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October 2016


David Ortiz and the Major League Baseball Tribute Video, “If”

(MLB Video, 9/30/16)


What are the big take-aways?


In 1910, the controversial English writer and Nobel Laureate in Literature, Rudyard Kipling, wrote a poem entitled “If—.” I first became familiar with the poem when my friend Doug Moran wrote a great book, If You Will Lead (previously reviewed HERE in the Leadership Library) about it. Doug’s main point is that Kipling was a leadership philosopher ahead of his time and his piece “If--,” which was originally intended as guidance and advice for young men, provides a timeless framework of essential traits that any 21st-century leader should aspire to cultivate.


In this three-and-a-half-minute video, produced by Major League Baseball and beautifully narrated by actor Kevin Spacey, the poem “If—” is offered as a description of how the retiring Cooperstown-bound designated hitter for the Boston Red Sox, “Big Papi” David Ortiz, represents the poem’s leadership wisdom. Watch and listen to it here.


Why do I like it?


In the interest of transparency, let me confess off the top that I’m not the least bit impartial. I like the inspiring poetry and imagery in this Ortiz tribute video “If” because I was born and raised by Red Sox fanatics in Massachusetts, and because I became a serious follower of the team myself in 2003. That also happened to be the year the Sox acquired David Ortiz (then David Arias), a little-known player with a lot of potential as a power hitter, who’d grown up playing stickball in a poor and violent neighborhood in the Dominican Republic.


I did not always love professional baseball, but I love it now, mainly because of Ortiz. And it has less to do with the three World Series Championships the Red Sox have won since Big Papi came to town, and more to do with the example of how much leadership, love and civic pride can be embodied in a mature professional athlete. Ortiz is a gifted and fallible person who has lived a complex life in the public eye with unusual generosity of spirit. I share the perspective of the wise 88-year-old Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, who said – when he met Ortiz in person for the first time on August 7th – “I must tell you this, I admire the way you play. But I have respected with great admiration the human being that you are” (Boston Sunday Globe, 10/2/16).


In what situations would this be useful?


The career of David Ortiz as reflected in “If—” and as captured in the video’s clips would be useful to any leader interested in a portrait of psychological resilience, or more specifically – as the poem expresses it – the ability to “meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same.” To my mind, that is the hardest and yet the truest, most potent and spiritually-satisfying leadership attribute Kipling describes.


David Ortiz’s years with the Red Sox haven’t always been easy. To be sure, Big Papi’s stats are amazing (one of my favorites is his .688 batting average during the 2013 World Series, for which he won the MVP). He’s retiring after this year because he turned 40 last November, and still, on August 24th he became the oldest major-league player ever to hit 30 home runs and ended the regular season this past weekend with 38 dingers, 127 runs batted in, and a batting average of .315.


But the impressive numbers do not tell the much more complicated story: of a frustrated and talented Ortiz being released by the Minnesota Twins in 2002, with no prospects; of losing his mother to a car wreck that same year (she’s the person to whom he points skyward after each home run); of founding his charity in 2007 to help kids in New England and in the Dominican Republic who need expensive medical procedures (primarily critical cardiac care); of struggling terribly with his hitting in 2008, and especially in 2009, which bitterly disappointed many Red Sox fans whose expectations were very high after Ortiz’s contributions to Boston’s World Series wins in 2004 and 2007; of facing unproven allegations which surfaced in 2009 that he had tested positive for banned substances in 2003; and of rallying the entire city of Boston in 2013 with some choice words after the terrorist bombing at the Marathon.


Taken as a whole, the leadership story of Ortiz’s career is one of profound self-confidence, commitment to adapting (internally and externally) to transformation over the long haul, and holding the temporary illusions of triumph and disaster in perspective. And of feeling grateful for simply the opportunity to play.


 What other resources might “pair” well with it?


The text of the poem “If—” can be found here.


The Red Sox held a sweet pre-game ceremony in Ortiz’s honor on Sunday, October 3, 2016, which received nice coverage on the Sports Illustrated website. The ceremony was sincere and poignant, and highlights from it – in the manner that Big Papi himself arguably transcends sports – might still be meaningful to folks who are not Red Sox fans or even fans of baseball, but fans of love in all its manifestations.


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