Monday, July 5, 2010

Ortiz's Existential Hell

Back in late May, The Boston Globe ran a story on David Ortiz, who had started the season poorly for the Red Sox. Ortiz, it seemed, was not "himself" lately. The article explored what, for some athletes -- mostly professional -- is a truly complex relationship between themselves and the media, fans, and teammates. Blocking out negative thoughts, whether generated in your own head or suggested by a caller on sports-talk radio, is a valuable skill for professional athletes. But for Ortiz, he just couldn't take it any more. Apparently, Ortiz was locked in an existential hell, surrounded by his critics. They were in his head, their comments eating at his normally jovial demeanor until he became quiet, morose, bitter, and withdrawn.

Ortiz's rationale for his reaction is worth exploring. There is some blame of his tormenters. Their constant criticism of him is, according to Ortiz in this article by Amalie Benjamin, why he "...came to be, going from being an angel to being [a jerk]. It wasn't because of me. It was because people change you." Isn't Ortiz articulating a commonly held thought about the nature of being a professional athlete (or entertainers, or politician, etc.); that what you are is constructed by how you are perceived? Those perceptions are manifest in money - whether people will pay to see you do your thing -- or by votes -- whether people will re-elect you. But your entire professional existence can be, in no small part, defined by others. It's not enough to go merrily along believing that everything is fine because you are doing your best. Professional athletes are acutely aware that criticism from the media and fans can sometimes be a harbinger of a tanking career. It's upsetting not only because it hurts to be criticized, but because it might mean a loss of your livelihood.

What is interesting is Ortiz's willingness to reflect a base, some would say less mature, response to his critics when he looks at his own behavior. The "I'm being a jerk because you made me be this way" excuse. Not unlike the reason one sibling gives for hitting the other: "He started it!" It is hard to know, after reading the article, whether to feel sorry for Ortiz and to join him in being hurt by insensitive critics who sometimes forget they're talking about a human being, or whether to tell him to buck up, ignore the insults, and refuse to let others control his behavior. I don't know the context real well because I don't live in Boston, I'm not a Red Sox fan, and don't know the complexities of Ortiz's history in the city. But if Boston fans are like others, some will side with Ortiz, some will think he's whining, some will scratch their heads and even wonder why anyone is paying attention to how a multi-million dollar player "feels" when someone says something unkind to him.

The critics are along for the rest of Ortiz's professional ride. He can either let them chatter in his ear as he drives down the highway, banish them to the back seat, or lock them in the trunk. They may feel like a GPS that he can never unplug. So maybe the best he can do is change the setting to a language he doesn't understand and tune them out.

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