It was January of 2003, and Star Tribune photographer Marlin Levison and I were in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, watching the Tigres del Licey play a home game.
Then-Twins executive Bill Smith was guiding us on a tour of the team’s facilities in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. We visited the boyhood home of shortstop Cristian Guzman, which featured mud walls, dirt floors and a Tom Kelly bobblehead. On the day we visited David Ortiz, the Twins announced that they had released him.
Ortiz looked hurt but took the news quietly. He talked briefly in the dugout before the game, and then hit a home run as the crowd cheered wildly and waved banners.
Even back then, before he was a star, Ortiz was an almost mythic figure in his home country and among Twins teammates. His was always the biggest personality in the ballpark, even when the ballpark contained Torii Hunter and Doug Mientkiewicz.
Sunday night, at a bar in Santo Domingo, a gunman shot Ortiz in the back. After surgery in his home country, the Red Sox flew him to Boston, where he underwent a second surgery Tuesday and is stable, awake and resting comfortably, according to his wife.
Remembering happier times is not difficult when it comes to Ortiz. As a Twin, Ortiz was the centerpiece of many a joke. When Ron Gardenhire took over as manager, he bet Ortiz that he couldn’t hit a golf ball over a fence at spring training. Ortiz took a mighty cut, and the ball exploded.
Then there was the spring training prank in which Corey Koskie filled Ortiz’s jeans with ice and peanut butter, the ice causing Ortiz to overlook the peanut butter until he had walked across the clubhouse.
The Twins were ridiculed when Ortiz went on to become a superstar and folk hero in Boston. The decision did not bring derision at the time.
Over six seasons with the Twins, Ortiz amassed an on-base plus slugging percentage of .809 while hitting 58 home runs and had trouble staying healthy. After the Twins released him, he signed with Boston on a one-year, non-guaranteed contract that paid him $1.25 million to back up first baseman Jeremy Giambi.
No big-league team thought Ortiz was a starter, or worth $2 million a year. That’s when his exploits began matching his persona.
“David Ortiz is, as we know, as everybody knows, one of the best players in the Dominican Republic and one of the best people you can meet,” Twins shortstop Jorge Polanco said. “He’s a fun guy, really happy. He will talk to you when you need it. He will talk to everybody when they need it. I’m just sad this happened to him. I hope for the best for him, and I know everything is going to be fine.”
Polanco, Nelson Cruz, Michael Pineda and Miguel Sano are Twins who hail from the Dominican Republic. Tuesday afternoon, Cruz said he was going to reach out to Ortiz’s family.
“He’s one of our big ambassadors,” Cruz said. “He has represented us for such a long time, both on the field and off the field. He helps the community, in Boston and all over the state and in the Dominican through his foundation.
“He’s an inspiration for a lot of players in the Dominican — kids, even guys who were in the league when he was playing, including myself. Definitely a sad moment for the whole country and in the States and for everybody who has a relationship with him.”
Baseball is the primary sport and source of national pride in the Dominican Republic. “We find when one of us comes to the big leagues, we all try to embrace them, to make them feel like they’re part of the league, even if they’re on different teams,” Cruz said. “That’s the way he would treat us.”
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli played for the Red Sox and alongside Ortiz in 2009. “I think everyone in baseball is thinking about David,” Baldelli said. “He’s a very, very special person to a lot of different people in this game, and outside the game. I told a couple of friends of mine, ‘He’s an ambassador, he’s a hero to a lot of people, in the Dominican Republic, all over Latin America, all over the United States, in Boston.
“He’s touched a lot of different people in his life and because of that, there are a lot of people pulling for him right now and thinking about him and what we want is for him to just be OK. He’s a special guy to me, too.”