During the 1996 season, Mariners general manager Woody Woodward asked Mike Goff, the team’s manager of the Class A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, who he felt were the “untouchable” players on his team. In other words, the ones with too much promise to give up in a trade.
Goff gave him two names: Greg Wooten, a dominating right-handed pitcher, and, more emphatically, a power-hitting first baseman named David Arias.
“He (Woodward) kind of laughed, and said, ‘You wouldn’t trade him for anybody?’ And I said, ‘No, I wouldn’t.’ “
Wooten, who was headed to stardom until an arm injury derailed his career, never made the majors. And on Tuesday, David Arias — better known today as David Ortiz — became a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Ortiz’s roots in the Mariners organization are the stuff of legend, particularly a Home Run Derby at the Timber Rattlers’ stadium in Appleton, Wisconsin, that is still talked about in awe to this day.
His brief stay is also the stuff of frustration and regret. The Mariners, infamously, did not heed Goff’s advice, trading Arias to the Twins in September 1996 as the player to be named later in a deal that brought veteran third baseman Dave Hollins to Seattle.
The Hollins deal was actually made Aug. 29. Regular third baseman Russ Davis was injured, and manager Lou Piniella was desperate to upgrade the position as the Mariners tried to make a playoff run. So with a month to go in the season, Hollins was acquired for … no one knew yet.
Goff, now the bench coach for ex-Mariner Willie Bloomquist at Arizona State, will never forget finding out that the player to be named later was one of his untouchables. (And truly a player to be named later — when Arias arrived in Minneapolis, he informed the Twins he wanted to be known by the surname “Ortiz”).
The Timber Rattlers were a powerhouse that year, advancing to the championship series in the Midwest League, where they lost to West Michigan. The final game Sept. 13 was barely finished when the phone rang in Goff’s office. It was Larry Beinfest, Seattle’s minor-league director.
“I’ll never forget it,” Goff said Tuesday in a phone interview. “He said, ‘Don’t let Arias leave the clubhouse.’ And I just went crazy. I said, ‘Don’t tell me he’s the player to be named later.’ He said, ‘Goffy, yes, he was.’
“Having to tell that kid that night after losing I think a 2-1 ballgame for the league championship — he didn’t want to leave. He said, ‘I don’t want to be traded. I love it here.’ So I had to explain it to him and see him in tears, not wanting to be traded as a 19-year-old kid who just had the year of his life.”
What endeared Ortiz to everyone in Wisconsin was not just his talent, which was readily apparent. Goff said, “People to this day ask who was the best hitter you’ve ever seen. It was him. No question about it.”
Ortiz, who was 19 and playing his first full season in the minors, nearly won the Triple Crown, hitting .322 with 18 homers and 93 RBI. But he also made his mark with an effervescent personality that the world came to know in his “Big Papi” heyday with the Boston Red Sox.
“He was a great teammate,” said Kevin Gryboski, a pitcher for the Timber Rattlers and now the baseball coach at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania. “You always have that one guy that’s going to keep the team loose. When you’re slumping and not doing well, there’s that one guy that kind of picks everybody up. And David was that guy.”
Added Goff, “He was clutch just like he was in the big leagues. And he loved to be in the limelight. When he was 19, 20 years old he loved to be at the plate with a chance to win the ballgame. That was just his personality. That’s why he was so rare.”
The Mariners got a taste of that on July 29, 1996 when the ballclub stopped in Appleton for an exhibition with the Timber Rattlers. But when a rainstorm wiped out the game, they agreed to stage a Home Run Derby to appease the sellout crowd of nearly 6,000. Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Dan Wilson represented the Mariners. Ortiz, outfielder Luis Tinoco and hitting coach Joaquin Contreras hit for the Timber Rattlers.
Though Wilson, of all people, won the Derby, the prodigious blasts hit by Ortiz are remembered to this day. According to lore, Ortiz reached the freeway behind the stadium. Gryboski remembers one drive by Ortiz “hit on the onramp in right field.
“That display of power, I think it kind of shocked not only our fans, but it kind of shocked the front office from Seattle,” Gryboski said. “Like, ‘Who’s this guy here? We’ve got to keep an eye on him.’ ”
Indeed, said Goff, “That game getting rained out was probably one of the best things that ever happened to David Arias, because all we could do was a Home Run Derby. … He became a legend to those guys that day.
“They all made comments — ‘Shoot, we’ll take him with us right now.’ I think it was (Jay) Buhner that made that comment, if I’m not mistaken.”
That made it that much harder to fathom when Ortiz was thrown into the trade.
“You’d think they would remember what he did during that home-run display,” Gryboski said.
Hollins was excellent with Seattle, hitting .351 in 28 games. But those 28 games were all he played for the Mariners, who finished out of the playoffs. He signed as a free agent with the Angels in 1997.
Ortiz, who had been signed out of the Dominican Republic by the Mariners in 1992 — 10 days after his 17th birthday — made the majors the next year with the Twins. But they, too, missed out on Ortiz’s greatness. After six seasons in which he hit 58 home runs, the Twins released Ortiz in 2002. The Red Sox signed him on the advice of close friend Pedro Martinez, and a Hall of Fame career was born.
Those who were there at the beginning in Appleton felt a strong sense of pride Tuesday. And they still shake their heads at the trade that took Ortiz out of the Seattle organization.
“I’ve been in minor-league baseball for 27 years,” said Mike Birling, who then was the 24-year-old general manager of Wisconsin and now a longtime executive with the Durham Bulls.
“Most fans, they just hear the big name and they don’t think of the player to be named later or the minor-leaguer that was part of the deal. That’s what I love to see, these minor-leaguers that are part of the deal that end up being the gems of the trade.
“The Mariners were in a ‘We’re trying to win right now’ mode. And the Twins, obviously, got a steal on that one.”
Ortiz wound up marrying a woman he met in Wisconsin, Tiffany, with whom he has three children. For a while, the Ortizes had a home in the area, and he became a rabid Packers fan.
Meanwhile, those in Appleton had been watching a first-ballot Hall of Famer, even though they didn’t know it.
“I kind of joke with some of my friends, and even my past teammates, that I knew David Ortiz when was David Arias,” Gryboski said. “I’m just thrilled to see what he became.”