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What Big Papi is doing off the field

Posted by Peter Abraham, Globe Staff  December 4, 2010 10:00 AM

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DOBR2photo.jpgCAP CANA, Dominican Republic David Ortiz is of sufficient means to write a big check to a worthy charity and feel pretty good about himself.

So what drove him to instead organize the David Ortiz Children's Fund and spend a significant amount of his free time tending to it?

"Kids, man," he said on Friday. "Sick kids. If you feel like you can help, you have to do it."

The story started in 2005 when Ortiz visited a hospital near his home here and saw dozens of children waiting for life-saving surgery their families could not afford. The first fundraiser he hosted in 2006 helped two children get heart surgery.

"Four or five years later, now we have 250 kids moving around like regular kids. They're healthy," he said. "I'm the kind of person, I don't do things for people to know about it. I do things to get things done. I wanted to help."

When you're Big Papi, plenty of people want to shake your hand. Ortiz used his popularity to forge relationships with companies like Vitamin Water, Jet Blue and Reebok. He enlisted the help of the Red Sox Foundation and eventually formed a partnership with Massachusetts General Hospital.

The event this weekend is a lot of fun. The dinner last night was lavish and featured hand-rolled cigars, top-shelf liquor and plenty of laughs from emcee Mike OMalley. But what struck me was the cross section of people there.

Along with many of his Red Sox teammates, Ortiz had Pedro Martinez, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Bautista, Ubaldo Jimenez, Erick Aybar, Moises Alou, Andres Galarraga, George Bell, Andre Ethier, Adam Jones and Placido Polanco here.

Bill Russell was on the stage at one point, towering over Pedro. Rachel Dratch and Horatio Sanz of "Saturday Night Live" fame were at tables. John Farrell, the new manager of the Blue Jays, was with his wife, Sue.

As Daniel Bard said, "This is a great event. But it's asking a lot for guys to leave home and go to another country. But for David, you do it. I cant tell you how much he made me feel welcome when I first came up. You never forget stuff like that."

By the end of the night, all the Red Sox players were gathered at one table with Ortiz right in the middle.

"We came because David asked us," Dustin Pedroia said. "He has a way about him. He makes you smile and when he asks you to help, you know it's for a good reason."

We all probably overrate things like clubhouse chemistry. In the end, talent wins. But don't underestimate what people like David bring to the table in terms of personality.

There's a golf tournament today and the celebrities were auctioned off to different foursomes last night, raising nearly $125,000. That money, along with the rest of the funds raised this weekend, will help change lives

"If you see a kid struggling because he can't get heart surgery, it changes you," Ortiz said. "Write this down, I want to thank so many people for being supportive of me. Not just the companies and the Red Sox but the fans, too. People don't realize how many good things can happen when you get involved. You can save a life without even knowing it."

Dr. Peter Slavin of MGH said Ortiz's foundation has helped the hospital provide services to needy children when insurance goes only so far. He also has funded a program to train nurses in the Dominican.

"I'm not aware of any other professional athletes who spend as much time with their charitable efforts as he does and spend as much time with kids," Dr. Slavin said. "He's really committed."

According to Slavin, Ortiz regularly visits MGH and invites sick kids to Fenway Park. In a few weeks he will hand out teddy bears in the pediatric patient unit.

"With his support, we're beefing up the services we offer in our intensive care unit as well as our cancer program," Slavin said. "That clearly make a difference."

We judge athletes by how they perform. Play well and you're a hero. Play poorly and you're a bum. That's how pro sports works.

But it's good to know that some of the guys we enjoy watching play are doing important work when the spotlight is turned off. In that regard, and to sick kids, David is a hero.

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