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Smashing success

Sox GM Theo Epstein hit the jackpot with David Ortiz, who is having a blast in Boston -- and a career year, too

Soon it will be the stuff of urban legend -- that Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez are responsible for delivering David Ortiz, their slugging Dominican compatriot, to the Red Sox. Nice tale, especially if Ortiz continues to make like Mo Vaughn dancing to a merengue beat, with one big hit after another to propel the Sox toward October and the playoffs.

But while the two Sox superstars made their voices heard during the time the Sox were cutting a one-year, $1.25 million deal with Ortiz late in the winter signing season -- Jan. 22, less than a month before the start of spring training -- the Sox had targeted Ortiz long before as someone they wanted to include in their first base-DH mix.

Even when Sox general manager Theo Epstein was still an underling with the Padres, baseball people were aware he liked Ortiz. And as soon as last season ended, Epstein laid the groundwork for putting him in a Sox uniform.

"We talked with Terry Ryan about trading for Ortiz at the beginning of the offseason," Epstein said the other day in Baltimore, referring to conversations he had with the Twins GM before Minnesota elected to let Ortiz go because of financial considerations. "But we knew they'd probably nontender him [a contract], so we didn't come close to a deal. When he was let go, we were obviously on him.

"That's when Martinez and Ramirez got in the act. Pedro called Jack McCormick [the traveling secretary] and said that Ortiz was a really good guy and would be a good addition. I also got word from Manny's agent [Jeff Moorad] that Manny felt the same way, but by then we were pretty far along with the negotiations."

Dave Jauss, the Sox' major league advance scout who is managing in the Dominican, worked out Ortiz at first base and reported to Epstein that Ortiz could handle the position.

"We were going to sign two players out of the group that included Ortiz, Kevin Millar, Brad Fullmer, Travis Lee, and Greg Colbrunn, among others," said Epstein, who already had acquired Jeremy Giambi in a trade with the Phillies. "Ortiz and Millar were at the top of our list."

The Ortiz signing not only confirmed the good judgment of Martinez and Ramirez, it validated Epstein's decision to stockpile players seemingly cut from the same mold: first baseman-DH types who had a good on-base percentage, power potential, and were limited defensively.

At the time, the Sox were ridiculed for coming into camp with four potential starting first basemen: Ortiz, Millar, Giambi, and Shea Hillenbrand, who was looking at being transferred cross-diamond after the Sox signed third baseman Bill Mueller to a two-year deal. How would Grady Little possibly find time for all of them?

As these things tend to do, the logjam sorted itself out. "The surplus turned out to be huge for us," Epstein said. "If we hadn't signed Mueller and had to keep Hillenbrand, we would never have gotten BK Kim, and when Giambi underperformed and got hurt, we had Millar and Ortiz. We would never have been able to acquire that kind of bat in the season."

Frustration hits

Giambi, who was expected to collect at least 500 at-bats at first base or DH, got off to a brutal start, then underwent shoulder surgery, and when Hillenbrand was traded to Arizona May 29, Ortiz finally got his chance to play. A good thing, too, because when the Sox played the Yankees in that stretch, there were rumors floating through the New York clubhouse that Ortiz had asked to be traded.

Ortiz has consistently denied those rumors. "It was never that direct," said Epstein, though he acknowledged he did hear from Ortiz's agent at the time. "David was understandably frustrated, but he also was very patient. He was always a good teammate and a good team player through the whole thing."

Ortiz hit just three home runs in his first 50 games. "It's funny," said Sox utility man Damian Jackson. "When he first got to Boston it was cold and the ball wasn't carrying well. He was really down on himself. He wasn't playing every day and he felt the times he did get in there he was hitting balls to right field that were being caught on the track. Everybody knew that on warmer days those balls would have been way up in the seats.

"I talked to him then about hitting the ball into the gaps. I told him, `With your power, in this park, you will end up with 30 home runs and 30 doubles.' You can ask him."

The 6-foot-4-inch, 230-pound Ortiz comes into this weekend's series with the White Sox well on track to match -- and exceed -- Jackson's prediction. He has a career-high 26 home runs, 37 doubles, and 91 RBIs. Settled into the fifth slot, Ortiz has punished pitchers who thought they could work around cleanup man Ramirez.

Lately, he has been the catalyst of the team's stretch drive. In his last 19 games, Ortiz has had 10 home runs and driven in 28 runs. Three times in the last 15 games, Ortiz has matched his career high with four RBIs, he homered in six straight starts from Aug. 23-30, and had a remarkable stretch at the end of July when he had a dozen consecutive extra-base hits.

And he's done it all with self-deprecating irreverence that makes him as popular in the Sox dugout as he was in Minnesota, where players routinely made him the target of practical jokes. The most notorious prank pulled on Ortiz was the time a teammate -- all evidence points to Corey Koskie -- removed Ortiz's clothes and wrapped them in ice, distracting Ortiz from Koskie's main bit of mischief, which was to fill Ortiz's underwear with peanut butter. The hilarity reached its apex when Twins pitcher Rick Reed threw bread at the apoplectic Ortiz.

Lighting up a room

In a Sox clubhouse in which several players have taken a vow of silence with the media and even the good-humored Millar has taken umbrage with what he perceives as negativity, Ortiz punctures any tension with a wisecrack and a smile. During one of Little's pregame sessions with the media, Ortiz stuck his head inside the manager's office and profanely demanded to know what was going on. Little invited him to answer a question that had just been posed about how frustrated the Sox were about losing to the mediocre Orioles.

Ortiz snapped back an off-color answer in which he said, among other things, that the Sox were prepared to drink the Orioles' beer and beat them badly. The room, including Little, cracked up. The Sox won the next two games against the Orioles. That night, Ortiz hit a home run -- a franchise-record 214th -- and knocked in four runs, which meant there was a crowd of reporters around his locker.

"Let me take a shower first," he said "I stink, man. I smell like barbecued ribs."

Someone mentioned how Ramirez, not known for playing at a breakneck pace, had scored from first on Ortiz's single. "I got my man working hard," Ortiz said with a laugh. "Manny asked me why I didn't hit a home run. I said, `Man, sometimes you gotta do something for your homeboy.' "

That afternoon, Ortiz had been sitting in the visitor's dugout in Camden Yards talking about how he became a ballplayer. "I loved basketball, man," he said. "I wanted to be Michael Jordan. But Jose Paniagua, the guy who later pitched for the Mariners, he used to be on me all the time about playing baseball. The basketball court was next to the baseball field, and he was on me all the time asking me to come play. Finally I played, and I hit a home run my first at-bat. Paniagua, he was crazy, man. He said that if he saw me playing basketball anymore, he would kick my butt. I used to be dribbling on the court, watching for him, and guys would steal the ball from me. When I'd see him, I'd jump over the fence to the baseball field.

"Eight months after I started playing, the Mariners signed me." That was in 1992, when Ortiz was 17. He said that Paniagua had to share the credit. "My pa, Enrique, made me a baseball player," Ortiz said. "He was a pitcher on the island and he threw gas."

Three years later in 1995, Ortiz went to the Twins in Seattle's deal for infielder Dave Hollins. He was in the big leagues by 1998 and in the bigs to stay by 2000.

But Ortiz, who last season hit .272 with 20 home runs and 75 RBIs for the Twins, wasn't healthy in either of the last two seasons. He fractured his right wrist while sliding into home in a game in Kansas City in May 2001, then underwent surgery to remove bone chips from his right knee April 25, 2002. That season was overshadowed by the death of his mother, Angela Rosa Arias, killed in an automobile accident in the Dominican. She was 47. David is the oldest of four children.

"I arrived there eight minutes after the accident," he said, "My sister was driving the same way with her boyfriend. They called me. My sister couldn't even talk. Her boyfriend told me." Ortiz wears a necklace with a silver medallion that says, "Angela R.I.P."

"I think of her every day," he said.

The Twins did not want to pay Ortiz what he would command in salary arbitration and did not offer him a contract for the 2003 season. The Sox, expecting him to be a part-timer at best, got him for low money, about half of what his predecessor, Brian Daubach, received the year before. Now they have him under control for at least another season in which he can figure to receive somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million, a bargain given his production.

"My biggest problem is that I've never had much more than 400 at-bats," Ortiz said, "This year I've been healthy, and I've had a better year. Would I like to stay here? Oh man, it's fun to play for this ball club. I hope I can keep it that way."

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