What is it with Boston’s baseball superstars? Why can’t they be happy being great and being loved? Why is there so much controversy? Is there something in the water cooler at ancient Fenway?
Our town is blessed with sports icons, including men who’ve been chisled into marble and granite while they are still alive. Bobby Orr is the greatest hockey player who ever lived and his post-career charity work and ubiquitous dignity assure that he forever will be loved, honored, even worshipped in these parts. Bobby doesn’t ever have to say anything. He can just be Bobby Orr.
Bill Russell’s got his own statue now. He’s the greatest winner in the history of team sports and even though he never really liked it here much we have finally showered him with the love he deserves. Nobody has a bad thing to say about Bill Russell, and Russell rarely says anything at all.
It’s more or less the same with Larry Bird. The legend from Hoosierland did not settle down here, but time has diminished none of his deeds and our children are taught that there was never another player like the Hick from French Lick. Larry doesn’t have to talk about himself or even show his face at the New Garden. He gave us his game and that is enough.
In the present, precious moment we still have Tom Brady, and QB-12 will be going for his fifth Super Bowl championship next season. Brady has blown past all his contemporaries and moved into the sacred land of Montana and Bradshaw. He is genetically perfect, the ultimate team guy, and never, ever, says anything remotely negative or controversial.
. . . And then we have the chorus line of wildly talented cry babies, misfits, egomaniacs, nut jobs, and outsized personalities who have played for the Red Sox in the last century.
Babe Ruth was a bombastic orphan child from Baltimore who won three World Series with the Sox, all while he was guzzling beer, inhaling hot dogs, and bolting the team to make side money on barnstorming tours. Ted Williams was the greatest hitter who ever lived and he was also (other than JFK) the greatest New England newsmaker of the 20th century. Teddy Ballgame spat at fans, feuded with writers, refused to tip his cap, and conked a woman on the head when he tossed his bat into the stands. Wade Boggs ate chicken every day, got run over by his own wife while she was driving the family Jeep, and said he once willed himself invisible. Roger Clemens wore eyeblack on the mound, complained about carrying his luggage, and put a face to roid rage late in his career. Pedro Martinez, who was habitually tardy, said, “If you break into my house, I will shoot you,’’ and managed to sulk if he was booed by one person out of 35,000.
And now we have David Ortiz . . . cuddly Big Papi . . . Baseball’s Father Christmas . . . perhaps the greatest clutch hitter of all time . . . A man so beloved, he can drop an F-bomb on national television and be applauded by the boss of the FCC. Ortiz has emerged as the face of Boston baseball over the last decade and it is doubtful he has ever heard a single boo at his Fenway office. He has earned the love and returned the love. Watch how he interacts with Fenway fans.
But this love is not unanimous when one ventures outside the gates of Fenway. Owed largely to his own acts of selfishness, and occasional boorishness, Ortiz has assembled a significant army of detractors in his hometown. He knows this and it bothers him.
Folks don’t like it when Ortiz complains about his contract, or about official scorers’ decisions. Barging into Terry Francona’s news conference to complain about an official scoring decision while the Sox were imploding in 2011 is remembered as a selfish move. Pimping homers also is not for everyone. Tigers pitcher David Price and a few other opponents have noted that Ortiz thinks he’s bigger than the game and Ortiz does little to discourage this notion.
And then there is the positive drug test from 2003. Ortiz has done little to make that go away. He never explained it and has instead, tried to paint himself as a victim. Just 10 days ago he hurt his cause with a 2,300-word screed in Derek Jeter’s “The Players’ Tribune.’’
“In some people’s minds, I will always be considered a cheater and that’s [expletive],’’ Ortiz wrote. “ . . . I learned how to play this game with my head, my heart and my balls . . . I became a great hitter because of my preparation . . . I never knowingly took steroids . . . Hell, yes, I deserve to be in the Hall of Fame.’’
The essay rubbed folks the wrong way. We don’t need a star ballplayer saying “I became a great hitter,’’ or “I deserve to be in the Hall of Fame.’’ It’s always preferable to leave those characterizations to others. This is what Orr, Russell, Bird and Brady do.
Ortiz is different. He is an outsized personality, a cartoon-come-to-life, a star sometimes capable of superhuman deeds. He bleeds. He wants you to love him, maybe too much. In the proud tradition of Fenway superstars, he inspires feelings and emotions that are sometimes good, sometimes bad, but absolutely, positively never boring.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org