David Ortiz, “Big Papi,” played his final game last night. The warmth I feel about this player has no limits. Why?
How did I come to admire a black man from the Dominican Republic with a heavy Spanish accent? What could I possibly have in common with this man? And why is Ortiz so popular with so many other people in New England?
It’s not just what he does on the field. Yes, he is the greatest clutch hitter in Red Sox history, the one who brought Boston back from the brink to win the American League championship and the World Series in 2004. But we’ve had many great players here in Boston. Some, like Babe Ruth, were nasty. Others, like Wade Boggs, were not approachable. (Funny how both of them ended up on the Yankees.) None of them got the response that Papi did.
Papi is as genuine as they come. You really get the sense that he says what he’s feeling. That’s unusual, pretty close to unique, for a person in the public eye.
He does not pretend to be just an ordinary player. He is aware that he’s one of the greats (with 541 home runs, he’s in the top 20 all time), but never behaves as if he deserves to be set apart. Every visiting team this year feted him with strange and over-the-top gifts on his farewell tour (a surfboard? a busted bullpen phone?) and he suffered patiently through those ceremonies. His farewell threatened to overwhelm the Red Sox’ final season, but he put the focus where it belonged, on the team.
In the first Red Sox game after the Boston Marathon bombings, the team called on Ortiz to speak before the game. He said what he felt: “This is our fucking city.” He channeled the spirit of Boston, which is at once rebellious, diverse, and at that moment, hurt, defiant, and completely unified. I really believe Boston’s healing as a city started in that moment.
And last night, after the Red Sox lost the game and ended their promising season, and with the entire stadium chanting for him to come back, he waited. He waited for the Indians to finish their on-field celebration and only then, 15 minutes later, returned to the field, in tears of gratitude for what the adoration of the fans of Boston meant to him.
Here’s what Papi does that each of us should aspire to do:
- He never makes excuses. He spent the last year in pain, because his Achilles tendons are shot. But you never heard a complaint.
- He’s smart. Why is Ortiz such a great hitter? It’s a lot more than his swing. Ortiz knows more about pitching than most pitchers. He anticipates what the pitcher will throw, and where. That’s why he’s so productive. Even in his last season, he learned from every pitch he saw.
- He lives up to greatness, but does not revel in it. Ortiz knows about the larger-than-life expectations that so many in Boston, especially children, feel for him. But he has one role: to come up to bat once every nine batters and do something useful. He did pretty well with that, hitting .315 and 34 home runs at age 40, but he always put the focus on the team, not on himself.
- He’s genuine. He’s not a talkative guy, but you never get the sense that he’s trying to position himself as something he’s not when he speaks. The remarks are real; the tears are real. He’ll occasionally hug opposing players in the base paths, just because he’s feeling friendly.
- He’s generous. I don’t just mean that he’s charitable, which he is — his foundation serves sick children in American and the Dominican Republic. I mean that he’s always helping teammates learn. Last night, after he’d reached second base in the eight inning, Red Sox manager John Farrell replaced him on the bases with pinch-runner Marco Hernandez. His last act as a player was to give the pinch-runner a few tips, because Hernandez had made a baserunning error in the same situation in a previous game. I think it’s fitting that the last thing Ortiz did was to help a teammate.
There is only one player that makes me, a 57-year old man, not feel silly wearing a jersey with somebody else’s name it. I’ll miss Big Papi. And whatever he does now, I hope it can give him some of the fulfillment that we’ve all shared in his time as a Red Sox player.