I used to hate being a Red Sox fan — especially one who lived smack in the middle of Yankee territory.
I hated it because we were always waiting for the other shoe to drop. And it always did, leaving me more heartbroken each time. When the Sox lost to the Mets in the 1986 World Series, I refused to participate in the class party. When Roger Clemens signed with the Yankees in 1999, I ripped up his poster. When Aaron Boone’s homerun sealed our fate in 2003, I called out sick from work — because I was. Although I was only two years old for Bucky Dent’s shot heard round the world, I’m pretty sure I cried for hours when it happened.
But a little more than a decade ago, everything changed. The Sox were on the brink of elimination in the American League Championship Series, trailing the Yankees three games to none in the series. Then, something shifted. Despite being down 4-3 in the ninth inning — against the greatest closer of all time — the Sox eked out a run. Three innings later, a two-run blast gave the Sox the win, and along with it, hope.
The person who hit it was David Ortiz. The next night, he came through again with a walk-off RBI hit. And two nights later, he homered again to propel the Sox to an early lead in game 7, which they won.
Ortiz — or as he is better known, Big Papi — had put the team on his back and delivered. He helped transform the “perennial loser” Red Sox into champions, winning three World Series titles in a decade, and won over fans of all teams with his charisma and love of the game. Papi became the face of the organization. And so, when he played his final game last week, Red Sox Nation was devastated. Not just because we’re going to miss having his bat in the lineup — believe me, we will — but because we’ll miss his leadership, his smile, and his confidence.
But as with any great leader, the mark he has left won’t fade anytime soon. Because now, instead of expecting failure, Red Sox fans now have hope. The “woe is us” mentality has changed into one of “let’s do this.” And it’s all thanks to Papi, who has carried not just a team, but a city on his back during the past decade and a half.
In fact, it was Ortiz who was called upon to provide inspiration in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, and he came through with a heartfelt speech that included the infamous line: “This is our (expletive) city.” It was exactly what the people of Boston — and really, our entire nation — needed to hear after enduring such a vicious attack. President Obama even praised Ortiz’s statement, calling it one of the highlights of his presidency.
In my mind (one that is clearly biased, I’ll admit), Papi exemplifies all the qualities of a great leader.
- A great leader knows when to step out of character. Aside from his inspirational words after the bombing, there were many other moments when Ortiz abandoned his big smile and took on a different persona, like when one of his teammates was hit by an opposing pitcher, or when he disagreed with a call.
- A great leader expresses gratitude. Not only did Papi thank the fans in Boston for their support during his career, but he even thanked the Yankees and their fans for their role in what has been a great rivalry.
- A great leader will put a team on his back — but deflects credit for a victory. I can’t count how many times he pointed to a teammate during a post-game interview or praised a coach. To Papi, it was never about one person’s accomplishments; it was all about the team.
- A great leader knows when to hang it up. This one hurts, but I have tremendous respect for his decision to walk away at the top of his game, rather than watch his value dwindle.
Frankly, I can’t ever see that happen. As one writer put it, “above all, Red Sox fans will remember his overall aptitude for elevating those around him — emotionally and physically — and his influence in turning around the fortunes of an entire franchise. Boston has a certain swagger to it now. And Ortiz is to thank.”
Of course, there are still going to be heartbreaking losses and frustration, but there will also be triumph. Because of one great leader, the mindset of an entire fan base is forever changed. Because of him, now we all have swagger.