Is David Ortiz really 33?
The struggles of the Red Sox' designated hitter have been so pronounced that it has not been merely the slugger’s abilities that have been doubted, but instead his very identity.
Even with his current six-game hitting streak, Ortiz is now hitting just .197 with two homers, a .288 OBP and .308 slugging percentage. His struggles have been so pronounced that questions about whether the accuracy of his listed age of 33 have become commonplace.
An article in Sunday’s New York Post
offered a perspective that is not uncommon in scouting circles.
“He's a 40-year-old man who can't play anymore,” the article quoted an anoymous scout as saying. “The chances of his birth certificate being accurate are zero…That's both birth certificates. Remember, he was David Arias [when he played in the minor leagues for] Seattle.”
Ortiz is aware that some are questioning who he is, and more particularly, how old he is. He is unsurprised by the phenomenon, given his familiarity with the phenomenon of Dominican players who forge their dates of birth to improve their potential signing bonuses.
Even so, he is taken aback by those who would question whether he is 33. The questions had never come before, and so Ortiz wonders about the motives of those who only now are asking how old he is.
“I know there’s some guys questioning right now around here about my age. Somebody sent me (an article) in an email the other day. I was like, ‘It’s too late! I’ve already got 12 years in the league,’” Ortiz said, pausing to laugh at his joke before turning more earnest.
“You’re going to start questioning me about my age right now because I’m not hitting? You’re terrible. You are terrible,” said Ortiz, his tone still playful. “You never asked those questions when I was banging. Now you want to ask questions? I don’t pay attention to any of that (stuff).”
Of course, there is another reason why Ortiz might find it so easy to dismiss questions about his age, and why he exhibited absolutely no discomfort in discussing the issue: his listed date of birth was already corrected once earlier in his career.
A PLAYER TO BE NAMED, AND RE-BORN
David Americo Ortiz (Arias) was signed out of the Dominican Republic by the Seattle Mariners in 1992. A pair of misconceptions followed his time in his first organization.
First, as the scout suggested, the player now known as David Ortiz (the last name of his father) was referred to instead as David Arias (the maiden name of his mother). He was listed in Mariners media guides in that fashion from 1992-96, until he was traded to the Twins (as a player to be named in exchange for Dave Hollins in a deal in August 1996).
“When he signed, they just listed him as David Arias. It’s a very common mistake,” said Twins G.M. Bill Smith. “(Dominicans) include their mother’s maiden name at the end of their name in parentheses. For one reason or another, when he was signed, it was recorded as David Arias. When we acquired him from Seattle, our guys doing the media guide went to confirm everything and he said, ‘Well, my last name is Ortiz.’”
According to Smith, it was Ortiz who brought that issue to the Twins’ attention. Indeed, Ortiz realized that the visas he was receiving to play in the U.S. with the Mariners did not match up with his name on his passport.
“What they told me was you might want to fix the last name because later on in the future so you don’t have no problems,” said Ortiz. “If I didn’t fix it, then later on I would have had trouble because after 2001, after 9/11, it was going to be a (mess). So it was a good thing that I fixed all of that up.”
And so, when he first appeared in a Twins media guide for the 1997 season, it was under his current name. But something else changed in that media guide listing.
Ortiz’ date of birth, which had been listed with the Mariners as Feb. 18, 1975, was instead corrected – at the behest of the young player, according to Smith – to his actual date of birth: Nov. 18.
“(The birthday) was such a minor thing. We just assumed that it was just a clerical error,” said Smith. “It’s not like he became four years older. It came up when we acquired him and we were confirming all the information. The name changed. I believe he brought it to us and said, ‘That’s not my birthday.’”
Ortiz admits that it was not merely a clerical error that resulted in the altered representation of his age. He was made nine months older by a scout in order to allow him to begin playing a season earlier in the Dominican Summer League.
“I think what messed that up was the scout who signed me. He wanted me to play,” said Ortiz. “You won’t play if you’re not 17. So if I would be 17 that year, then I could play that year in summer league. But I was 16 at the time…He (listed) my birthday in February so I could play that year and so I didn’t have to wait till after November.
“I wasn’t aware of it, because I was just a little kid…Back then, it was just like, ‘Here – sign, play,’” said Ortiz. “I didn’t really know what was up. I started paying attention later on.”
The issue was rendered moot, since Ortiz did not end up signing officially until Nov. 1992, receiving a bonus of roughly $10,000 just after his 17th birthday. Even so, he had been advertised as having been born nine months earlier, and so the representation of his date of birth as Feb. 18, 1975, was established for the Mariners.
Those nine months, in fact, may have played a role in Ortiz’ career progression. After playing in the Dominican Summer League in 1993, Ortiz played Rookie League ball in 1994. He was singularly unimpressive, hitting .246 with just two homers in what Seattle officials assumed to be his age 19 season. The M’s felt that he needed to repeat the level, bringing his career to an early crossroads.
“Usually guys move faster than that,” former Mariners head of scouting Roger Jongewaard said a few years ago, while noting that the club might have viewed the slugger-to-be differently if it had known his real age. “We thought it could be the end of the road for him because you can’t play a third year in rookie ball.”
However, when Ortiz returned to the Arizona Rookie League, he had a huge campaign, hitting .332 with a .403 OBP and .538 slugging mark. His prospect status was established, though the team regarded him differently than it might have had it thought he had been born in November instead of February.
To the Twins, the difference was nothing more than an afterthought in a 1997 season when Ortiz mashed his way from Single-A to the majors. The organization saw no need to doubt the player’s stated date of birth, and quite frankly, his performance that year was such that the club likely had little reason to care.
“It was just a matter of cleaning up the record,” said Smith. “He brought all the changes to us as far as his name and his birth date. We didn’t have any reason to suspect anything.”
The change in Ortiz’ listed birth date involved no formal documentation. When Ortiz told the Twins that his birth date was Nov. 18, they simply accepted the change at face value. There were no birth certificates presented, no documents verified by national immigration officials.
As such, the Sox could be forgiven for their own curiosity about Ortiz’ age when they were trying to decide whether to sign him before the 2003 season. As documented by Seth Mnookin in Feeding the Monster
), the Sox had Bill James run a study to determine whether Ortiz’ actual age matched up with his listed one.
“I did a study of his career progression up to that point, identifying historical players who had very similar career paths up to that point in time, and concluded that, on average, they were exactly the age that David claimed to be,” James told Mnookin. “That was a fun little study. I had never done anything like that before.”
One could reach largely similar conclusions about his time with the Red Sox. His career was on the upswing when he emerged in 2003, and he enjoyed his remarkable peak seasons from 2004-07 – a time when his listed ages of 28-32 suggested a player who should be at the height of him powers, preceding an expected decline.
A COMPLICATED ISSUE
Given his consistent brilliance in Boston, no one felt compelled to treat Ortiz’ date of birth with any skepticism until this year. Suffice it to say that, if he were from the U.S., no one would be raising the issue.
Some people in the game express a note of concern that players from the Dominican and Latin America are too easily typecast as having falsified their dates of birth, without any actual proof that they have done so. But Ortiz does not share those concerns, given the reality that there have been dozens of documented (and, no doubt, several times more undocumented) cases of players falsifying their birth certificates in order to sign a contract.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Ortiz said of the liberal accusations about Dominicans falsifying their dates of birth. “A lot of guys have used different identity.”
Even so, Ortiz also expresses sympathy for those players who do falsify their ages in hopes of pursuing a career in the majors. Ortiz considers himself fortunate, having come from a middle-class upbringing in the Dominican Republic, where he received a good educational grounding.
But he recognizes that the motivation for many of his countrymen in pursuing a major-league career is desperation.
“I don’t blame (the players),” said Ortiz. “If (2002 A.L. MVP Miguel Tejada, who last year admitted that he was born in 1974 rather than 1976) would have said what his age was at the time, they wouldn’t have signed him.
“You see kids coming out of the Dominican, they’re two, three years older, but they’ve got the skills to play the game – and they know they have the skills – but just because they’re two or three years older, they won’t get signed.
“They’re just trying to get out of their struggles, and that’s the only way. If you see what we go through, coming out of our country, how bad we struggle, and the only way that you can make it out was doing that – I’m not saying it’s right to do it, but if that’s the only way, what would you do? Would you prefer somebody becomes a drug dealer or that somebody changes his name to make it out?”
33 GOING ON…
Ortiz makes clear, in his advocacy of sympathy for those who falsify their ages, that he is talking about others from the Dominican, rather than himself. While he feels sorry for those who do have something to hide about their ages, Ortiz acts like a man for whom that is not and has never been a concern.
To the contrary, a few minutes after the conversation about player ages concludes, Ortiz sifts through his locker and discovers a picture from what now seems a lifetime ago.
“Look at this,” Ortiz says, beaming.
It is a laminated print, dated 1993, featuring three players on the Mariners’ Dominican Summer League team that year. On the right stands a kid of moderate height and build, whom Ortiz estimates weighs no more than 186 pounds, with just the early signs of facial hair adorning a face that features a familiar grin.
The image of a boyish “David Arias” looks for all the world like that of a kid who is 17, long before a man named David Ortiz will introduce the world to a phenomenon known as “Big Papi,” long before a time when age will matter.