The Cuss That Cured
You and I can probably agree that “fuckin’” is overused.
In Boston, it’s practically a part of speech: a disyllabic article, a replacement for “uhs” and “ums.” The word appeared in the first Good Will Hunting script nearly 150 times. When the T’s delayed, you hear it at every stop — if you’re at the Garden, every whistle. But on April 20, 2013, in front of the home dugout at Fenway Park, that tired curse word was the right word.
Five days after the Boston Marathon bombings, David Ortiz brought a community together to grieve, to heal, and eventually, to celebrate.
“This is our fuckin’ city.”
Those were five words only Big Papi could deliver and Boston desperately needed to hear. With his profane proclamation, Ortiz ignited an extraordinary tale of redemption — because he knew that “fuckin’” belongs to Boston, and Boston belongs to Big Papi.
It didn’t always. Boston is notorious for its wariness of outsiders — and often, for its racism and xenophobia. Although Ortiz is now a darling of New England, that’s more a testament to his character than to his adopted home. He’s not a white kid from Framingham or Dorchester or Fall River. He grew up in abject poverty in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, 1,650 miles from Beantown. His childhood was mired in street violence and drug trafficking: One day, while walking to his neighborhood bodega, he saw a man murdered in front of him.
Signed to a Minor League Baseball contract at 17, Ortiz arrived in the United States knowing “maybe 30” words of English and earning $59 a week. His teammates dubbed him “Big Papi” because he was horrible with names and resorted to calling most acquaintances “papi.” After bouncing around for a decade in the Mariners’ and Twins’ organizations, the unheralded slugger signed a one-year deal with the Red Sox.
Then, he met me.
October 17, 2004
OK, not exactly. David Ortiz has no idea who I am. I was five when I first saw him on TV — but all Red Sox fans feel like they know him personally. Big Papi has an unmistakable smile, an infectious warmth, and a penchant for coming up, well, big when it matters most. He’s the kind of guy that compelled normally strict New England parents like mine to let their children watch his speech uncensored. As a player, he got angry when things didn’t go his way and chugged ginormous bottles of champagne when they did.
In 2004, Ortiz’s second season in Boston, the Red Sox were playing in the American League Championship Series — and they were down three games to none to their arch-rival, the New York Yankees. At 1:22 AM, five hours and two minutes after the first pitch of the game, in the bottom of the 12th inning, Big Papi smashed a walk-off home run straight into the right field bullpen. At that moment, he became Boston’s son and New York’s daddy.
The Red Sox not only went on to win the ALCS: They clinched their first World Series since 1918. No team had ever come back from 0–3 to win a best-of-seven series in MLB history. No team has since.
April 15, 2013
Eleven years later, at the beginning of the 2013 season, Ortiz had achieved near-mythical status across New England. He had won another World Series for Boston (2007), landed a spot on eight All-Star teams, and earned his place alongside Sox greats like Yastrzemski and Williams. (Six years after retiring, he’s still the fan favorite: The street behind the third base bleachers is now called David Ortiz Drive. To get to the stadium, most fans cross Big Papi Bridge. Gate 34 at Logan Airport is officially “Ortiz Gate.” While he’s yet to enter the marathon, the guy runs Boston.)
Boy, did the fans need him.
I thought the bombs sounded like construction noises. My twin brother thought they were thunder. We were 13, at our first Red Sox game without parental supervision. The Sox won 3–2 on a walk-off double by Mike Napoli.
My dad, a sports reporter for our hometown paper in Maine, had been covering the Boston Marathon for over a decade. He wrote from the finish line that day. But my brother and I, woefully asthmatic, found baseball more compelling — and we sat in the notoriously raucous right field bleachers, not far from where Ortiz’s 2004 home run landed, for Napoli’s walk-off. It was fuckin’ awesome. (Without our parents around, we could say that.)
Our plan after the game was to walk a mile and watch runners cross the finish line while our dad finished writing. Instead, we stayed to celebrate Napoli’s hit.
The bombs exploded about 30 minutes after the game ended.
I don’t remember a whole lot from the rest of that day. Rumors swirled that other bombs were planted around the city, and our objective was to leave the area as fast as possible. Nobody had cell phone service. For several hours, we couldn’t get in touch with our dad, who had been typing in a hotel when the blasts occurred. It was the scariest day of my life.
April 20, 2013
A week later, safely home in Maine, I was still shaken up. My Sox had helped a little — they’d swept a three-game series in Cleveland — but Ortiz was injured and hadn’t played a game that season. Until Saturday, April 20 — ten years ago this week.
It was the first Sox game back in front of the Fenway Faithful since the bombing. The night before, authorities had discovered the surviving terrorist in a boat in Watertown, ending a harrowing days-long manhunt and region-wide lockdown.
Before the first pitch, the team held a ceremony to honor victims and first responders. The crowd sang The Star-Spangled Banner together. The mayor was there, so was the governor, but neither spoke.
The only person who addressed the fans was David Ortiz.
Ortiz is no stranger to tragedy or living in fear. He is a man that knows glory and pain. But he also has a gift for connection — for showing love.
The Boston bombers chose to wreak terror at a joyous event, in front of families, on national television. David Ortiz wanted to reclaim Boston, so he took the same stage — and delivered a form of love only he could. With just four sentences, Papi changed the focus from pipe bombs to f-bombs, from sadness to defiance. It was the perfect moment to use “fuckin.’” And he was the perfect person to pull it off.
Ortiz started his speech by pointing out that his team’s jerseys did not say “Red Sox,” as they had for the past century. Instead, they read “Boston.” Then he thanked Mayor Tom Menino, Governor Deval Patrick, and the Boston Police Department for their work over the past week. The ESPN cameras panned to Patrick shaking hands with police officers, oblivious to what would come next.
“This is our fuckin’ city,” declared Ortiz, without hesitation. He paused. Fenway erupted. The cameras whipped back to Ortiz. “Ain’t nobody gonna dictate our freedom.”
Big Papi had rewritten the Red Sox’s story. Nearly a decade later, he refused to let terrorists rewrite Boston’s.
When I heard Big Papi speak that afternoon, for the first time in a week, I felt secure. Some of that, you can chalk up to a kid’s trust in his first hero. But Ortiz also understood a cardinal rule of public speaking: When a speaker leans on their instincts after a traumatic event — especially if those instincts break typical rules of conduct, like “don’t swear on national television” — they can help their audience heal.
Take President Obama, a leader who shares Big Papi’s gift for connection. Much like Ortiz, he flouted convention to help a community heal after an act of terrorism. When Obama launched into “Amazing Grace” at the end of his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, SC, he didn’t just lead a sanctuary in song. He helped the congregation find the light that would guide them forward.
By breaking the rules, President Obama turned his speech into an act of solace. He made the mundane profound — even historic. On a cool afternoon in Boston, in front of tens of thousands of people in need of healing, Big Papi did the same.
Understanding what you mean to your audience — and what your audience means to you — is difficult. David Ortiz understood exactly what he meant to Boston when he took that microphone. More importantly, he knew what Boston meant to him — and he let no FCC regulation get in the way of speaking from his heart.
There was no dramatic pep talk; no underdog schtick. He didn’t present a vision or use colorful adjectives. Papi’s speech was a concise and explicit declaration of Boston’s communal strength. In a handful of words, he said his piece. And goodness, was it effective.
October 18, 2013
Before the 2013 season, none of CBS’ six baseball experts predicted the Red Sox would even make the playoffs. Bleacher Report gave the Sox less than a three percent chance of winning their division. Just four of ESPN’s 43 experts had Boston in the postseason.
That year, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series. Thirty-eight-year-old David Ortiz was named Series MVP. As he lifted up his trophy, Fenway roared — and two 14-year-old twins paused their bickering to embrace.
Words fuckin’ matter.
— Jacob Jordan (WWW intern alum)
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.
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