My Sportsman: Boston Red Sox' David Ortiz
Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for 2013's Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 16. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.
The last of 668 plate appearances in the redemptive season of David Ortiz began with Ortiz thinking how he could help his fellow man, which made Game 6 of the World Series no different than any other day in his life.
The Red Sox held a 6-1 lead over St. Louis in the bottom of the eighth inning at Fenway Park, leaving only three outs before they would win the first world championship on their home and hallowed ground since 1918. On a properly chilled and clear autumnal night, Fenway filled with the joy and revelry typically found in Times Square in the last hour of New Year's Eve before the ball drops. Certitude reigned. It was only a matter of when, not if.
At such an anticipatory moment, as Ortiz ambled his bearlike body into the batter's box, he made sure to turn to his friend, and Cardinals catcher, Yadier Molina for a conversation in Spanish.
"Hey, Yadi," Ortiz said he told him. "You are special, what you do. I know it's a tough part of the game right now for you, and you don't feel right now the way you want to. But you did it. Even if you don't win this game, you did it. You are one of the guys that play the game the right way and everybody has fun watching you. I have fun watching you. Don't feel bad about yourself. You're doing things great."
"Thank you," Molina replied, reaching out his right hand to touch Ortiz. "Much respect to you."
Ortiz and Molina have been friends for the better part of a decade. Ortiz has been sure to visit Puerto Rico in offseasons to help with Molina's charitable fundraisers. During the World Series Ortiz even helped Molina with the leg kick in his swing, later explaining about such benevolence toward the enemy, "I want you to be better. I get respect from the league not only because of what I do [at the plate], but because I do that. Like I try to let young players know how to do things right so they can play the game longer. That's what I like doing. I'm not selfish when it comes down to that. I got kids, and they love baseball, and who knows if one of those guys one day has to sit down with one of my kids about how to get better."
The exchange with Molina, especially for a man on the cusp of becoming the only person alive with three world championships earned playing for the Red Sox, stands as a simple, symbolic example of why Ortiz is my choice as Sportsman of the Year. He is a true sportsman, an empathetic man who understands that responsibility goes beyond one's self.
By performance alone Ortiz is worthy. He earned the World Series MVP award by hitting .688 -- yes, .688 -- and becoming the greatest career slugger in World Series history. He hit .353/.500/.706 in the postseason after a historically great regular season for such a veteran player. Among players 37 or older in baseball history, Ortiz became:
- only the seventh such player to hit .300 with 30 home runs and 100 RBIs (.309, 30, 103).
- the first such player in the Testing Era since Barry Bonds in 2004 to post an OPS as high as .959.
- only the fifth such player to lead his league in intentional walks, joining Bonds, Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Hank Aaron in the rare company of older hitters who remained so feared.
Remember, too, that Ortiz produced this monster season the year after an Achilles injury limited him to 90 games in 2012, an injury that required five days per week of offseason therapy and left him on the disabled list when the 2013 season began. Ortiz's comeback fueled the Red Sox' comeback. No team ever won the World Series the year after playing such lousy baseball as Boston did in 2012 (69-93).
Performance alone, however, does not make a player truly great. As reads the inscription on the gravestone of Jackie Robinson, "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives." Ortiz is a leader in and out of his clubhouse because of his magnanimity.
It was Ortiz, in the first game at Fenway after the Boston Marathon bombing, who grabbed a microphone and, speaking from the heart rather than from prepared notes, told the world, not just the fans in the park, "This is our [bleeping] city! And no one is going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong!" The profanity may have been jarring, even inappropriate, but months later, knowing how well received was his heartfelt honesty, even Ortiz had to admit, "It seems like I said the right thing even when it was wrong."
It was Ortiz who spoke up again in the sixth inning of World Series Game 4, a tied game in which a flat Boston team was in danger of falling behind in the series three games to one. Ortiz, concerned about his teammates' body language and nervous lethargy, gathered his team in the dugout for an impromptu pep talk. The darned Sox immediately rallied for three runs, and never again so much as trailed in ripping off three straight wins.
It was Ortiz who partnered with Marucci, the bat company, to create special bats in which all proceeds were donated to OneFund and other initiatives to assist those affected by the marathon bombing.
It was Ortiz who in 2006, after being moved by a hospital visit the previous year, established the David Ortiz Children's Fund. Now in partnership with the World Pediatric Project and Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, the foundation has raised more than $1.5 million to help provide critical health care for children in New England and the Dominican Republic, including funds for life-saving heart surgery.
The foundation has had such an impact that this year the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children is naming a new Pediatric Emergency Examining Room after Ortiz. His sixth annual celebrity golf classic, the major fundraising event for the foundation, will be held Dec. 12-15 in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.
I started thinking about Ortiz as my Sportsman at about 2:30 in the morning on the night the Red Sox won the World Series. It was something said to me by Jeffrey Silva, the police chief of Westwood, Mass., just after Silva congratulated Ortiz under the stands of Fenway Park. "He represents everything Boston is about," Silva said. "Hard-working people who look out for one another. The way he handled everything from the bombing to the whole season tells you how much he cares. The epitome of leadership is when people look to you in time of trouble and you want to be the one to provide the help. That's what people see in David: a true leader."
The words resonated with me because we rarely talk about athletes any more in a real-life context. The more status and money athletes make the less we ask of them. We consign them to numbers and fantasy league charts. Just produce for us in these elaborately staged versions of schoolyard games and you get a hall pass in real life. Proper behavior, sportsmanship, citizenship -- all that we would ask of any decent working person is not ascribed to the pro athlete. The Miami Dolphins' locker room is an abhorrent workplace in any professional setting, but we gleefully sign off on it as perfectly fine because we ask only for the gladiators' sweat and blood, not their humanity or dignity.
With the bar set so low, Ortiz becomes even more an ambassador, not just a player, for his sport. He always will be associated with the year 2013, a year that began with the unimaginable tragedy on Boylston Street.
"I lived the same moment that everybody else did," Ortiz said. "I'm one of the citizens. I know that being safe in this town is the number one priority for me. And I was proud and happy the government, Governor Patrick, Mayor Menino, the police department ... how fast they figured everything out.
"It seems like it was a long time, but if you think about it, from one day to another day they figured everything out -- like we are safe here, for sure. We have cameras here where they can figure things out in two seconds. And after that you see all the people that got injured, all the people that lost their lives, all the stories, all the innocent people trying to get help. Really? That was something that was hard for me to digest."
The year ended on Boylston Street with a parade. So spectacular was Ortiz in the World Series that he made it his own, the way Babe did in 1932, Reggie in 1977 and Gibby in 1988. His signature is forever affixed to 2013.
"I remember seeing all the hits that I got with my boy Harold Reynolds [of MLB Network]," Ortiz said. "He asked me, 'What do you have to say about that?' I said, 'Tell me which one of those pitches was out of the strike zone.' He was like, 'Well, none of them.'
"I hit strikes. That's what I do. If you see me hitting the ball six inches off the plate then we have a discussion. But I try not to get out of the strike zone. Because that's what pitchers like to do. They like to get you out of the strike zone. I don't get out of the strike zone. I don't know how to hit pitches out of the strike zone. I train to not get out of the strike zone.
"When they come in the strike zone, I'm ready -- because I don't know when I'm going to see it again. If you watch my at-bats the whole season, that's what I did. Pitching in the American League they try to get you to chase [stuff] out of the strike zone in and out. So you force them to come into the strike zone. [Rays manager] Joe Maddon, I would get two hits in the World Series against him. He will get his pitchers trying to get me out of the strike zone every at-bat. You see what he did in the playoffs. I got a couple of hits and then what did he start doing? 'Walk him.' He only let [David] Price pitch to me. Nobody else."
Nobody in sports had a better year than Ortiz. It took the wreckage of the 2012 season and the tragedy on Marathon Monday to bring out the best in him. For what he does best is to lead. And other athletes, not just his teammates, would do well to follow his example of magnanimity.