The outpouring of emotion for David Ortiz following the shooting of the former major league baseball star in the Dominican Republic was a reminder, or a lesson, in case we needed one, about how much a sports star can come to mean to a city.
Ted Williams? The Red Sox outfielder was revered and admired as perhaps the greatest hitter in baseball history, and a war hero to boot. But Williams had a contentious relationship with Boston fans when he played and didn’t connect emotionally until long after his career was over.
Bill Russell? The greatest winner in the history of sports, leading the Celtics to 11 NBA championships. Like Williams, he was revered and admired, but never sought out the affection of fans.
Bobby Orr, the Bruins Hall of Fame defenseman, brought two Stanley Cups to the city and is certainly beloved.
Tom Brady has won six Super Bowls as quarterback of the New England Patriots. He’s respected, but he is hardly warm and fuzzy, and if he has any personality, he keeps it to himself.
All are beloved at some level. But a big part of being the most “beloved” sports figure in any city is that you have to be lovable.
David Ortiz is lovable.
Ortiz didn’t even play his entire career in Boston, which typically helps define the most beloved sports hero in their communities. He played 14 of his 20 seasons with the Red Sox. But in those 14 years, he helped deliver three World Series championships to the most storied and beloved franchise in the city. He helped, as they say in Boston, “reversed the curse.” He was a Dominican Babe Ruth, except this one wasn’t traded to the Yankees.
Ortiz came to Boston as a mediocre designated hitter from the Minnesota Twins — 58 home runs and 238 RBI in six seasons – and was transformed into a 10-time All-Star, with 483 home runs and 1,530 RBI over 14 seasons.
More importantly, he was a larger-than-life figure, with a personality that embraced the city. He was a Boston ambassador as much as he was the Red Sox designated hitter.
Then there was the moment six years ago, following the Boston Marathon bombing, when Ortiz gave a stirring, emotional speech at Fenway Park, declaring, “This is our f––- city!”
“It’s right at the top of the defining moments that establish David as the most important player in our history,” Sam Kennedy, Red Sox team president, told Bleacher Report in 2018. “What he did for the city that day helped lift the spirits when we needed it most.”
So who is the most-beloved sports figure in Washington?
This is as subjective a ranking as you could come up with, considering “beloved” is such as abstract concept, and perhaps difficult to differentiate from admired or respected. It’s a different connection.
I think, in this town, it is Redskins Hall of Fame quarterback and longtime team radio analyst Sonny Jurgensen.
Of course, many would say Joe Gibbs, and it would be difficult to argue that. But the three-time Super Bowl winning head coach left the team after 1992 to pursue his racing passion. He did come back to coach again from 2004 to 2007 and was beloved for doing so. But he has been absent from the sports scene here for 22 of the last 26 years.
Some would say John Riggins, who led the Redskins to their first Super Bowl title with an iconic stretch of post-season performances in 1982, may be the most beloved. His personality has made him as popular as his football exploits, and has remained on-and-off on the scene in local radio and media. But he always kept fans at a distance.
There are other Redskins greats like Darrell Green and Art Monk who are in that conversation and are beloved by many for different reasons. And active competitors today would include Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer.
After last year’s Stanley Cup celebration, Capitals star Alex Ovechkin needs to be part of the discussion. That’s right. A Russian hockey player is among the most beloved sports figures in the capital of the United States.
Still, in the end, there can be little argument the title remains Jurgensen’s to claim, though he hasn’t played since 1974.
The Redskins icon was a Hall of Fame quarterback on the field, and a Hall of Fame personality away from it, a lovable figure who always seemed approachable and friendly. And when he was done playing, he started another career as the local media face of the franchise, both on television locally and radio, where he has spent 38 seasons on the Redskins broadcast. There are generations who fell in love with the man who never saw him play.
As with Ortiz in Boston, there’s a connection between Jurgensen and D.C. — a bond built on bitter failures, unforgettable triumphs and the decades-long journey Washington sports fans shared with No. 9.
⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast every Tuesday and Thursday.
Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC.