Monday, October 3, 2016

What Makes a Hero? It's About More Than Home Runs

Hero (noun) 1. a person noted for courageous acts or nobility of character; a person who, in the opinion of others, has special achievements, abilities, or personal qualities and is regarded as a role model or ideal   --Merriam-Webster Dictionary

David Ortiz: he will be missed. 

After playing in 2,408 games for the past twenty major league seasons, sixteen of those for our own Boston Red Sox baseball team, this past weekend Ortiz played in his final regular season competition. That’s not breaking news. His impending retirement has dominated sports and news reports all summer and into this fall.

Ortiz will certainly be missed for his athletic prowess: 541 home runs, 1,768 runs batted in, three world championships, so many clutch hits and walk off homers. Ortiz has an uncanny ability to step into the most high pressure of situations and then deliver. He’ll be missed for his outsize personality and joyful smile too, his leadership on the team and in the community, his philanthropy. Ortiz’ foundation has raised millions of dollars to help care for sick children in his native Dominican Republic and New England. 

But here’s what I think so many of us as fans and New Englanders will most miss about Ortiz, as he walks off the field, puts down his bat and hangs up his spikes. Ortiz is a good man, a good person, in the deepest sense. His legacy will be about so much more than highlight films or statistics. He was strong of body, yes.  Big of ego, sure. Not perfect: he was named in a 2003 Major League Baseball report as a suspected performance enhancing drug user, a charge he vehemently denies. He had a wicked temper too, could blow his stack at a bad call, a missed swing. Some don’t like his post home run swagger.

Yet at a time in our culture when the folks we lionize seem so "unheroic", so tainted, so flawed, so vapid, so disposable, so weak of character, Ortiz will be missed (at least by this fan) for his essential goodness.  That’s his rep among all who knew him, played with him, watched him.  He always stops to greet an adoring kid or give advice to a young teammate.  He’s perpetually positive.  He embraces the great responsibility that accompanies being in the spotlight. That’s why Ortiz is a true hero: not for what he did merely on the field, not because he’s larger than life, but because of how he lives, in relationship to others in this life.

Take his farewell speech, delivered on Sunday afternoon before 36,787 fans at Fenway Park, in a cold and raw October chill. For five and a half minutes, he spoke.  Not about his achievements.  Not to puff himself up.  Instead, the whole speech was one of thanks. Thanksgiving. Gratitude. First to God. Then to his family, his teammates, the media, the organization and finally to the fans. He even thanked the anonymous clubhouse folks who washed his uniforms for all those years.  

These are strange, disquieting days in our land when it comes to the women and men we so often deem as “heroic”.  Billionaires can brag about their ability to not pay any taxes and then be applauded by so many. Politicians can spend most of their time with the privileged and the powerful, portray themselves as “just one of the people”, and we actually believe them.  Athletic icons get hits on the field and then hit their spouses, and still, we cheer them on. We are drowning in a social media flood of celebrity culture, where the famous are famous, not for their decency, but instead for their infamy.     

Whom should we admire, look up to, respect, and seek to emulate in our world? What kind of moral lessons do our children and youth learn when they watch TV or go to a game or surf the internet or delve into Twitter or Facebook? When we select our heroes and heroines, what does that say about us as humans, as a society, as hero worshippers?

So farewell David. Godspeed.

Have no doubt that you will be missed by millions of us. We’ll miss the hits. Miss the enthusiasm and fiery spirit you brought to every game.  Miss the victories you so often were able to secure, by just one swing of your mighty bat.  But most of all we will miss you, you.  The person.  A child of God, who took the gifts you were given at birth and then used them well, used them wisely, used them in the service of others. We’ll miss the kindness you showed.  The generosity you embodied.  The grace with which you play the game of life. 

That’s what makes you a real hero to so many. That’s why we’ll miss you. Thank you.

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