Speaking while carrying a big stick: On David Ortiz, the media, and players being human

David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

When ballplayers talk, it's worth remembering that there's a person under that jersey.

One thing that's fascinating to watch, as a Boston fan, is when non-Boston teams and players get caught in an ultimately meaningless media kerfuffle. Just such a kerfuffle has unfolded in Texas and Detroit, thanks to the reporting of ESPN the Magazine and the perhaps not-solid understanding of Ian Kinsler that the things you say to reporters are on the record. In a wide-ranging interview covering Kinsler's time in Texas and his reaction to the trade that sent him to Detroit, the second baseman made very clear his feelings about the only franchise he'd ever known. He referred to Texas GM Jon Daniels as a "sleazeball" whose success was largely due to the efforts of Nolan Ryan, lamented Ryan's departure as a blow to the organization's culture and respectability, and voiced the hope that Texas would go winless in the coming 2014 season.

Whenever a player talks openly and honestly to the media, I start thinking about David Ortiz. Ortiz is fairly remarkable, in that he is always completely, confidently honest in his dealings with the media. If asked a question, he answers. He doesn't resort to cliches, he doesn't dodge questions, and he'll call reporters out when they're clearly just stirring up noise. I'm not sure that Boston's ever had a player quite like him in terms of dealing with the media or providing that sort of open, direct leadership. Frankly, I'm not sure there's any other player like him in MLB right now.

In thinking about this, I often look to Ortiz's counterpart in leadership and clutchitude down in New York, Derek Jeter. Jeter is praised across the board for his drive, his consistency, his ability to lead by example, and his overall class. And while his desire and play speak for themselves, and his example is certainly admirable, I often feel as though Jeter comes across as a cipher. He's a master of the classic sports cliche. This, by the way, is not a criticism. It's a hell of a skill, and it's a brilliant strategy in a place like New York. The ability to spend two decades in the spotlight and basically never issue a controversial quote is damn impressive. The obvious contrast is with Jeter's former partner on the left side of the Yankee infield, Alex Rodriguez, who always very clearly wanted to have that same ability to be all things to all people, and just couldn't ever manage it.

Ortiz, on the other hand; when he's unhappy with his current contract status, or the way he's being treated by the media, he says it. And he says it, remarkably, without being petty or unreasonable. Colorful, sure. In his second language, David Ortiz has embraced the bluntest of old Anglo-Saxon and used it to full effect. But it's rare that he'll directly antagonize anyone, or rail against dark conspiracies, or even question motives. When he says the press is being unfair, it's usually because they're being unfair. When he says an umpire's taking away some of the plate, PITCHF/X tends to back him up. We never get the sense that Ortiz is railing against the world, only that he's expressing personal frustration, and trusting that people will understand.

It's Boston, of course, so that doesn't always happen. The Shaughnessys of the world will always hear any comment from a player about his contract as an unconscionable complaint, or as bizarre ranting against unseen "haters." (A brief side note on this: it can never, ever be forgotten, young folk who may not remember, that many writers made a good living off the pain and suffering of Boston fans. David Ortiz was arguably the greatest contributor to the death of that decades-long narrative. Keep this in mind any time a tenured writer throws darts at Papi.) And still, David Ortiz speaks his mind.

A week ago, Ortiz gave an interview in which he was asked, given the recent return of Jason Collins to the court and the imminent drafting of Michael Sam onto the gridiron, how he'd deal with a gay teammate. Basic standards of modern sport call for a mumbled, grudging acceptance, something along the lines of "as long as he's a good player, it's fine." Outright homophobia tends not to fly, but we wouldn't want to startle the season ticket base by being civilized human beings. But as we all know, that's not how Papi rolls.

Hey, look, the way I see things, I love people the way they are. Especially if you are honest with yourself. You know what I'm saying? It's the (expletive) 21st century man. Get over it.

You all know what that expletive was, because I'm betting a good 65% of you have it on a shirt. Regardless, the key here is that Ortiz didn't play it safe, he didn't run his thoughts through a filter, he didn't worry about whether saying something meaningful might hurt his jersey sales. He spoke his mind.

And this brings us, at long last, back to Kinsler. His quotes to ESPN were definitely not cliche. They were honest, and human, and angry. They were the words of anyone who's been fired or transferred or dumped, broadcast worldwide at a stroke. That he didn't express his feelings with the same confidence as David Ortiz is not really a problem, because very few people have the sheer interpersonal #rig that Papi brings. And it's silly to expect every player to have the perfect PR-approved verbal grooming of Derek Jeter. Ballplayers, despite their preternatural skill at the greatest of all games, are human. Occasionally, we need to allow them that dignity.

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