By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Pedro Martinez knows greatness when he sees it. The Hall-of-Famer knew David Ortiz was “Big Papi” before even Ortiz knew.
The Red Sox icons met each other in their native Dominican Republic back in December of 2002, not long after the Minnesota Twins released Ortiz and left his future in doubt. According to an article by Ortiz in the Players Tribune, he was sitting in a restaurant feeling sullen about his release when Martinez reacted to it with unexpected glee – because it turned out that Pedro wanted him in Boston and saw the legendary “Big Papi” before anyone else, even Ortiz himself.
The story was confirmed in a Sunday column in Boston Magazine by 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Tony Massarotti, who spoke to Red Sox executives, former teammates of Ortiz, and even Alex Rodriguez. Because why let some smarmy sports writer (all due respect to Mazz and Dan Shaughnessy) tell you what Papi was like when you can get all these primary sources?
In all seriousness, though, there are lots of great stories in there that are well worth a read, as it chronicles all of the major points of Ortiz’s career, from his release by the Twins to his rocky early days with the Red Sox to his decade of clutch hits and World Series heroics to his overall commanding presence as an ambassador for the game of baseball and one of the 21st century’s most iconic stars.
Former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein offered plenty of interesting insight into how the Sox eventually signed Ortiz, which ultimately came down to Pedro’s enthusiastic recommendation.
“Later in the off-season [after we scouted Ortiz], Pedro Martinez called to recommend him and swore by his personality and character,” said Epstein. Then a relative unknown in the major leagues, Ortiz endeared himself to Pedro so much that No. 45 saw Papi’s larger-than-life personality and how he could become the face of baseball before he had any clutch hits at Fenway.
Except, that clutch gene followed Ortiz around even before he ever donned a Red Sox uniform. Epstein told a story of former Red Sox coach Dave Jauss, who scouted Ortiz and worked him out at first base, describing him as “a bat-first guy who was one of the best and most clutch power bats in the Dominican League.”
Rodriguez added that Ortiz “had the clutch gene in him from day one,” going back to his days as a teenager in the Dominican Republic. A-Rod made about as good a case as any for Ortiz to eventually be enshrined in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown: for most of his career, he was the most clutch hitter in baseball and half of the league’s most feared slugging duo in the game for years.
“We’ve all been watching and we’ve all had a great seat—unfortunately for us, a little too close sometimes,” said Rodriguez. “The combination of him and Manny Ramirez was just prolific. It seemed like there were 10 of them. They seemed to hit every inning. I was like, ‘Are they up again?'”
Rodriguez added that he worked hard with Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks to get Ortiz to sign with them in the same offseason as the Red Sox. Good thing for Boston that Pedro won him over and changed the course of baseball history forever – all because of that chance meeting at a restaurant in the D.R.
Another notable part of the story involves an apparent clubhouse incident between former Red Sox teammates Curt Schilling and Manny Ramirez. Schilling tells a story of how he cracked a joke about Manny taking a day off, which the former Sox slugger took exception to and charged at Schilling looking to start a fight. It was Ortiz who jumped in and quelled the fight before it even started. Just one small example of how Big Papi’s larger-than-life personality has kept the Red Sox clubhouse together over the years, especially during the mid-2000s. In a time when the Red Sox clubhouse was filled to the brim with big personalities, Ortiz’s loomed the largest, and it was all for the better.
If you don’t believe Ortiz is a Hall-of-Famer after watching him rule baseball for nearly two decades, maybe you’ll realize what you had after he’s gone.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.