Ortiz, Guerrero Step to Plate for America

By Bob Ryan, Boston Globe Columnist
Updated: September 10, 2005

BOSTON, MA.—If you want some athlete bashing, go elsewhere. You won’t find any of that here. Not this morning.

Hurricane Katrina has brought out a shared feeling of humanity we don’t often see in our professional athletes. Even those who come from the humblest of backgrounds frequently insulate themselves from the so-called Real World behind bling, expensive cars, over-the-top houses, and other demonstrations of conspicuous consumption that are downright embarrassing. But Katrina seems to have changed all that.

We have Deion Sanders putting up his money and asking every member of every American professional team sport to donate at least $1,000 for Katrina relief purposes. We have Warrick Dunn, whose humanitarian work is already legendary, asking every member of every NFL team to put up at least $5,000. We have ESPN’s Kenny Smith organizing a benefit basketball game for Katrina victims, a game that will be played in Houston’s Toyota Center Sunday night and feature LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O’Neal, Dwyane Wade, Stephon Marbury, Amare Stoudemire, Alonzo Mourning, and our own Paul Pierce, to name a few noted stars of the sport. We see baskets and collection buckets in just about every locker room.

And yesterday we were given the news that David Ortiz and Vladimir Guerrero, a pair of Dominican stars, are donating $50,000 apiece to Hurricane Katrina relief and are challenging every major league baseball player to join them in the cause. ”The United States has provided me and my family with more than we could ever have dreamed,” Ortiz explained. ”Seeing the pictures on TV and hearing the painful stories of personal despair, I knew I had to do something to try to help. I have to give back to this country that has given me so much.”

Ortiz and the great Angels star are close friends. ”Me and Vladi have a really good relationship,” Ortiz said. ”We are the same age. We hang out together. Watching TV together and seeing what was going on in New Orleans, we knew we had to do something.”

Guerrero does not conduct any interviews in English, leaving Ortiz to convey the sentiment that Guerrero has felt a sense of gratitude toward the United States since Hurricane David struck the Dominican when he was a boy. ”We were each only 4,” Ortiz said. ”Vladi says he doesn’t remember it, but that his family always talked about the help they received from the US.”

That circumstance was repeated only last year when another big hurricane struck the Dominican and the US provided its usual humanitarian help.

”In our country, we go through a lot of things like that, big time,” Ortiz pointed out. ”And America always comes through for our people. Now is the time for us to step forward. We are going to challenge all baseball players to come around and do the same thing, especially every player from the Dominican Republic. We have received help from the US and now these people are struggling.”

The events of 9/11 certainly made an impression on athletes, but this natural disaster has struck an even deeper chord. ”When 9/11 happened, nobody expected anything like that,” said Ortiz. ”No one was prepared for anything like that. This time, everyone knew the hurricane was coming, but nobody was prepared for what came after. You turn on the TV and you see the dead bodies floating. You see 30 people in that one warehouse, all of them dead. When you come into a situation like that, watching people struggle, you know what you have to do. There are people now with no homes, nothing. They don’t have to ask you for help. You can see it.”

It doesn’t surprise anyone in the Red Sox family that Ortiz has taken this initiative. And please understand that it is not his usual M.O. to trumpet his charitable endeavors.

”I’m not surprised,” said manager Terry Francona. ”David’s probably done more behind the scenes over the years than anybody for the people of the Dominican. I understand the need for publicity now, because he needs to get the word out. That’s awesome. He has a big heart, and you guys [i.e. the media] know that better than anyone.”

Given the amazingly disproportionate number of high-quality American professional athletes from the states of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, it’s somewhat easy to understand why many of our jocks have focused on this particular tragedy. Simply put, it’s personal. But Katrina has had a tremendous impact on just about everyone. The sight of all those dispossessed, abandoned, and traumatized black and brown faces most definitely resonated in the hearts and minds of every African-American athlete. We can be sure of that. This is the type of human tragedy we normally associate with Third World countries. It is impossible not to be shaken by what we’ve seen.

It is a situation that is impossible to ignore. I cannot recall any other news story that has so affected America’s athletes. Many have already done their share, but there can always be more good accomplished, which is where David Ortiz and Vladimir Guerrero are stepping in.

”I just want to challenge baseball people to come out and do something for these people,” Ortiz said. ”These people really need our help. All of us make enough money to donate something. Let’s put it together and try to help those people down there.”

Let the record show that Red Sox fans have already donated nearly $185,000 to the Red Cross’s Disaster Relief Fund in just the last six days. All around the ballpark, people have been doing the Right Thing. And Big Papi wants to lighten a few more really big wallets, as quickly as he can