I remember feeling genuinely afraid for one of the first times in my life after the bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. As someone who grew up in the shadows of the city, I could not believe my eyes when I saw the smoke from the finish line from my bedroom window a mile away as I watched aerial shots of the buildings I frequently walked past on every major news network, marking scenes of terrorism and chaos. I was in first grade when 9/11 happened, and while my parents still tell me to this day how terrifying seeing the World Trade Center collapse on live television was, I could never really wrap head around that experience until those terrible events on Patriots Day 2013.
At the same time, I was about to graduate from high school and preparing to embark on a new journey into college, starting to live on my own and hoping to become my own man. I would not have admitted it at the time, but the thought of being just four years away from the real, adult world terrified me. I came out of high school not really sure of myself in a variety of ways, dealing with confidence issues and starting to contemplate and think about my identity as a minority in the United States.
When it all ended and the authorities captured the perpetrators, I remember sitting in my kitchen watching the television and immediately thinking that I needed to go to the Red Sox game the following day. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I felt that something notable would happen that day at Fenway Park.
Amidst the revelation that Michael Jordan spent a lot of time at the tables in Atlantic City, Charles Barkley came full throttle with heavy commentary on the idea of athletes as role models and idols saying, “I’m not paid to be a role model. I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court.” And what Barkley said is right. Unless you aspire to become the next Barkley or Jordan, what athletes do on the court, or on the field, or in the gym should, theoretically, not be something normal folks should look towards for role models.
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Given the massive media exposure of athletes on a daily basis, especially with the 24/7 news cycle and SportsCenter basically on at any hour at any point in the day, we see a lot of athletes. Many find themselves as some of the country’s biggest celebrities, with others transcending their specific sport and entering the realm of, say, Hollywood (think LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Michael Strahan). I remember sitting, watching the Red Sox play and having my jaw drop whenever I saw an athlete pull off some marvel in the field. As a kid growing up in Boston, it’s hard to watch David Ortiz hit baseballs 400 feet and not both be amazed, and hope against hope to be able to do the same thing some day, regardless of how much of a chance a dopey middle school, puberty-infected teenager actually has at playing sports professionally.
Recently, the string of athletes in the media doing terrible things (Aaron Hernandez murdering multiple people, Ray Rice and Greg Hardy physically assaulting their significant others) brought up the question of whether or not athletes should be idolized. With the use of social media and the wide exposure of athletes, it’s easy to understand why people feel so attached to them; we invite their teams into our homes on a consistent basis and we see them goofing around on Twitter, Facebook and other media platforms.
The idea of an athlete role model should not be focused on what someone does athletically, whether it’s racking up records, hitting baseballs a million miles, running a fast 40-yard dash or anything else. People, beyond athletes, should be admired not for their professional accomplishments, but the work that lead up to those accomplishments. People should be admired for how they use their platform, not the size or reach of their platform.
The first time and sat down to watch a baseball game, David Ortiz hit a walk-off single against the Yankees, which seems kind fitting given all those postseason heroics against the Bronx Bombers. Since that first game, Ortiz grew to play at least a peripheral role in many major life moments (non-family division). There was 2004, that first taste of World Series success. There was 2007, that second taste of sweet, sweet victory. It’s possible that without David Ortiz leading the Red Sox to victory in that first game, and then the games afterward, I would not be pursuing a career writing about sports.
And then came the first time I walked into a major league clubhouse as an intern for the Boston Herald going into my senior year of high school. As I approached the door, I felt my palms begin to sweat, my legs begin to quiver. I walked in and, what do you know, Ortiz was walking up from the batting cages. He waved his hand.
“What’s up guys,” he said, not giving a second thought.
I almost passed out on the spot.
Over those next three years, I occasionally became an obstacle Ortiz walked around in his quest towards the door in the small Red Sox clubhouse. I would squish myself into scrums when Ortiz would talk, but while I had mustered up the confidence to ask something to other players, I stayed mute when Ortiz talked.
As I sat in the right field grandstand watching the Red Sox pregame ceremony honoring the victims of the marathon bombings, I welled up. For all of Boston’s reputation as a gritty city, the air and atmosphere around the people never felt more deflated than the days following the tragedy. At that game, you could feel as if people were just starting to build back up to normalcy.
The videos and music played. The first responders came out on the field to a standing ovation and people spoke, but everyone felt a void in the ceremony when Ortiz grabbed the microphone.
I always loved watching Ortiz played baseball. He became the first ever jersey I bought, the first poster I posted up on my bedroom wall. But while I loved watching him do his thing on the field, I never felt, as a little kid, that any athlete served as my role model. I learned when I wouldn’t develop a 90 mph fastball that I would never touch a major league field.
Alright, alright Boston.
This jersey that we wear today, it doesn’t say Red Sox.
It say Boston.
We want to thank you Mayor Menino, Governor Patrick and the whole police department for the great job they did this past week.
This is our fucking city and nobody gonna dictate our freedom.
And as Ortiz walked up the field, the general somber of the park turned into a place of jubilation, celebration and excitement. And as “this is our fucking city” turned itself into four words that will forever be printed on shirts sold outside Fenway Park, Ortiz dropped the mic and became more than just a baseball player for the city of Boston
When I got my US citizenship in 2014, Alex Speier, then advising me during my internship with WEEI.com, asked me if I wanted to try to connect my experience to write an article for the Fourth of July. Eventually, I mustered up a relatively unoriginal angle and came to the conclusion there weren’t many guys on the Red Sox that fit the profile of what I wanted to write. There was Jonathan Herrera. And then there was David Ortiz.
I asked Ortiz before batting practice one day if he had time to talk about his experience coming to America and becoming a US citizen. At the time, the Red Sox were in the dog days of summer trudging through a losing season and when I asked Ortiz if he wanted to talk about coming to America, his eyes opened up, seemingly excited by the prospect of talking about something other than how the team could not knock in runners in scoring position.
And so when batting practice ended, he came over and we moved up the top step of the dugout. And we talked about what it was like to be immigrants, in a country full of strangers. Ortiz talked about how when he signed as a teenager to play baseball professionally, he did not have a backup plan.
“I wasn’t a student and I used to work with my uncle,” Ortiz said. “I did not know how life was going to turn out and what it was going to be like if I couldn’t be a baseball player. It’s not something that I could really tell you. Everybody’s life is different. You’ve got to prepare for something just in case something else doesn’t work, but I definitely was going to be doing something because I’m the kind of guy that thinks about the future a lot, always.”
And when he finished his story about becoming a citizen, I expected to part ways. But then he asked, “What is your story? How did you get here?” I paused and pondered whether or not I should tell him the full truth, because I wasn’t sure if I would have been standing there without him.