After a game that saw David Ortiz bash his 10th home run of the season (a 442 foot moon shot that easily made it to Eutaw Street) and the Sox reach the .500 mark for the first time since April 30, one would think that the slugger would have been in a great mood.
Not so fast.
Sparked by a question about a team meeting he called on May 11, Ortiz flew off the handle to ESPN Boston’s Gordon Edes about the way his leadership has been conveyed by the media. His biggest beef was with the media’s definition of team leaders, and how this definition would seemingly preclude Ortiz from ever truly becoming one of them.
Ortiz has been known to have the occasional outburst; remember the blowup over the “RBI that wasn’t” last season? Unlike that incident, though, Big Papi’s consternation here is both warranted and productive.
Through both his play and off-field conduct, Ortiz has proven that he is a leader of this team.
At the plate, he has been the team’s best player all season. He currently ranks fourth in the AL in batting average, third in OPS and second in slugging percentage.
He has been a steady presence all season, putting to rest any concerns that he might begin to slow down due to his age. Indeed, he has been the backbone of this erratic Sox lineup.
And yet, as he put it, Ortiz gets “no respect. Not from the media. Not from the front office” for the example he sets on the field. Whether this is actually true is secondary. What matters is that Ortiz believes that it’s true.
In sports, perception often matters more than reality. Athletes have a tendency to magnify or simply create slights in order to motivate themselves to perform better for their teammates.
In Ortiz’s case, some of the slights are real: management’s refusal to give him a multi-year deal and the rush to anoint Dustin Pedroia as the only real leader on the team are two examples of how the organization, fans and media bear some responsibility for his frustration. However, without these slights we might not be seeing the highly-motivated, highly-productive Ortiz that has played a key role in pulling the Sox out of the AL East basement.
Ortiz is quite right when he points out that true leadership is not defined as “the ones who get in front of the crowd and try to lead them.” Much more than that, it’s about being able to connect with one’s teammates and help them overcome the many obstacles they must navigate over the course of the season.
What’s clear from Ortiz’s comments, too, is that he understands the central point of leadership. It’s not meant to be a public act; as with any team, most of their problems will never be reported on or discussed outside of the clubhouse.
In a league like MLB where players come from a vast array of backgrounds and countries, teams need someone who helps bridge these gaps between people and, when they need reminding, brings the team’s goals back into focus.
This certainly sounds a lot like what Ortiz has been doing. He has long been praised as someone who is everybody’s friend, a person who simply wants everyone to have fun and be successful. He is unafraid to call a team meeting and air everything out in order to get the entire group back on track.
While it may sound defiant when Ortiz says that, “I don't give a [expletive] about anybody knowing what we talk about, No. 1. And No. 2, I don't give a [expletive] what they call leaders,” in reality he is letting us know that being a leader on a team is not like holding a public office. You’re not just a face to put on the programs and TV.
Instead, a true leader does the little things to help his team when the cameras are off and nobody is watching. Based on his words and his actions, Ortiz has demonstrated that he is just that for the 2012 Red Sox.