The story of Big Papi’s Mariners (yes, Mariners) career
During Spring Training in 1996, the Seattle Mariners held a brief ceremony near home plate at Peoria Stadium to honor their farm system’s standouts from the previous summer. The club’s player development department had selected an MVP from each of the organization’s Minor League affiliates, and those productive prospects were to be awarded an engraved bat just before the big league ballclub played a Cactus League tilt.
Lou Piniella, who at that moment was the reigning American League Manager of the Year, was the one bequeathing the bats to the promising youngsters. And for at least one of those players -- a 20-year-old power-hitting first baseman named David Arias -- this interaction with the wizened and respected skipper was eagerly anticipated.
“I thought,” the man who would ultimately be known not as David Arias but David Ortiz says now, “I was gonna get an inspirational speech from him.”
Not quite, as Big Papi remembers it.
“Here,” Piniella said. “Congratulations.”
Ortiz, who all these years later will receive a much more meaningful honor with his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Saturday, howls in laughter at the memory.
“He just went out there,” Ortiz says, “and handed me the bat and said, ‘Here. Congratulations.’ Next! I couldn’t believe it.”
When we think of Ortiz’s origins, we tend to think more of his time with the Twins, who infamously released him in the winter prior to the 2003 season. The Red Sox pounced, and the rest is history. But the Mariners were the first team to sign Ortiz … and the first to let him go too soon. Like Piniella in that brief award ceremony, they didn’t savor the moment with a player who would become one of the great clutch sluggers of all-time.
That’s not totally indefensible, mind you.
The Mariners needed help for the 1996 postseason push, and they used Ortiz as the player to be named in a deal for third baseman Dave Hollins, who did help them (.916 OPS in 28 games), even if the playoff bid fell flat. Ortiz was raw and lean and many years from developing into a world-class designated hitter.
“We recognized that he was a prospect -- and a good prospect,” recalls Larry Beinfest, then the Mariners’ Minor League director. “But it was still going to be a bit of a time before he made it.”
Regardless, every superhero story needs a foil. And Ortiz’s story happens to have two of them in the form of the Twins and the Mariners.
We’ve heard a lot about his tenure with the Twins (who, in Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva, will coincidentally have two representatives in Ortiz’s Cooperstown class) but less about his earliest seasons in the Seattle system. Here’s the story of how the Mariners discovered Ortiz … and how they let him get away.
Back when Big Papi was Little Papi, growing up in the small community of Haina on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic, he thought his future was on the hardwood. He loved and excelled at basketball, and he played it every day.
His father, though, had other plans for him. Americo Enrique “Leo” Ortiz was a renowned baseball player in the Dominican Republic professional and semipro leagues, and he knew his son had the hand-eye coordination to excel at the sport.
“My dad was brilliant when it comes to my career,” says Ortiz, “because my dad could see ahead. He had experience, and he prepared me for everything. He talked to me about taking English classes when I was only 13, because he said, ‘You’re going to need it when you see what’s coming.’ My dad emphasized that I should be a baseball player instead of a basketball player.”
Young Ortiz took his father’s advice and embraced his baseball potential. He was a teenager when he began to work out with one of the trainers (aka buscones) who match potential Latin Americans prospects with Major League teams.
The trainer who wound up taking the most interest in Ortiz was Hector Alvarez, who was known as “Machepa” and ran a training ground in Santo Domingo. It was Machepa who implored then-Mariners scout Ramón de los Santos to check out Ortiz. At that time, Ortiz was bummed about a failed attempt to latch on with the fledgling Florida Marlins, for whom he had an underwhelming tryout in part because of an ailing elbow. He thought he had blown his only shot at getting signed.
But when Machepa arranged for de los Santos to watch Ortiz take batting practice, the kid seized the moment by showcasing his prodigious raw power. He was signed to a professional contract with a $7,500 bonus on Nov. 28, 1992, just 10 days after his 17th birthday.
“Everything,” Ortiz says, “happened so fast.”
A couple weeks back, Ortiz was in the shower, thinking about that assignment (an awesome assignment, but an assignment all the same) that weighs on all people in his position:
From the moment a player is elected into the Hall of Fame, he is on the clock, tasked with distilling a long and distinguished baseball life down to (hopefully no more than) a handful of printed pages.
So there was Ortiz, lathering his body while mobilizing his memory. He was thinking of the moments that have mattered most to him and the things he wanted to say.
He was thinking, mostly, about the goodbye from his mom.
Ortiz had been summoned to rookie ball in Peoria, Ariz., for the summer of 1994, and that meant leaving his humble home and venturing into a new life. Though Haina was polluted by an automobile battery recycling factory and infested with drugs and crime, leaving behind his mother, Angela Rosa Arias, was not easy.
“I remember my mom, when she dropped me off at the airport, crying seeing her baby boy walking away for the first time,” Ortiz says. “It’s like when mama bird throws baby bird to fly away. We’re crying, and she was basically telling me all the things she had taught me over the years at once. I’ll never forget about that moment.”
Ortiz was so close with his mom that he would spend his earliest years in professional baseball answering to her last name. So that goodbye was difficult, and, unfortunately, Ortiz’s first summer in the States was no easier.
At age 18, Ortiz hit just .246 with 46 strikeouts and only two homers in 188 plate appearances in the Arizona Rookie League. His struggles extended off the field.
“It was hard for me at the beginning,” he says, “because I was very close with my mom. As a Dominican, you always want to have mom’s meals. I was mama’s baby boy, you know?”
Angela’s baby boy had too much talent not to figure it out, but Ortiz would have to figure it out in a second crack at Rookie-level ball in 1995.
Extended spring training was ending in ’95, and a bus was scheduled to drive the players selected for Single-A Everett (a short-season affiliate) from the Mariners’ Peoria complex to the airport. Ortiz was on that bus, eager to explore another level.
That is, until Everett manager Orlando Gomez boarded the bus and told Ortiz he would be staying behind.
“He pulled me out,” Ortiz recalls. “There was another first baseman, a guy named [Joe] Pomierski. I’m not good at remembering names, but I remember that one … They took him over me, because we had also signed Jay Buhner’s brother [Shawn, who was installed at full season Class A Wisconsin]. It was devastating for me.”
So Pomierski, whose career would eventually top out in Double-A, went to Everett, and Ortiz remained in Peoria, where his performance improved exponentially in that second season. This time, a 19-year-old Ortiz hit .332 with four homers, 18 doubles and four triples, earning him that aforementioned team MVP honor.
“That’s when I started figuring things out,” he says. “It was like, ‘OK, let’s go.’”
Off he went the following year to Wisconsin, which, in the spring of 1996, might as well have been another planet to a kid from the Dominican coast.
“It was freezing,” Ortiz says with a laugh. “I had never seen snow in my life.”
Ortiz didn’t see much playing time in his first month with the Timber Rattlers. But once manager Mike Goff began inserting him into the lineup, he proved a reliable producer not just of runs but of fun.
Even way back then, immersed in a world that was so new to him, Ortiz wasn’t afraid to let his personality shine.
“He was very loose,” recalls teammate Kevin Gryboski, who went on to play in the bigs and is now the head coach at Wilkes University. “From the clubhouse to the field. When guys were slumping, he kept them loose, too. He used to joke around with guys and be a prankster. That’s what made him stand out. He was bigger than everybody else, and he always wanted to be in the limelight, in the spotlight."
One day, Ortiz decided to man the wheel of the van that transported a group of Timber Rattlers players from the hotel to the ballpark.
“Everybody was like, ‘Holy [expletive], we’ve got a Dominican driver over here!” Ortiz recalls with another big laugh. “The good thing is I had my Dominican license at the time. But it was funny. Those were fun times, man.”
Winning times, too.
With Ortiz slashing .322/.390/.511, the Timber Rattlers had the highest run-scoring average in the Midwest League and advanced to the league’s championship series, where they lost to the West Michigan Whitecaps. Off the field, Ortiz met his wife, Tiffany, with whom he would spend the next 25 years (the couple announced a split in December 2021).
But when those who witnessed Ortiz in Wisconsin think back to that time, what they invariably remember most was not an actual game or a homer that counted. They remember an impromptu exhibition that would showcase Ortiz’s flair for the dramatic.
Two waves of summer storms had passed through Appleton, Wis., on Monday, July 29, 1996, and Timber Rattlers general manager Mike Birling and Mariners skipper Lou Piniella were walking together in the outfield grass to survey the resulting scene.
Birling’s hopes and plans hung in the balance in this moment. It had taken a lot of pleading and scheduling serendipity to get Piniella’s club to make this trek to tiny Appleton -- about 100 miles north of Milwaukee -- on an off day prior to a road series against the Brewers. Asking a big leaguer to sacrifice an off-day is like asking a juggler to sacrifice an arm.
But thanks to some coaxing from Alex Rodriguez, who had enjoyed his time in Appleton a couple years earlier, the Mariners had agreed to play an exhibition game against their Single-A squad as a showcase of Fox Cities Stadium, which had opened the previous season.
“The chances of a team from Seattle being anywhere near us on an off day are remote,” Birling says. “It worked out perfect that we were able to pull it together.”
Perfect, that is, until the rain came down. And now, much to Birling’s dismay, Piniella was walking in the outfield grass and shaking his head.
“No,” Piniella said, “we’re not putting these superstars on this wet field in the midst of a pennant race.”
(Actually, Piniella said something a LOT more colorful than that. But that was the gist of it.)
A sell-out crowd of 6,000 had paid good money to see the likes of A-Rod, Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner. There was no way to reschedule the game, no way to recoup the revenue that the Timber Rattlers would lose if it weren’t played.
All these years later, it’s hard to say who it was for certain, but some industrious individual came up with an acceptable alternative:
A home run derby.
“We were totally winging it,” Birling says. “Lou and the players and Mike Goff got together and figured it out.”
From the big league club, A-Rod, Griffey and catcher Dan Wilson agreed to participate. The Timber Rattlers countered with outfielder Luis Tinoco, hitting coach Joaquin Contreras and Ortiz.
“Our hitting coach and Luis got eliminated pretty quickly,” Gryboski recalls, “and so did Griffey and A-Rod.”
This became one of those derbies in which the final result -- Wilson outhomering Ortiz in the finals -- was inconsequential. Like Josh Hamilton at Yankee Stadium in 2008, Ortiz was the runner-up who stole the show, advancing to the finals with a series of prodigious pokes.
“I remember that like it was yesterday,” Ortiz says. “I knew I was going to compete against one of my idols, Ken Griffey Jr. I wanted to be like that guy. And I don’t know. … I took things to the next level.”
In old news footage of the derby that went viral around the time of Ortiz’s election to the Hall, A-Rod is watching his opponent, Ortiz, and says to his teammates, “I ain’t got a chance!”
The legend is that Ortiz hit several homers that sailed beyond Fox Cities Stadium’s periphery and onto the neighboring Interstate 41 on-ramp.
“I’m sure the stories get twisted over the years,” Gryboski says. “But to tell you the truth, they did actually go that far.”
The next day, Birling and his staff were concerned they might be inundated with requests for refunds from fans upset they didn’t get to see an actual game.
As it turned out, not a single person wanted the money back.
“All we heard,” says Birling, who is now the vice president of baseball operations for the Durham Bulls, “was how incredible it was.”
For Ortiz, who went on to win the real Home Run Derby in 2010, the experience gets to the heart of what eventually made him an October legend.
“Since I was a kid, my dad used to work all the time,” he says. “So when he came to watch me play, I wanted to put on a show. I used to love those moments. I wanted those moments. All I wanted to do is hit this baseball the farthest I can. I wanted to show them how powerful I was. And it really happened.”
When it was over, the Mariners boarded their team bus to Milwaukee, with a story to tell about this young dude from the Dominican who had hit baseballs onto the highway. They had joked about taking Ortiz with them.
But exactly one month later, on Aug. 29, their front office made the trade for Dave Hollins.
“Don’t let [Ortiz] leave the ballpark.”
On the night of Sept. 13, 1996, manager Mike Goff had just returned from the field where his Timber Rattlers were eliminated in the Midwest League championship to find the phone in his office ringing. It was Minor League director Larry Beinfest on the other line.
Goff knew exactly what that meant. His first baseman was the player to be named. (This was back when you could still make trades up until Aug. 31 if the Major Leaguers involved went through waivers first. The “hard” Trade Deadline at the end of July went into effect in 2019).
When the Mariners had made the trade for Hollins two weeks earlier, Minnesota’s return was not revealed. The Mariners sent their trade partner a list of players they were willing to part with, and the Twins had time to evaluate their options.
At the time the Mariners made the deal for Hollins, they were five games back of the Rangers in the AL West race and within one game of the Orioles and White Sox for the AL’s lone Wild Card spot. A year earlier, a September surge had vaulted the “Refuse to Lose” Mariners to the West crown and their first postseason appearance. That run is widely credited with saving baseball in Seattle, as it helped inspire the state legislature to approve the funding that led to the building of a new ballpark to replace the aging Kingdome.
One can understand, therefore, why the Mariners did not want to waste an opportunity for another October entry.
In June, the club had lost regular third baseman Russ Davis to a broken left leg when his spikes caught in the Kauffman Stadium turf. For nearly three months, the M’s had tried a hodgepodge of different players at the position but were searching for stability. Hollins was a pending free agent on a going-nowhere Twins team. He got on base, he played good defense, and he was an upgrade over what the Mariners had.
So general manager Woody Woodward made the deal.
“You make that move when you’re in win-now mode,” says Beinfest, who went on to become GM of the Marlins. “Most [players you give up] don’t become Hall of Famers. [Ortiz] hadn’t matured into Big Papi mode at the time we traded him. There was recognition that we had a good prospect, but it wasn’t clear if he would be able to play first base and we already had a Hall of Fame DH there in Edgar Martinez. So you look at your inventory of what may or may not be expendable.”
Goff, who is now the bench coach at Arizona State, had pleaded with the front office that season not to make Ortiz expendable. But when he received that call from Beinfest, he knew he had been overruled.
“It was one of the worst trades ever made,” he told ESPN in 2016.
That is a characterization that is both unfair, given everything acknowledged above, and accurate. Actually, Hollins was great for the Mariners in 28 games, slashing .351/.438/.479. But one good month of Hollins does not account for one Cooperstown-worthy career from Ortiz, and, anyway, the 1996 Mariners finished second in the West and 2 1/2 games back of the Wild Card.
If there is a saving grace to the Mariners punting on Ortiz prematurely, it’s that they weren’t the only ones.
“The more surprising move,” says Mike Birling, “was that after the Twins got him, he didn’t have that career with the Twins.”
Among the early evaluators of Ortiz’s talent, Goff, who did not respond to interview requests for this story, was one of the few who recognized something truly special.
During the 1996 season, Goff was hard on Ortiz, routinely fining him for what Ortiz would only say were “not bad things but stupid things that you need to be disciplined by your coaches for.” Each fine was about $20, which was big money for a Minor Leaguer.
At the end of the season, before the playoffs, Goff called Ortiz into his office.
“You know why I messed with you all the time?” the skipper said. “Because of all the guys here, you have the opportunity to have a career in the big leagues, and I don’t want you to screw that up.”
Goff handed Ortiz an envelope with all his money back.
“That was something very powerful to me,” Ortiz says. “He kept me on my toes, but he could see my talent and he didn’t want me to throw that away. I want to have that man at my induction.”
In Ortiz’s time with Seattle, he learned how to be a pro and how to dazzle a crowd, while also developing a chip on his shoulder.
Even Piniella’s cold “congratulations” had a lasting impact.
“Now when I’m in a position to congratulate someone,” Ortiz says, “I make sure that person feels right about what they accomplished, and I want to make sure that what I tell you motivates you to continue moving forward.”
When Ortiz receives his Hall of Fame plaque, it will mention his 541 home runs, his 2,472 hits, his 1,768 RBIs, his 10 All-Star appearances. It will even mention the Twins, for whom he made his Major League debut in 1997 and played parts of six seasons.
Alas, the plaque probably won’t mention Ortiz’s forgotten franchise, the Mariners. So let this story be the document and the salute Seattle earned by bringing Big Papi into the professional fold and teaching him some important lessons.