Those who watched David Ortiz when he wore a Salt Lake Buzz uniform knew he had a knack for hitting.
Just the same, it would be difficult for even his most devoted fan to imagine that he would rescue the most unlucky franchise in any sport from the brink of elimination and carry them to the World Series.
"I'm just so proud of the guy," said Phil Roof, who managed the Buzz, now known as the Stingers, when Ortiz was playing in Salt Lake City. "He was always the leader of the clubhouse. . . . He's a big, lovable giant."
For three years, Ortiz spent time in a Buzz uniform. He was a fan favorite, although management and analysts gave him more mixed reviews. Some said he was an average first-baseman, although one year he won an award for his defensive abilities. Some said his work ethic was lacking, while others defended him saying his personality was just mellow.
"I always thought if given the chance, he would do well," said Stingers radio announcer Steve Klauke. "I saw him hit some monster home runs for the Buzz."
The native of the Dominican Republic played his first two seasons in the Seattle organization, mostly minor leagues and was traded in 1997 to Minnesota. They started him in Fort Myers, a AA club, but he quickly worked his way to Salt Lake, at the time Minnesota's AAA affiliate. He got a shot in the majors and came through with his first home run in the big leagues.
He started the 1998 season in Minnesota but broke a bone in his hand and after two months on the injured list, he rehabbed in Salt Lake City. That's when it seemed his ascent would be continually hindered by injury. Roof said the Twins also had another designated hitter they believed had as much potential as Ortiz, so when his contract expired at the end of 2002, they let him go.
Klauke said he doesn't think Ortiz fit into Minnesota's system, as it doesn't like a player who's strictly a designated hitter.
"It was always in the back of my mind that he could do something big, but it was just would anybody give him the chance," Klauke said. "I think he's the MVP of that team not only for what he's done in this series but for reintroducing Manny Ramirez to the idea that baseball is supposed to be fun. He's really loosened him up."
Ortiz signed with Boston in January 2003 and has remained healthy and lucky in a city that believes its baseball team is cursed by an 86-year-old decision to trade Babe Ruth. His former manager agrees with Klauke that his value isn't just his mammoth swing.
"He really helps that ball club," Roof said. "I believe that he takes some of the pressure off Manny (Ramirez) because he bats behind him. He doesn't drive in as many runs, but he's such a leader. David has carried that ball club; he's the kingpin. He has a great personality and a talent for hitting the long ball."
Both men say Ortiz has learned to be more disciplined about the pitches he swings at.
"As you get older, you learn things," Roof said. "He was a young kid when he was here, and he was on a mission to get to the majors as soon as possible."
During the year he rehabbed in Salt Lake, Roof said he hit about 33 home runs and drove in more than 100 runs. But nothing he's ever done compares to his feat in Games 4 and 5 of the ALCS when his game-winning hits kept the Red Sox alive in the series. With Tuesday's win they made history as the only major league baseball team to ever force a Game Seven after being down three games to none.
Roof and Klauke said it's Ortiz's fun-loving personality that allows him to perform under pressure like that.
"If he would get to the World Series, it would just tickle me," Roof said. "That would really be something."