Friday, September 2, 2016

One Swing: From Big Pfft to Big Papi

(This column appeared in the July edition of Boston Baseball)

They say success has a thousand fathers and failure is in orphan, so I guess it makes sense now that everyone claims Big Papi as their own flesh and blood.  Ortiz came to the Red Sox as a free agent in 2003, absolutely unheralded, one of about eight or ten players thrown up against the lineup card on the dugout wall to fill the club’s DH slot, but at the time he was hardly the consensus pick – guys like Jeremy Giambi, Shea Hillenbrand and a host of others that spring seemed more likely to stick. Ortiz did not win the job so much as it fell to him in May through the failures of just about everyone else, particularly when the first ever round of PED testing began to winnow the field. If he hadn’t started hitting the Sox might have let their pitchers bat.

Of course, we all know now what happened next.  Ortiz didn’t just hit, but that summer hit like he had never hit before. And ever since then a lot of those fathers have boasted their DNA made the difference. Theo Epstein, Grady Little, Josh Byrnes, Dave Jauss, Bill James, and any other number of scouts and lesser known number crunchers have claimed clairvoyance in anticipating that Ortiz was destined to become something akin to the second coming of Yaz, Ted Williams, and the Bambino. Wisely, these thousand fathers have since forgotten their advocacy of guys like Giambi, Hillenbrand and the other orphans they abandoned on the curb.

Well, the fact is that in reality no one saw anything because, well, there was nothing there to see. In parts of six seasons with the Twins, covering 52 at bats at Fenway Park, Big Papi was more like Big Pfft. He collected only 11 hits, his batting average a paltry .212, with, ahem, 19 strikeouts. A small sample size, to be sure, but not entirely insignificant.

Ah, but the power!  That’s what they must have seen, right?  Papi probably knocked a lot of seat backs out in those 11 hits, right?

Uh … no.  From the start of his big league career in 1997 thru 2002, before joing the Red Sox Big Pfft hit (drum roll, please) …. ONE home run at Fenway Park.

That solitary dinger came on September 7, 2000, as the Sox desperately (not really) tried to catch the Yankees and keep pace with Cleveland for the wild card berth.  You might recall that the Sox, under Jimy Williams and Dan Duquette, conceded the division title to the Yankees on September 11 that year and started playing rookies, only to see New York win only three of their last 18 games. Boston then finished only two and a half games out, missing out on a division title theirs for the taking.

Ramon Martinez pitched for the Sox that September afternoon, and Pedro’s older brother was not enjoying his sibling’s success. In fact, he often couldn’t get out of the first inning. In his previous four starts he had given up TWO first-inning grand slams.

This day was no different.  No major league pitcher had ever given up three first-inning grand slams in a season before, and Martinez took aim at the record from the start, opening the contest by giving up singles to Jay Canizaro, Cristian Guzman, and Matt Lawton, legends all.  Next came Ron Coomer, who folded under the pressure of sending Ramon to Cooperstown and struck out.

Up came Big Pfft, his Mighty Casey moment.

Martinez managed to throw four pitches that stayed in the park, bringing the count to 2-2, before reaching for immortality.  The next pitch was a fastball, belt high, tailing back over the plate. Ortiz swung and the ball sailed high and far, landing about 390 feet from home, three rows deep in the right field belly, Sox outfielder Darren Lewis tumbling into the crowd as he tried to make the catch. Yet when recently asked about it by a colleague, Ortiz drew a big fat blank. Huh? Even he doesn’t remember it. But on that day, Big Pfft became Big Papi in Fenway Park for the first time, a blast which not only set a record for Ramon, but was also the first grand slam in Ortiz’s career.

Somewhat improbably, Martinez gave up yet another home run, this time to Corey Koskie, putting the Twins up 5-0. Then, his place in history secure, Ramon retired 16 of the next 17 hitters. The Sox stormed back and he left the mound to a standing ovation as Boston went on to win, 11-6.

And Big Papi? Certainly, now that he found his range in Fenway, he must have struck fear in the hearts of Boston pitchers. That’s the reason the Sox plucked him from the scrap heap after the Twins released him following the 2002 season, right?

Nah. Papi went hitless the rest of the game and started something of a streak himself.  After that first inning home run, until he stepped in the batter’s box as a member of the Red Sox three years later, in his next 25 at bats as a visitor in Fenway, he was back to being Big Pfft. 

He collected only one more hit at Fenway Park, and in 2002 struck out in 8 of 11 appearances, his worst record, by far, in any ballpark over that time period. Then, in 2003, he put on a Boston uniform and something miraculously and magically changed.

Must have been that dirty water.

Glenn Stout’s latest book is The Selling of the Babe. See

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