Pitching is one of the most difficult endeavors in baseball. It was particularly daunting in the early 2000s, as offenses were operating at high-octane levels. That makes the career of Russ Ortiz all the more impressive, as the right-hander won 99 games in one six-year stretch on his way to a wildly successful 12-year major league career.
Ortiz was primarily a reliever at the University of Oklahoma before being selected in the fourth round of the 1995 draft by the San Francisco Giants. He was virtually unhittable from the get go, posting a 0.67 ERA with 11 saves and a 1.85 ERA with 36 saves in his first two minor league seasons, respectively—while striking out better than 13 batters per nine innings.
The Giants decided to try and strike lightning in a bottle and converted Ortiz to a starting role. He took to it quickly and debuted in the majors in 1998. His 4-4 record and 4.99 ERA in 22 games (13 starts) that year indicate the typical transition experience of a rookie, but was more than enough to earn him a permanent place on the San Francisco pitching staff.
Ortiz won 18 games in 1999; the beginning of his 99 wins in six years stretch. The Giants were annual contenders during those years; losing the 2002 World Series to the Anaheim Angels; a year in which Ortiz won 14 games. His best season came in 2003 after he had been traded to the Atlanta Braves that previous off-season. That year he went 21-7 with a 3.81 ERA (leading the league in wins). He finished fourth in Cy Young voting and was named to the National League All Star team.
Unfortunately, injuries played a significant part in the latter half of Ortiz’s career. He went on to play for the Arizona D-Backs, Baltimore Orioles, Giants again, Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers before retiring following the 2010 season. All total he finished with a 113-89 record and 4.51 ERA. A good hitting pitcher, he also batted .205 for his career with seven home runs.
Keep reading for Ortiz’s reflections on his career and to find out what he is up to today off the baseball diamond.
Russ Ortiz Interview
Who was your favorite player when you were growing up, and why?: Will Clark and Nolan Ryan. Will Clark because he played the game hard and had a sweet swing. Nolan Ryan because he threw hard and was a great pitcher.
Can you describe your draft experience with the San Francisco Giants in 1995- How did you find out you had been selected?: I was at the College World Series with the University of Oklahoma and when I got back to my hotel room there was a message on the phone. My roomie got the message and he told me I better listen to it. It was Mike Keenan with the Giants. He told me they drafted me in the fourth round. It was an incredible feeling because that is what I worked for all my life.
You began your professional career as a reliever; how did it come about that you were turned into a starter?: The Giants came to me and told me they thought I could be a good starter. They wanted me to start the following year. I was hesitant because I thought it would slow down my route to the big leagues. But I trusted them and it worked out great.
What do you remember most about your professional debut? (Striking out the side against the Houston Astros)?: Dusty Baker told me after I finished my warm ups to look around and take it in. When the hitter gets in the box, give him his due respect and get to work. I went to work and wanted to show everyone I could pitch up there
In your opinion, who was the most talented player you ever played with or against? What made them stand out so much?: Played with- Barry Bonds, Andruw Jones, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Chipper Jones, Miguel Tejada, and Roy Oswalt. They all had tools that were better than the rest.
What is your favorite moment from your baseball career?: My first appearance, pitching Game 6 in the 2002 World Series; All Star Game; winning my 20th game in 2003.
What was it like, especially as a pitcher, being part of the 2001 Giants and observing Barry Bonds' 73 home run season first hand?: Well, the night before I believe he hit number 72. That was a more special night. The real record night. Seeing him hit homer after homer during the year was incredible, especially because he was walked so much.
If there is anything you could go back and do differently about your baseball career, what would that be?: Nothing. I prepared as hard as I could, played as hard as I could and loved every minute of my time in baseball.
You played for some great managers (Dusty Baker, Bobby Cox, Bruce Bochy, Joe Torre, etc). Pick one, and please explain your choice.: Oh man, that’s tough. I got to know Dusty best. He was my favorite because I spent the most time with him. He was a great player’s manager. He trusted his players, he believed in his players, and he got to know his players and their families. He was such a fan of the game that was fun to have him in the dugoutWhat are you up to since retiring as a player?: I am spending as much time as I can with my family and running a golf apparel business (2GG Apparel). I started that 5 years ago. We craft men’s and women’s golf apparel and give the net proceeds to charity. I started this with the heart to help others. And it’s been a blast.
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