 and older. If you’re curious, Barry Bonds leads that category with 317, followed by Hank Aaron (245), Rafael Palmeiro (208), Andres Galarraga (199), Darrell Evans and Ruth (198) and Carlton Fisk and Ortiz (192) and Ted Williams (185).
There are some names on that list with whom you don’t want to be associated and some for which it’s an honor.
For fun, though, let’s compare Red Sox legends Ortiz and Teddy Ballgame.
Williams hit .316 with 29 HRs and 72 RBI during his final season in 1960.
Ortiz hit .315 with 38 dingers, while driving in 127 runs in 2016.
The Splendid Splinter’s slash was .316/.451/.645 compared to Ortiz at .315/.401/.620. (A reminder: Ortiz’s 2002 line was .272/.339/.500.)
So Big Papi was pretty much in a statistical tie during his final season with the greatest hitter who ever lived? (In fact, Big Papi obliterates Williams in a comparison of their penultimate seasons.)
That’s pretty curious.
For the record, Ortiz has never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. But, as we’ve seen, there are some strange trends. Sure, some players may be late bloomers, but we’ve rarely seen a jump like Ortiz had from 2002 to 2003.
And you don’t often see a player’s production remain steady after turning 35.
As much as Ortiz was, is and will remain an icon in New England and likely go to the Hall of Fame in five years, some questions remain unanswered.
Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934, email@example.com and @cfreud.