In 1997 I attended a conference in New Haven, Connecticut about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Holocaust.
South African Supreme Court Justice Albie Sachs was one of the speakers.
The longtime freedom could not see out of one of his eyes and lost one of his arms in a 1988 bombing, but the losses did not stop him from speaking with passion about then-President Nelson Mandela.
Although Sachs cautioned against making Mandela the entirety of the anti-apartheid movement, he did say that the man known as “Madiba” had the closest relationship with the people he led of anyone he had ever met.
I thought of Sachs’ words yesterday after watching and re-watching David “Big Papi” Ortiz’s heartfelt speech at Fenway Park yesterday.
It was a memorable day for many reasons.
For Ortiz, it marked his first game after returning from injury. Neil Diamond made a surprise appearance to lead and join the sellout crowd in an enthusiastic rendition of “Sweet Caroline.”
But, of course, the major reason was because it was the first game since Monday’s Boston Marathon bombing just yards from the finish line that killed three people and wounded 170 others.
Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the second suspect, had been apprehended after a daylong manhunt that ended in a boat outside a Watertown residence.
The impact of the blow and the threat that it represented remained in the air, but so did the people’s response.
The team had distributed posters “B Strong”, the red letter inside a navy blue background, that fans in the bleachers waved as Diamond sang. “Boston Strong = Wicked Strong” said one homemade sign. “Cape Cod Raised, Boston Strong” read another.
Some fans held up the American flag they had brought to the game. Others draped themselves in it.
This came after Ortiz’s speech. (Those who do not want to hear profanity should not watch the video.)
As always, direct and to the point, Big Papi added another page to his legend that has made him one of Boston’s most venerated sporting icons in the decade since he arrived from the Minnesota Twins.
“This jersey that we wear today, it doesn’t say Red Sox,” he declared. “It says Boston.”
“Stay strong,” Ortiz concluded before walking off the field, his right fist clenched and upraised.
The crowd exploded.
That Ortiz later delivered a sixth-inning single that drove in leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury in helping the team pull out a dramatic 4-3 victory over the Kansas City Royals only cemented the day’s perfection.
Now the longest serving player on the Red Sox, Ortiz has embodied the team’s ascent to unparalleled heights as well as its subsequent challenges.
He hit a home run in the heartbreaking 2003 Game 7 loss to the Yankees that at the time prompted the following anguished cry from my brother Mike in California:
“The Holocaust. Rwanda. The Yankees over the Red Sox. Must evil triumph over good?”
The next year, though, more than any other player, Ortiz helped break the curse of the Babe.
In case you’ve forgotten, look back at that now legendary playoff run.
Feel the surge of the walkoff home run against California that lifted the Sox into the ALCS against their archrivals.
Remember the despair of the seemingly insurmountable 3-0 hole the team dug for itself-a deficit from which no team had ever returned and that had been capped by a 19-8 route that resembled batting practice for the Bombers.
Touch the hope that flared up so slightly after the 12th inning blast that ended Game 4, and that grew stronger after he knocked in the winning single in Game 5 after fouling off pitch after pitch.
We all know what happened after that, and what has happened since.
This includes Ortiz’s being named one of about 100 players who were on a list of players who tested positive for banned substances, according to The New York Times.
Ortiz denied that he had ever taken steroids, saying that the positive test may have been due to the supplements he had been taking at the time, but could not name.
The revelation and apparent absence of a coherent explanation has done nothing to dim Ortiz’s popularity among the members of Red Sox Nation. As Celtics fans did with Robert Parish’s off-court troubles or Larry Bird’s inattention to his daughter from his first marriage, they love him for the boon he has bought to their town and the freespirited and generous way in which he has lived.
Ortiz may not make the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but, like Mandela did in South Africa, he demonstrated yet again an uncanny ability to make true fans’ most basic wishes on the field and to articulate their most visceral emotions in the face of the deadly attack that shook, but ultimately strengthened, the city’s resolve.