"There is no price you can put on a healthy child -- no price you can put on a life," Diana's mother, Jaqueline Reyes, said. "I thank David for everything, for the help. I could not do it alone. I want to say, 'Thank you, David Ortiz. Thank you so much helping my daughter.'"
Ortiz has been a big help in the Dominican Republic for some time now, but says he knows no other way but to give back to the country he loves. He is Boston's favorite slugger and his country's Big Papi -- the big man with the big smile and the big bat. A patriot and a brother, he's also quickly becoming known as the man with a big heart who helps make the hearts of children better.
"I have kids. I have a family. I have children," Ortiz said. "You have to put yourself in that situation and look in the mirror and talk to yourself about how sad it is to see children have that kind of problem. It's something that doesn't make you feel happy. I told them I would be back. I left and I came back and they were like, 'You are here. It's unbelievable.'"
Ortiz's popularity in the Dominican Republic is rivaled only by Mets pitcher Pedro Martinez and legendary Dominican players like Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal and baseball pioneers like Felipe Alou and Manny Mota. He is the country's favorite rock star, and from the looks of his diamond-studded earring, diamond-laced necklace and Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses, he plays the part well. Always stylish and impeccably dressed, Ortiz is part fashion model but also part comedian. He is all Dominicano.
Proud of his people
"I am Dominican and I am always representing you in everything I do," Ortiz told a gathering of countrymen and women at the Hard Rock Cafe in Santo Domingo last December. "I am here to show the world that we have good people. Every time I am here, you receive me with so much care and love. I am really proud to be Dominican, to be one of you. I thank God for giving me the opportunity to represent such a beautiful people."
In characteristic fashion, Ortiz dropped an "ooh" and a fist pump at the end of his speech to his fans at the Hard Rock Cafe fully aware of how powerful his words were and are. If Ortiz ever had any doubts about his celebrity status in his country, the legions of fans that converge on him virtually every time he steps in public should remind him very quickly. He is mobbed everywhere. But make no mistake, Ortiz loves the open show of support, whether it is a Little League player at the Hard Rock Cafe or fan wanting an autograph while he is stopped at a red light, showing Big Papi love is a great thing. He calls it "Dominican style" and he would not have it any other way.
"It's how people show how proud they are of you and how people express their love to you," he said. "This is how we do it down here."
How Ortiz does it is by shaking the hands of almost every person he meets and signing hundreds of baseballs for his fans a day. The only thing seemingly missing for Ortiz to look like a real politician is for him to kiss the top of babies' heads, which undoubtedly he does do when the opportunity arises. Presidente Ortiz? Who knows? One certainty is his gestures are genuine. Like most things Ortiz, they come from the heart.
"His life, everything around him has changed, but he is still the same. David never changes."
-- Eloy Ortiz
"He's a humble kid who was born to be a baseball player but is even a better person," said Luis Mercedes, Ortiz's youth baseball coach. "David was a great kid and always joking around. I remember he would always sneak up on me and pull my hair or pat the back of my head to scare me. I remember he always ate at least three times a day. If you could not find him, he was probably eating."
Food, drink, vehicles and the blingiest of bling-bling, Ortiz enjoys the finer things in life as much as he does the simplest things. Family always comes first and he is usually accompanied by a relative or two. Papi's posse in Santo Domingo consists of his big brother Eloy, cousin Jose Luis, along with childhood friends Machilon and Robinson, and at first glance, the muscular foursome seem fearsome -- they also serve as Ortiz's bodyguards -- but a closer look reveals a group fitting of a man like Ortiz. They are big and intimidating. They are also one joke away from laughing like teddy bears. Big teddy bears.
"My brother came up from the bottom and he deserves everything he has," Eloy said. "I feel really proud as a brother, because I believe everybody has goals but not everybody accomplishes them. I have seen in him a great progression as a man. He is still the same little boy I knew -- funny and loud, but he remains humble. He is a superstar to the world, but his heart has never changed. His life, everything around him has changed, but he is still the same. David never changes. There is no way to define what is inside of my brother."
Ortiz acknowledges the compliments but is not fond of spending too much time patting himself on the back. Instead, he would rather address the children of the Dominican Republic, and he usually does when he gets the chance.
"You are the future of our country," he said in his closing remarks at the Hard Rock Cafe. "The future of the Dominican Republic is in the hands of our children. Be a good example, do good things. We were not created to do bad things. Leave those bad things alone. Drugs will never take you anywhere and there are so many good things in life. Be healthy and enjoy yourself."
Hometown helping hand
Ortiz and the Boston Red Sox Foundation donated $200,000 to the hospital that is home to CEDIMAT and the Heart Care Dominicana Inc. Foundation, a place called Hospital General de la Plaza de Salud in Ortiz's hometown of Santo Domingo. The donation is being used specifically by the hospital to perform heart procedures on children and four children, including Reyes, have already been directly assisted because of the donation by Ortiz and the Red Sox. There are more than 600 children in the Dominican Republic on a waiting list for heart surgery, but without financial assistance they will not likely be helped. Reyes was once on the that list.
"These are really poor kids. Can you imagine when your baby is born and your kid is born purple because of a lack oxygen because of a heart problem?" said Dr. Freddy Madera, part of the Heart Care Foundation and the surgeon who operated on Diana. "For a parent to look at their kid gasping for air everyday throughout the years and not being able to do anything because they are poor is hard. They don't have the money to pay for the minimum cost of the operation. There is an accumulation of hundreds and hundreds. They are at home getting other respiratory diseases because of the heart problem."
Diana Reyes was one of those children. Reyes is from San Pedro de Macoris, the city on the island most famous for Major League shortstops, but don't blame her if she is not much of a sports fan. Baseball means very little to a little girl born with a hole in her heart, a condition that made breathing a challenge and playing outside with her friends impossible. She dreams of working on a computer for a living and even toyed around on a keyboard a few times before the fatigue slowed her down. As for Diana's father, he abandoned the family because he could not cope with his daughter's heart problem, and he has not been seen in three years. Insurance in the Dominican Republic does not cover congenital heart disease, and sometimes the mental and physical strain associated with a child with congenital heart problems can break families apart.
"Sometimes, we have no idea how many people we help around this planet."
-- David Ortiz
"It is basically fund related as far as the speed that we can operate on the 600 kids on the waiting list," Madera said. "Kids are not able to go to school. The families are affected in an unbelievable way. These are young parents with two or three kids, and the mom stays at home because there is one sick kid since childbirth who has not been able to run, to play, to go to school.
"It's amazing when we are able to utilize these funds to do an operation that here the cost is $5,000 and in the United States it is $40,000. With those first $40,000 from David, we were able to do four surgeries and these kids are back to normal life of running and playing with peers, going to school for the first time. It is a very big social impact that is done here."
It did not happen overnight.
Five years ago, Heart Care Dominicana Inc. was created to aid children with congenital heart disease and prepare personnel to care for their young patients locally. Before Heart Care Dominicana, any child with a cardio-congenital problem would have to be sent to the United States, Europe or South America for treatment. The long-term goal of Heart Care Dominicana Inc. is to build a cardiovascular hospital in the Dominican Republic with one floor designated specifically for children. The hospital would be top facility in the Caribbean and serve many multiple nations.
"This partnership with David Ortiz has come at a crucial moment in time because we are opening the center and we are in great need of funds," said Dr. Pedro Urena, president of Heart Care Dominicana Inc. "David Ortiz helps us in two ways. First, we desperately needed funds to operate the facility. And secondly, having him as a role model for people who are interested in helping support this enterprise is important. This is a historical time for us."
Ortiz first became familiar with the hospital and organization in January 2006 and said a visit to the children changed his life. He remembers seeing a 4-year-old boy fighting for his life and facing even more adversity in the future because his parents could not afford the surgery. Ortiz grimaced, made a promise to come back, and less than one year later, he kept his word, returning with $200,000. This time, he also made sure to remember to wear sunglasses that would not only protect him from the sun, but also keep others from seeing his teary eyes.
"There are a lot of people who need help from people like us," Ortiz said. "Hopefully, the athlete who has the capacity to collect money to help people will do it. Sometimes, we have no idea how many people we help around this planet. I am very excited about what I am doing and I'm going to keep doing it as long as a I can. ... They need it and I want to help them out. People need help, and basically if you can afford to do something to help somebody out, I don't mind."
So, a blush is more than a blush for Reyes, it is a minor miracle. A Reyes smile, is more than a smile, it is hope for a healthy future. The blushes, smiles, and laughter of a child on her way back to a normal life all came together when she met Ortiz in her hospital room in one of the most memorable moments of her young life. Reyes will check out of the hospital early next week.
"I walked into a room with Diana and she was very happy to see me, kept thanking me for what I did," Ortiz said. "When she was thanking me, I was thinking, 'Thank New England, thank the Red Sox, thank all those fans that came to every single activity that I had going on.' They came in and donated money. It was a very good moment."
Taking the right path
Ortiz, the baseball player, is among the best in baseball. His countless awards and heroics have made him a legend in Boston and the closest thing to a divine being at the Red Sox Academy in El Mamon, just outside of Santo Domingo. The Red Sox recently named the batting cages in Ortiz's honor as a tribute to his play on the field and a way to inspire other Dominican players in the system.
"We are all on the same team and it's a beautiful experience to be here," Ortiz told the prospects during the ceremonial conference at the academy. "I was like you. I wish I could still be that age, but every year I am getting more and more experience and wiser. I think God gives you time on earth, gives you life so you can learn from your experience."
"Life is about development, about growing," he continued. "I think there is nothing impossible if you take the right path. I think it is important for you to take the right path. When you get to the level I am, and I know you will, that you remember my words. Respect your people, your family, your parents and your country. Make them proud. Be a good example and do the things God wants you to do. God never leaves you."
Ortiz hugged a few players and chatted with a few others. A few of the Red Sox prospects took photos alongside Ortiz's white Hummer while some simply watched in awe as their hero pranced around the complex laughing and smiling like he owned the place. Eventually, questions surfaced about the upcoming 2007 season and the new club's new players, Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew. What about Manny Ramirez?
"Baseball is not everything in my life. I have a lot of things that I worry about just like I worry about baseball."
-- David Ortiz
"Julio is my boy. We have been playing ball since we were in the Minor Leagues," Ortiz said. "We always stay in touch and have a good relationship. I am excited about watching him do what he normally does against us."
"J.D. is a good player," he continued. "He's coming from the National League. He has good numbers and he's a good athlete. I'm pretty sure he is going to do some damage out there."
And the Ramirez trade talk?
"I don't know," Ortiz said then shrugged. "[Trade talk] always comes out in the offseason, and it never changes. Hopefully, he can stay on the team and everything will go back to normal."
Ortiz was cordial and answered questions about baseball out of courtesy, not by choice. It was obvious he was more concerned with the prospect of letting Diana be Diana rather than talking about Manny being Manny.
"Baseball is not everything in my life. I have a lot of things that I worry about just like I worry about baseball," Ortiz said. "Seeing people out there struggling badly -- I'm telling you, a bad day at the field is not even close to what they go through. A bad day on the field, you can replace the following day. Sick people, a sick kid, there is no way to replace that until somebody makes a move to help the children out. I think of a bad day at the field and good day at the hospital. The good day at the hospital can make your whole year."
Two sentences from Diana proved his point.
"I am great," she said. "I thank God."