In January 2003, the winter Theo Epstein arrived as Boston Red Sox general manager, Dave Jauss recommended his new boss sign a 27-year-old first baseman the Minnesota Twins had cut loose a month prior. Epstein wanted to make sure they had not given up on him for physical reasons, and so he asked Jauss, then a Red Sox scout who managed in the Dominican winter league on the side, to work out the player. At 9 a.m. on a 90-degree morning inside Estadio Quisqueya in Santo Domingo, Jauss went about the business of making certain David Ortiz could play for the Red Sox.
Ortiz, of course, would sign with Boston before the end of the month. Ortiz will retire at the end of the 2016 season, a revelation first reported Tuesday afternoon by Fox Sports. In 13 seasons in Boston, Ortiz overcame the stain of a supposedly anonymous failed drug test and became one of the most fearsome and cherished players in Red Sox history. He launched 445 home runs, swatted 1,910 hits, dropped a million expletives, delivered three World Series trophies, filled a memory bank with clutch hits, carried a region through heartbreak and made a city fall in love with him.
Before he did all that, before he became Big Papi, Ortiz stood on an empty diamond fielding grounders off the bat of Dave Jauss. A handful of other coaches and Red Sox scout Jay Alou looked on. Jauss watched Ortiz run the bases and whacked groundballs at Ortiz “like he was a 16-year-old free agent,” Jauss said. The workout stretched for an hour. Ortiz sweated through his clothes. Jauss tried to afford ample rest. Ortiz would play a Caribbean Series playoff game that night, and Jauss had managed in the Dominican Republic long enough to understand the importance of that.
“It just showed the man he was and his desire to be taken seriously,” Jauss said. “I don’t think there were too many people who thought he would become what he would become.”
Given how Ortiz had arrived at the field, nobody could have guessed. By the end of the 2002 season, Ortiz had played parts of five seasons with the Twins. He struggled to establish himself, getting demoted to Class AAA in 1999 after beginning the season as Minnesota’s starting first baseman. He cracked 20 homers and slugged .500 in 2002, but he struggled against left-handed pitching and had trouble staying healthy.
Ortiz was headed for a raise in arbitration, likely to be around $2 million for 2003, and the small-market Twins – who had nearly been contracted a year before – decided they couldn’t afford the risk. In December 2003, the Twins designated Ortiz for assignment in order to create 40-man roster space for shortstop Jose Morban, a Rule 5 pick. The Twins would cut him before the end of spring training.
“This isn’t the most ideal scenario,” Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said after letting Ortiz walk, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “I would have much preferred to be able to trade him and to find a home for him with another club. We just couldn’t get it done.”
Jauss had known Ortiz since 1999, when he managed Licey of the Dominican Winter League and Ortiz played for Escogido. Licey won the league, and when it advanced to the Caribbean Series, Jauss added Ortiz to his roster. Even back then, Ortiz was clutch – he knocked the game-winning hit in extra innings of one Caribbean Series game for Jauss. From the start, Jauss loved his powerful swing and his infectious personality. They became friends.
When the Twins non-tendered Ortiz, Jauss told him he would be a perfect fit for Boston. Jauss always believed Ortiz’s slumps in Minnesota stemmed from playing in the Metrodome. The dimensions rewarded left-handed hitters who pulled the ball, and the hard artificial turf damaged the knees of big men.
In 2002, Ortiz hit .203 against left-handed pitchers. From watching him in the Dominican, Jauss knew lefties weren’t Ortiz’s problem.
“He was so good at hitting lefties,” said Jauss, now a Pittsburgh Pirates scout. “I had seen it. In the Dominican, they’d have a bullpen of 12 guys because of the floating roster. He’d face lefties every night from sixth inning on and kill them. But in the Dome, he would try to pull ball every time.”
Jauss made the same case to Epstein, front-office assistant Josh Byrnes and Manager Grady Little, a longtime friend. Fenway Park would be perfect for him, he insisted. He believed Ortiz’s swing would allow him to play pinball with the Green Monster, and the field would keep his knees fresh.
The Red Sox had already signed Jeremy Giambi as a left-handed option at first base, but Jauss told Boston’s front office they should consider Ortiz, anyway. They reviewed his career and saw a player with greater potential than he had shown. Epstein entered the sport with a statistical viewpoint that has since become common, but back then it bordered on revolutionary. “Moneyball” would be published in 2003. Afterward, it became much more difficult to find players with a .348 on-base percentage in 1,693 plate appearances – like Ortiz at the time – on the scrap heap.
In his time as a Red Sox coach and advance scout, Jauss had just watched so many left-handed hitters thrive at Fenway. Troy O’Leary, Trot Nixon, Scott Hatteberg, Mo Vaughn – all of them became better inside the confines of Fenway Park, banging the ball the other way, off the towering target in left field. Jauss thought Ortiz fit the mold.
“I thought he was going to help us win a World Series,” Jauss said. “It was amazing how those lefties used that wall. He would make a killing with that wall. That was my thought.”
Epstein agreed, so long as Ortiz proved himself healthy in Jauss’s workout. Jauss knew Ortiz would pass. Days later, on his way to the park, Jauss heard a car horn honk. It was Ortiz, driving past in a Range Rover. He held out his arm – “his big paw,” Jauss said – and waved Jauss down. Other teams had called, Ortiz told him, and he needed to make a decision soon.
Once he arrived at the stadium, Jauss called Byrnes. “He’s about ready to make a decision,” Jauss told him. “Let’s jump on it.” A couple days later, the Red Sox signed Ortiz for one year at $1.25 million.
“We think, all the scouts think, he has a very high ceiling,” Epstein said upon the signing, according to a Boston Globe story that ran on the third page of the sports section. “You’re looking at a player with the potential to be a middle-of-the-lineup bat in the big leagues.”
It started slow. After May 1, Ortiz was hitting .200. A Globe columnist called him “a sack of you-know-what.” He had started only 15 games, fighting for playing time with Giambi and Kevin Millar.
“He’d take his big paw around me when I was coming in with a [scouting report] and say, ‘Man, I’m getting no time.’ ” Jauss said. “I just told him, ‘Be patient.’ ”
By July, Ortiz forced had himself into Boston’s everyday lineup. Even though he played in only 128 games, Ortiz crushed 31 homers and finished fifth in MVP voting. He would finish no lower than fourth over the next three seasons. Along with Manny Ramirez, he formed the heart of one of the best offenses of a generation. He became part of the city’s soul. In 2004, Jauss was proven right: Ortiz helped the Red Sox win a World Series.
Jauss and Ortiz remain close. Jauss texts him when he reaches a milestone. Their views keep in touch. Every time Ortiz sees Jauss, he wraps him in “one of the those big, huge monster hugs,” Jauss said. It has been 13 years since Jauss and Ortiz met under the morning sun. There will be one more year for Ortiz in Boston. Jauss never could have imagined how well the marriage went. He just feels fortunate he played a part.
“It’s great,” Jauss said. “It’s great.”