Every time David Ortiz does something amazing like he did last night, hitting a grand slam in the eighth inning of ALCS Game 2, tying the game 5-5 and sending Fenway Park into apoplexy, I think, however briefly, about Jose Morban.
Jose Morban was a shortstop prospect in the Rangers organization in the early aughts, though calling him a prospect is being too kind. He couldn't hit higher than .250 in the Sally League in 2001, and by the end of the 2002 season, he was a 23-year-old kid who hadn't even made it into Double-A ball. For comparison, current Rangers shortstop/infield/whatever phenom Jurickson Profar is 20 and has already played a couple of years in the majors, and 20-year-old Red Sox future shortstop Xander Bogaerts is getting playoff at-bats. Morban wouldn't have seemed particularly desirable, but people always want shortstops, even if they're not any good.
That included, in December 2002, the Minnesota Twins. The Twins were facing a roster crunch that year, with too many DH/slugger types. To quote from this AP story, they had "Matthew LeCroy, Bobby Kielty, Dustan Mohr and Michael Cuddyer, four young right-handed hitters who should all see some time at DH in 2003." So when the Rangers left Morban available in the Rule V draft, the Twins, in need of "a speedy backup middle infielder," grabbed him. To free up the roster space... they released Ortiz. The rap on Ortiz at the time was that he was just too injury-prone, as well as too left-handed for a team that struggled against lefties, to hang around. So the Twins just cut him before he hit arbitration.
You can't put all this on the Twins; general manager Terry Ryan tried to trade Ortiz but couldn't find any takers. "I would've liked to have found a home for him," Ryan said. "We exhausted every avenue." And the Red Sox played Ortiz so little his first two months with the team that Ortiz told his agent to demand a trade from the Sox. Instead, Theo Epstein sent Shea Hillenbrand to Arizona for Byung-Hyun Kim, opening up a lineup spot for Ortiz. To think all this has happened because of Shea Hillenbrand and Jose Morban. Morban never had an at-bat for Minnesota by the way; he had 77 for Baltimore in 2003 and then never reached the majors again. Shea Hillenbrand lasted until 2007. David Ortiz is still playing.
If you think yesterday's display of New England sports primacy -- albeit primacy in front of crowds that appeared to have mostly left an hour earlier -- was exhausting, just wait until next year: It's going to be the 10-year anniversary of that 2004 Red Sox team. This is probably going to require all of us:
- to pretend we like listening to Johnny Damon and Branson Arroyo bang their guitars;
- to listen to Curt Schilling talk about his damned ankle some more;
- to listen to Curt Schilling talk about other Curt Schilling body parts and feelings Curt Schilling is currently having some more.
We'll all get through it together.
It's difficult to deny, though, that the last decade has been the decade of the Red Sox. Two other teams, the Giants and the Cardinals, have won multiple titles during that time, but no one changed the landscape of baseball more than the Red Sox. They, not Billy Beane's A's, truly ushered advanced analysis into (almost) every front office in the game. (Titles will do that.) They turned their rusty old clunk of a ballpark into a civic destination that now everyone pretends they never wanted to tear down. They changed the whole marketing of the game and the way it is televised; constant reaction shots from the crowd were common before the 2004 World Series, but the Sox and Fox made it an art form.
We are still living in the world of the Red Sox. When the Red Sox aren't good, the entire universe of baseball seems upended; in this way, they have even surpassed their rival Yankees. The whole "every-game-goes-past-midnight-every-October" business? The Red Sox didn't start that, but they'll always own it. The game is different because of them.
And the one guy at the center of all of that has been Ortiz. He has morphed from curio to star to superstar to scandal flashpoint to underrated to star again to ultimately Mayor Of New England. Nobody is left from the 2004 team but Ortiz, yet he's as integral a contributor as he ever was. There was a time that when you thought of the Red Sox, you thought of Pedro Martinez, or Schilling, or Damon, or Terry Francona, or even Epstein. Not anymore. Now you only think of Ortiz.
There has been some debate in recent years as to how much postseason success should count in Hall of Fame voting. Obviously, you can't overcount it -- the ball David Freese hit in 2011 will be in Cooperstown forever, but he'll never be -- but in an age where there are more postseason games than ever, and those games are considered more important than years before, it seems foolish not to consider it a potential tiebreaker, at least. (This is why writers like Joe Sheehan argue in favor of Bernie Williams.) Ortiz has been terrific in the postseason, with a .935 OPS, higher than his career numbers, but it's not about numbers, really: Ortiz now has three signature postseason moments in Boston. The homer to cap off the 2004 ALDS, the Game 4 homer in the ALCS and then last night's grand slam, which, if the Red Sox come back and win this series, will be considered the turnaround moment, much like his homer against the Yankees in 2004.
One suspects, too, that his fervent denials of a positive 2003 drug test will end up holding more weight in 15 years than they did five years ago. His real moment, though, the one that may lock him as the spokesperson for this breakthrough era of Red Sox baseball, was probably at the beginning of this season, when he addressed the Fenway Park crowd in the first game back after the Boston bombing. (Obviously, an "inappropriate language" warning applies here, since that's sort of the point.)
That was Big Papi: Loud, gregarious, irrepressible and undeniably Boston. When Ortiz hit that home run last night, it felt right, it felt just, it felt like of course Papi is the one that hit it. We're starting to close the doors on that mid-2000s era of baseball. The Red Sox aren't cursed anymore: They're the establishment. Homers are rare: Big hefty dudes like Papi can't hit 55 homers like it's nothing these days. The Yankees play in some ugly cathedral with no history; Curt Schilling's under federal indictment; Theo Epstein is in Chicago trying to create new history all together; Terry Francona was run off, for some reason. It's all different. But there is Big Papi, hitting homers deep into the night, getting all of Boston to scream as one once again. The world has changed, but Big Papi hasn't. He is a reassuring constant: He is a link to when this Red Sox stuff all felt a little more fun, and a reminder that it could be again. Unless they trade him for Jose Morban.