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The Day David Ortiz Made His MLB Debut... At Wrigley Field

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It was little-noted at the time... but with the Red Sox star retiring after 2016, let’s take a look back at his first major-league game.

David Ortiz as a Minnesota Twin
Sporting News via Getty Images

I took particular note of baseball history Tuesday, September 2, 1997 at Wrigley Field even before that evening’s game began.

Why? It was the 25th anniversary of Milt Pappas’ no-hitter, at the time the most recent no-no in Cubs history.

And I remember saying to Mike that day, “If you had told me on the day of the no-hitter, that 25 years later to the day the Cubs would be playing the Minnesota Twins in a night game, I’d have thought you were crazy.”

But there they were, the Twins visiting Wrigley in the first year of interleague play, and by then night baseball was getting to be routine, in its 10th season.

Other than that, this game on the day after Labor Day was nothing special. It was between two teams playing out the string, the 55-83, last-place Cubs against the 57-78, fourth-place Twins.

In the seventh inning, with the Twins trailing 9-2, they sent up a kid who was two months short of his 22nd birthday to make his major-league debut, pinch-hitting for pitcher Travis Miller.

I wish I could tell you I took particular note of this at-bat 19 years ago today, but that wouldn’t be true. David Ortiz was just one of four Twins September callup names I hand-wrote onto my scorecard (link opens .pdf) that evening. (Two of those players, Dan Serafini and Todd Walker, would later play for the Cubs.) At the time, he was just another kid, another rookie passing through.

Ortiz lofted a line drive to left field, which was caught by Cubs left fielder Doug Glanville, and the game continued, eventually won by the Cubs 9-3.

The next afternoon, Ortiz again was sent up to pinch-hit, this time for pitcher Dan Naulty in a game the Twins trailed 8-4. He doubled to right-center, his first big-league hit (duly recorded on my scorecard — link again opens .pdf), and the first of 626 career doubles, which ranks 10th on the all-time list. He scored on a home run by Rich Becker, the first of 1,404 career runs (and counting).

There is no way I, or anyone watching that game, could have guessed that this young player would be headed for a Hall of Fame career. The Twins certainly didn’t think so — they had him ride up and down the shuttle to Triple-A for a couple more years and unconditionally released him at the end of the 2002 season. (There were financial reasons for this, as I recall.) The Red Sox scooped him up (just two months into Theo Epstein’s tenure as GM there, one of his first free-agent signings) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Ortiz, who went 7-for-21 (.333/.440/.857) with two doubles and three home runs at Wrigley Field in his career, won’t play at Wrigley again — unless the Red Sox and Cubs meet in this year’s World Series, which is entirely possible. Thinking about this led me to this idea. As I noted above, Ortiz’s first at-bat wound up as a line drive to left field caught by Glanville, who grew up in New Jersey and played college baseball in Philadelphia (Penn).

Picture this scenario: it’s Game 5 of the World Series at Wrigley, the top of the ninth inning, and the Cubs need one more out to win the game and the Series over the Red Sox. Ortiz, limited to bench duty in the N.L. home of the Cubs, steps in to pinch-hit. And he hits a fly ball to left field.

Waiting there to catch it is Matt Szczur. Who grew up in New Jersey. And played his college baseball in Philadelphia (Villanova).

Nice dream, right?