Last week, the National Baseball Hall of Fame was the subject of controversy given who was eligible to be nominated this year.
Lost in all the discourse was the lone name who will be honored in the Hall: David Ortiz. Big Papi finished his career with a .286/.380/.552 slash line and slugged 521 career home runs in 20 seasons. Ortiz was seen as the face of the Boston Red Sox during what was arguably their best stretch in franchise history. They won the World Series in 2004, 2007, and 2013 during his time in Boston.
Ortiz was known for coming up with clutch hits in big situations. He burst onto the scene in the 2004 postseason. Down three games to none against the Yankees in the ALCS, Ortiz clubbed a walk-off two-run shot in the 12th inning that kept the series. He also had a walk-off single in Game 5. He followed that up with a two-run homer in the first inning of Game 7. Boston would win 10-3 and take the World Series.
It wasn’t just the heroics that made that 2004 run so special. The Red Sox won the World Series for the first time since 1918. Ortiz was the spark that ignited one of the most thrilling comebacks in postseason history, breaking the famous “Curse of the Bambino.”
As fans in the Twin Cities have painfully known for two decades now, Ortiz started his career in a Minnesota Twins uniform. Longtime Twins general manager Terry Ryan has openly called that move his biggest regret. Looking back all those years, could the Twins have cursed themselves against the team that made the same mistake 86 years prior?
The Curse of the Bambino was created in 1919 when Boston traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees. The trade impacted both franchises’ future. New York went on to win multiple titles led some of the greatest ballplayers of that generation. And Ruth was the centerpiece of it all.
While The Babe’s curse will always have more significance in baseball lore, both situations have strong parallels. Ruth and Ortiz had similar stories when it came to their first big-league teams.
Initially, it looked like the Twins didn’t need Ortiz. They had won back-to-back AL Central titles in 2003 and 2004. With more postseason stops in 2006, 2009, and 2010. But while they have had regular-season success, Minnesota only has one playoff win since 2003. The team is 1-18 in that span, including their current 16-game losing streak. They could have used someone like Ortiz, who was capable of racking up clutch hits. The last time the Twins won a playoff series was with Ortiz on the roster nearly 20 years ago.
Similarly, the Red Sox went through an 86-year title drought while their most bitter rival went on to win multiple World Series titles. And it wasn’t like they didn’t have opportunities to win during that span. That includes four postseason trips that all ended in failure over the next 70 years. The most famous one was the 1986 World Series when Bill Buckner made his infamous error. Boston made multiple postseason trips in the 1990s and early 2000s, only to fall short before 2004.
Those early Boston teams could have used Ruth. The Twins could have benefited from having Ortiz because they lacked a strong designated hitter during most of their postseason runs.
Ortiz hit .266/.348/.461 with 58 home runs in his six years with Minnesota. He debuted in 1997, but poor performance and injuries kept him from being the player he was in Boston. He put things together in 2002, though, slashing .272/.339/.500 with 20 home runs mainly as the designated hitter. The Twins returned to the postseason and beat the Moneyball Oakland A’s before losing to the eventually world-champion Los Angeles Angels. It was Big Papi’s first taste of the postseason. There were no home runs for Ortiz that year, but he did notch four doubles in the playoffs that season and hit .231/.231/.385 in the ALDS against the Oakland A’s and .313/.313/.375 in the ALCS playing the Angels.
However, his efforts weren’t enough. The Twins opted to release Ortiz that offseason after failing to trade him. Multiple things led to his departure. Minnesota did not want to pay Ortiz more money in arbitration, and injuries like bone spurs hampered what could have been a better 2002 season. Ryan didn’t blame the payroll, though. Last week, he told the Boston Sports Journal, “That would be a lame excuse in this instance. He had ability; I just didn’t recognize it enough.”
After he cleared waivers, the Red Sox picked up Ortiz, offering him a prove-it deal for one season. In 2003, he went from a nice player to a baseball legend. Ortiz slashed .288/.369/.592 and smacked 31 home runs, earning him another one-year deal, this time worth $4.5 million. Ortiz continued his rise in 2004, earning himself a 2-year, $12 million extension. He would reach the All-Star game in each of the next five seasons. But it was that 2004 season that made him not just a legend in Boston but one of the faces of Major League Baseball for the next decade-plus.
Like Ortiz, Ruth made a name for himself in Boston by slashing .308/.413/.568 and hitting 49 homers in six seasons. It’s also important to note that his offensive production seems higher during that time due to multiple factors, including the difference in play styles, how they count home runs and the quality of pitching at the time. But Ruth’s numbers skyrocketed once he set foot in New York. In 15 seasons with the Yankees, the Great Bambino hit .349/.484/.711 with 659 home runs. The Sultan of Swat was traded to New York after the 1919 season when Boston wanted to slash payroll and dump the talented Ruth because he was a headache on and off the field.
What makes Ruth and Ortiz’s departures sting so bad isn’t that they didn’t make an impact as young players. It’s that they took their play to a whole new level. Ruth and Ortiz went from fine ballplayers to baseball legends who wouldn’t let their previous teams forget moving on from them.
Curses are a fun thing to look at in sports. Fans love to use them as scapegoats when their favorite team falls short. In reality, teams control their destinies for the most part, and it’s incredibly challenging to win the postseason. Ruth probably didn’t curse the Red Sox, nor did Ortiz the Twins. But it’s hard to imagine that the Twins aren’t getting some kind of cosmic payback for dumping Ortiz.