Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.
David Ortiz never walks alone. People -- teammates, opponents, officials, fans, even Yankee fans -- are drawn to the perpetual sunlight that is his personality. No player in all of baseball is more universally respected and genuinely liked by his peers than Ortiz, a self-made hitter and born leader who is hitting coach, counselor, philosopher and confidant in two languages.
"This game," Ortiz says, "is all about confidence. Who can tell you the right words at the right time just at the moment you need it? That's all I try to do. Guys will come up to me. 'I have a question for you.' I'll give them an answer. I like to share with people."
History, which can't be bothered much by nuance, will recall this year in baseball for two bombshell stories that involved the same man: baseball crowned a new all-time home champion and the feds indicted him. Talk about taking the collar. Precisely times like these, however, should cause us to appreciate what the sport has in people like Ortiz, who reminds us that world class ability and kindness do not have to be mutually exclusive.
The man they call Big Papi is my Sportsman of the Year, a title he qualifies for in just about any year, though this one was particularly praiseworthy. How good was he? Ortiz became only the 10th American Leaguer to lead the league in on-base percentage and extra-base hits in the same season, joining the hallowed company of Frank Thomas, Carl Yastrzemski, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx,Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Nap Lajoie. It marked the third time he lead the AL outright in extra-base hits, something only six legends have done (Hank Greenberg, Lou Gehrig, Ruth, Sam Crawford, Cobb and Lajoie).
He was the number three hitter and inspirational leader of the world champion Red Sox, adding to his legacy as the greatest clutch hitter of his generation. If you'd like proof that he delivered when it counted, check out these splits: .396 in September, .362 with runners in scoring position, .304 with two outs and runners in scoring position, .367 with runners on, .358 vs. the Yankees and .370 in the postseason (when he reached base 31 times in 14 games).
And there was his famous oratory work after a Game 3 loss in the ALCS, when he called a players-only meeting and, tugging on "Boston" across the chest of his uniform shirt, reminded his teammates that being a Red Sox player meant being a warrior, though the moment called for less Churchillian word choice. The Red Sox did lose Game 4 before they ripped off seven consecutive wins to the world championship, but the import of the anecdote is that Ortiz, especially in a time of crisis, is the undisputed voice and soul of the ballclub.
For a fifth straight season, Ortiz finished in the top five in MVP voting without actually winning the darn thing, winding up, beginning in 2003, fifth, fourth, second, third and fourth. Such consistency is worth recognition in itself. But what defines Ortiz as a person, and as a sportsman, too, is how he cares about other people. In an age when great athletes tend to think ability not only sets them apart from others but also above them, Ortiz is remarkably grounded.
He was one of the first athletes to respond to Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, writing a $50,000 check within hours of the disaster. When he broke the franchise record for home runs in 2006 he auctioned off the ball and gave the money to charities. Last December he presented $200,000 from himself and the Red Sox to a hospital in Santo Domingo to cover the cost of heart surgeries for children. When a high school baseball team from the Dominican Republic visited Fort Myers, Fla., during spring training, Ortiz gave the players equipment and also an inspirational talk about the importance of education.
On Nov. 18, the day of his 32nd birthday, Ortiz was at a Plainville, Mass., Stop & Shop to raise money, clothing and food to help victims of Hurricane Noel in the Dominican Republic. Ortiz will visit his homeland this week to help distribute the relief items and, in January, to host his annual golf tournament that supports various charities in the Dominican.
Speaking to fans in the supermarket parking lot, in front of a 40-foot trailer filled with donations, Ortiz said, "From the bottom of my heart, this is huge. This is a wonderful thing and it's going to help a lot of people. You cannot imagine. You have no clue about the people that are going to be helped.''
And then Ortiz said, "You guys are going to make me cry. I better stop."
Think of Ortiz as a role model not just for kids, but for other athletes. He gets it. He is an ambassador for his sport, an elite player who understands that with privilege comes responsibility, a supremely confident superstar with a social conscience.
"I don't want life to be boring just because I have everything and it may seem like I don't have to fight for anything," Ortiz says. "Life is not interesting when you get to that point. For some people who have everything, they wind up losing the fear for things.
"Everything for me is going great. I can't ask for anything better. I think the one thing, though, I think about a lot, and I'm not going to lie to you, is I get sad when I think about my mom. When I think about her I wish she could be here to be with me and see this."
Angela Rosa Arias, his mom, died in a car crash in January 2002. She was 46.
"I'm just like my mom," he says. "I get a lot from my dad, too, but I'm most like my mom. She always impressed on me the importance of being respectful to other people. I came from a great family, I'm not going to lie to you. I had a good education, a good family. We weren't rich, but I had things when I needed them as a child.
"Now I'm trying to teach my kids about what's important. They've got a nice home, everything they need, a great mommy, an OK daddy trying to be a great daddy . . . and I'm trying to teach them they can never forget that life is for real."
Ortiz recently underwent surgery on his right knee and, for a few days, needed crutches. One day he was at the top of a staircase in his home, struggling to steady his grip on a laptop computer in a case while figuring out how to negotiate the stairs with the crutches and the case.
His three-year-old son, D'Angelo, who is named after Ortiz's mother, was standing at the bottom of the stairs.
"Daddy," the boy said, "do you want me to help you with that, because I think you're hurting?"
Ortiz laughed, thinking, This computer bag is bigger than he is! And then he smiled proudly at his son, recognizing in his little boy the wonder of kindness.
Agree with this selection? Give us your pick for Sportsman here.