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In Praise of Big Papi, Making the Game Better

by Chris Fay

10.11.2016

The Texas Rangers gave David Ortiz cowboy boots. The Angels and Yankees commissioned paintings of Big Papi. The Mariners shipped 34 pounds of salmon to #34, and the Blue Jays honored the source of many of their losses with an Expedition Parka in case he takes up skiing in retirement.

During his year-long farewell tour, Ortiz was honored by his opposition for a remarkable career that included 541 home runs, 2472 hits, and three World Series titles before ending with a walk on the final at-bat of his career in last night’s playoff elimination loss.

But if you ask Ortiz, each opponent gave him so much more.

Each club acknowledged what an impactful player he had been for nearly two decades, what he has meant to the game, and the respect he garnered from the opposing dugout. To Ortiz, that respect was mutual.

At Positive Coaching Alliance, we expect athletes, coaches, and parents at every level to Honor the Game. An athlete who does that is a Triple-Impact Competitor®, impacting sport on three levels by improving oneself, teammates and the game as a whole.

This includes respecting officials, teammates, the rules of the game, self, and even opponents. For many, this last expectation seems paradoxical – but it is necessary in order to fully honor and play the game the right way. Recently, Ortiz spoke in a Sports Illustrated interview about his desire to help young players regardless of which team’s uniform they wear.

“He (Justin Upton, Detroit Tigers) was going through some things,” said Ortiz, who is known to train with players from many different teams during the off-season. “I just want to make sure he’s fine. But I do that with a lot of guys in the league. Just because I want the game to get better. All I care about is [making] the game better, man. I want to sit down 5, 10 years from now, watch one of those kids and be like, Man!”

His desire to “make sure he’s fine” acknowledges that even as opponents compete with each other, they are also very much related in their athletic journey. He challenges us to see the many similarities we share and not fall back on the one or two differences; a lesson that can translate well to aspects of life well beyond sports.

“(Ortiz is) like a big brother or a father,” Orioles shortstop Manny Machado told The Boston Globe in a June article. “He can be different things depending who you are. For me, I like talking to him because he’s so positive. He’ll say something that will bring you up when you are down.”

Ortiz is fully aware that he would not be in the position where he is today without the help and support of others – most notably his competitors. He understands the importance of striving to improve not just your performance or that of your teammates but you are also charged with trying to advance the game as a whole.

“There’s not too much I haven’t been through,” Ortiz told the Globe’s Peter Abraham before playing in this year’s All-Star game. “If somebody comes to me and says, ‘Papi, I want to ask you about this,’ I can give them a pretty good answer. I feel like I should. This game is hard enough already.”

For Big Papi, reaching out to opponents and challenging them to reach their full potential isn’t a sign of weakness or aiding the “enemy,” and it goes beyond even sports. It is a veteran taking a young star under his wing by serving as a role model and recognizing his own circumstances that helped him reach the pinnacle of his sport. It’s about giving back and making new friends, who happen not to wear the same laundry, while opening up a dialogue and fostering relationships outside of his clubhouse.

The New England legend also recognizes that a worthy opponent is not something to fear – but should be embraced and celebrated. A worthy opponent is a gift who challenges you and pushes you to get better. In basketball, Bird had Magic, Magic had Bird, and complacency was never an option.

Instead, the level of play is elevated when evenly matched rivals with mutual respect compete with each other. Ortiz lost more games at Yankee Stadium than any other ballpark in baseball during his career. His favorite place to play? Yankee Stadium. However, youth and high school sports coaches, players and parents too often arrive at a venue, perceive an athletically superior opponent and think that is a bad thing!

Ortiz has demonstrated that our interactions with our competitors should be fierce – but also friendly. Would you ever go out to dinner with the opposing team after a tough loss like Ortiz often does? At one time this may have been viewed as crossing the line…Ortiz whistled past that line a long time ago and never looked back. Does anyone call his level of competiveness into question?

“Everybody loves Big Papi, but he wants to win more than anybody,” said Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers in a July article in the Globe. “He’s always helping people out and then he’ll get up and hit a home run off them.”

A Triple-Impact Competitor like Big Papi, who makes the game better, also can help make the world a better place. If not for the respect he’d earned by elevating the game, who would have listened to his rallying cry at the post-Marathon bombing game when he bellowed, “This is our f------ city”?

On more mundane but no less miraculous occasions, youth athletes recognize that extending a helping hand to an opponent is a sign of strength – not weakness – and they recognize that the declaration to start every game is, “Let’s play ball!” It’s not, “Let’s get stressed!” It’s in fact an invitation to have fun playing a game with and against friends, and the latter should last far longer than the former.

Ortiz’s legacy will include big hits and bigger speeches. But more than anything, his legacy will include his own athletic achievement, uplifting his teammates, and -- by respecting opponents – improving the game as a whole in ways that have positive impact on sport and society.

What would your opponents say about you?

Chris Fay joined Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) in August 2016 as the Partnership Manager of its New England Chapter with the hopes of expanding its mission throughout the region of changing the culture of youth sports.

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