Remembering When David Ortiz Could Have Been a New York Yankee

Steinbrenner Wanted Big Papi

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Remembering When David Ortiz Could Have Been a New York Yankee
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Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. Photo by Keith Allison.

COMMENTARY | As David Ortiz celebrates winning the third Boston Red Sox World Series championship in 10 years, New York Yankees fans may recall that Big Papi could have been a Yankee if team owner George Steinbrenner had his way.

Before the 2003 season, Steinbrenner reportedly urged general manager Brian Cashman to sign Ortiz, who had been released in December 2002 by the Minnesota Twins.

According to reports, Bill Emslie -- a former umpire and member of New York's scouting staff -- had initially pushed for signing the then-27-year-old Ortiz.

After Ortiz went on to have a breakout season with his new club in Boston, Steinbrenner reminded reporters about his wanting to sign the big Dominican months earlier.

In a September 2003 article in the New York Post, Steinbrenner said Boston general manager Theo Epstein had done "the best job of putting together a team in baseball." He also chastised Cashman for passing on his recommendation to sign Ortiz, who signed with Boston that January and batted .327 (6 HR, 14 RBIs, 1.129 OPS) in 15 games against New York that season. (For his career, he's batted .318 (39 HR, 64 2B, 139 RBIs, .983 OPS) in 192 games the Yankees.)

In an article appearing the following day, Cashman responded to Steinbrenner's claim, telling the New York Times, "I wasn't looking to corner the market on first basemen." In 2012, Cashman cited "mainly financial reasons" for his disinterest in Ortiz nearly a decade earlier.

It was a somewhat valid point, as the Yankees already had Jason Giambi and Nick Johnson under contract that season. Nevertheless, the team did sign 37-year-old free agent Todd Zeile, who started 17 games at first base that year. (Ortiz, meanwhile, signed a 1-year deal with the Red Sox for $1.25 million.)

That season, the Yankees beat the Ortiz-less Twins in the American League Division Series and the Ortiz-led Red Sox in the American Championship Series but lost the World Series to the Florida Marlins in six games.

Since 2003, the Yankees have been to the World Series one other time, beating the Philadelphia Phillies in six games in 2009. Meanwhile, the Red Sox have broken the Curse of Babe Ruth and won three World Series titles. One wonders, however, what would have happened if Steinbrenner had gotten his wish and Ortiz -- this year's World Series MVP -- was a Yankee.

Actually, if any fans should be rethinking their team's decision-making as it relates to Ortiz, it should be Seattle Mariners fans.

In August 1996, in what will go down as one of the worst trades in Seattle history, the Mariners traded "a player to be named later" to the Minnesota Twins for third baseman Dave Hollins. The Mariners -- a team that already boasted Ken Griffey, Jr.; Edgar Martinez, Alex Rodriguez; and Jay Buhner -- were looking for another big bat in the lineup and somehow thought Hollins (13 HR, 102 K in 121 games for the Twins) was the answer. He wasn't, and on September 13, 1996, the Mariners sent 20-year-old Ortiz, who had batted .322 (18 HR, 93 RBIs, .901 OPS) in 129 games that season for the Single-A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, to the Twins.

Howard Z. Unger is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn, New York. For the past 15 years, he has written about sports, media, and popular culture. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, New York Post, and New York Times.

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