Major League Baseball legend David Ortiz still remembers the day his dad surprised him at his little league tournament. They practiced together regularly, but with a grueling work schedule at the auto parts shop, which provided income that the family desperately needed, his father could never be there for the games.
“I’d just hit a home run and he came out of the crowd,” said Ortiz. “I wasn’t expecting it and I don’t know how he did it because he worked Monday through Saturday, but he escaped from work somehow and showed up. Those are the little things you never forget.”
Ortiz said his father, Leo, a former baseball great himself in the Dominican Republic professional and semiprofessional leagues, molded him into the player and the person he is today.
“My dad was always there for me as a kid growing up,” he said, noting how hard his parents both worked to provide for him and his sister. “My dad and my mom. They were always there for me.”
According to Ortiz, his father encouraged him to perfect his batting stance and, most important, to stay true to the game during his preteen years when other sports began to vie for his attention. For a talented kid from a low-income home in Santo Domingo, baseball was his ticket out.
“I loved basketball, but my dad said I needed to play baseball, and I always respected his decisions,” said Ortiz. “At some point, I understood that basketball wasn’t my future, and you’ve seen how my career turned out. He was able to make me understand the importance of being focused.”
Ortiz and his father.
Leo was also pragmatic, however, ensuring that his son would have the tools to survive in case his major league dreams did not pan out. He was a best friend, a confidant, and a shoulder to cry on when Ortiz lost his mother, Angela, in 2002 in a sudden car accident.
“He understood that I had the talent to be a baseball player, but there are so many people that have talent and they never made it,” said Ortiz. “He used to take me to his job so I could learn about it. He wanted me to educate myself, too, and play sports.”
Ortiz, nicknamed “Big Papi” because he calls people “Papi” (the Spanish word for “daddy”) as a term of affection , played in the major leagues as a designated hitter and first baseman for 20 years. He was originally signed by the Seattle Mariners in 1992 and later traded to the Minnesota Twins, but he spent the majority of his career with the Boston Red Sox. By the time he retired in 2016, he had logged an astonishing 541 home runs — a record that remains 17th on the Major League’s all-time home run list. Each time he crossed the plate after hitting a home run, he famously looked up and pointed both index fingers to the sky as a tribute to his late mother, Angela.
During his career, Ortiz was well-known for giving back. He took the time to connect with younger players — even those on the opposing team — helping them navigate their careers in the major leagues and offering tips on how to improve their performance.
“I feel like I was respected when I played, not just because of my ability, but more because I took the time to share my experience with younger players, teammates, and even opposing players,” he said. “The only way the game gets better is if guys like myself share their experience with others. The players really appreciated that because not many people took the time.”
He was also encouraged by the Red Sox organization to get involved with local charities, something he embraced and continues to this day. He started the David Ortiz Children’s Fund, which provides support for children in the Dominican Republic and New England who cannot afford the critical cardiac care they need.
“People may remember a good home run, but they also remember when you go to a hospital and visit sick children and put a smile on their face, or raise money to save lives, or go to a home or a church where there are single mothers or women who are abused,” he said. “I did all that while I played and I still do — not because I want people to know about it, but because that is in my heart.”
Now that he’s retired, Ortiz said he enjoys spending time at home with his wife and three great kids, who are growing up fast — with the values that were instilled in him by his parents. His father remains his greatest source of strength. “I take my old man with me everywhere,” he said. “I like to be with him.”
The mutual respect is evident.
“My son is a great father, an amazing son, and a marvelous husband,” said Leo. “He is a humanitarian, which is another thing that makes me proud. He is the total package.”
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