Three World Series rings and more than 500 homers later, it's hard to imagine the Red Sox once agonized over whether to play David Ortiz or Shea Hillenbrand.
But that was exactly the debate in Boston's front office during the 2003 season. Ortiz had been signed in January after the Twins non-tendered him following a .266/.348/.461 line with 58 home runs in 1,693 plate appearances. Hillenbrand was coming off an All-Star sophomore campaign. With Kevin Millar and Bill Mueller manning the corner infield slots, Theo Epstein had a roster crunch and a key decision to make.
Coming to the U.S. meant more than just an education in baseball, it meant learning a whole new way of life. David Ortiz: The Big Papi Story Full Episodes Available Now on @ApplePodcasts : https://t.co/yhAEtmDm62 #TheBigPapiStory pic.twitter.com/RYkxJp1mrs— David Ortiz (@davidortiz) 17 de abril de 2018
Boston's GM at the time, now the Cubs' president of baseball operations, explained on this week's episode of Executive Access:
"David Ortiz hit all of two runs in the first [two months] of the 2003 season and in mid-May had his agent come and ask me for a trade to somewhere he could play more regularly," Epstein said. "Fernando Cuza came to talk to me and I told Cuza at the time that David was someone we wanted to get everyday at-bats, but we just needed to pare down the roster a little bit. We ended up trading Hillenbrand instead of David Ortiz, so I guess that was a good decision in hindsight. David got regular playing time and ended up hitting close to 30 homers in the second half of the season and was off and running as Big Papi."
Hillenbrand was dealt to Arizona for Byung-Hyun Kim in late May, Ortiz finished the season with 31 homers and the Red Sox went on to win their first World Series since 1918 a year later.