When David Ortiz speaks, teammates listen
FORT MYERS, Fla. — About midway through spring training, David Ortiz reported to the shaded area in front of the minor league clubhouse at Fenway South to work with a trainer.
Within a few moments, a group of seven prospects from Latin America gathered to watch Ortiz heave a medicine ball back and forth, his T-shirt getting soaked in sweat. Once he finished, Ortiz clapped his hands together loudly and turned to the players.
Their conversation lasted about 20 minutes. Ortiz, standing in the middle of the group, offered advice about getting to the majors but also how best to get through what can be a trying time in their lives.
“How to do things the right way, do what the coaches tell you to do, be on time, be respectful,” Ortiz said when asked what his message was. “I know because I was in their position once.”
For Ortiz, the lessons were ones he learned as a prospect in the Twins organization from players such as Eddie Guardado, then a pitcher and now Minnesota’s bullpen coach. Paul Molitor, nearing the end of a Hall of Fame career, also was an influence.
“I learned a lot from them,” Ortiz said. “Eddie, he was a guy who helped keep us loose and focused. I never forgot those things.”
Front office executives, managers, and players who have been associated with Ortiz frequently credit him with providing leadership in the clubhouse. That’s an amorphous term, if not entirely meaningless. Players can stay quiet and claim to lead by example, others lead by their performance on the field.
With Ortiz, examples of leadership are as tangible as the dugout meeting he held during Game 4 of the 2013 World Series or the money he’ll slip to September call-ups to make sure their families can attend a few games. Other times, it’s providing a shoulder to lean on for a player in a slump.
“He treated me like I was his brother,” said Will Middlebrooks, the former Sox third baseman now with the Padres. “I was going through a bad time at the plate pretty much all [last] season and David always tried to help me. Everybody isn’t like that. We would watch video or hit together in the cage. He honestly cared.”
For players new to Boston, whether they are veterans or rookies, manager John Farrell makes sure they connect with Ortiz.
“He’s an incredible resource on what it’s like to play here, things that will challenge us, and distractions that might present themselves. He puts a lot of people at ease with the way he can handle things,” the manager said.
The two biggest additions to the Sox this season, left fielder Hanley Ramirez and third baseman Pablo Sandoval, said playing with Ortiz was part of Boston’s appeal.
“I had to make a good decision for myself, but getting to be around David was big for me,” Ramirez said. “He’s a special guy. If you need a friend, he’s your friend. If you need a kick in the ass, he gives you one. If you need money, he gives you money. He looks out for you.”
All-Star players such as Adam Jones of the Orioles and Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano consider Ortiz a confidante. He is close to Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista and Tigers star Miguel Cabrera.
Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz considers Ortiz a friend because of the support he has provided over the years.
“I don’t care what color you are, what nationality you are, where you come from. I don’t really care about that,” Ortiz said. “If I can do something to help you, I’m going to do it. That’s something that I learned.”
Said Dustin Pedroia: “To me, that’s why he’s such a great leader. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from, he can communicate with you.”
During the 2013 postseason, Ortiz and his wife Tiffany hosted parties at their home in Weston the day after the team clinched the Division Series and the ALCS. They had caterers bring in food and invited all of the players along with any friends and family.
The players ended up in the basement watching other playoff games on television.
“It was like a family. Everybody was commenting on the game and having fun,” Ortiz said. “One way or another, that helps you as a team. Did that get us to where we ended up? I don’t know. But when you do something like that, it’s never a negative. You saw how things went after that.”
Buchholz said it reminded him of playing in high school.
“It helped us a lot. When David speaks, you listen and everybody follows his lead. For as long as I’ve been here he’s one of the most likable people on the team. It’s never really about him,” Buchholz said.
“It can come off looking like he’s selfish sometimes, some of the things he says, but that’s not a thought that ever crosses anybody’s mind here. He’s a team-oriented guy. To me, that’s a definition of leadership, when one individual can bring a team closer together.”
That doesn’t just mean the players.
“David is getting older, so he has experience under his belt. As I got older, I was closer to the age of the coaching staff,” former Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield said. “You have a lot in common with your teammates because you play together. But you also can have a relationship with the coaches and front office. David has a relationship with everybody in that clubhouse. He’s a conduit when conversations are needed.”
Ortiz believes it’s part of his responsibility as a player to return the favor that others did for him. Leadership in his view goes beyond clutch home runs.
“It’s important for a guy like myself to spread out the word. As a player, you’ll pay more attention to another player than a coach. In between players there’s nothing to lose. I like having that communication.”