Big Papi is a big hit for the Jimmy Fund

David Ortiz shares a moment with a pediatric patient during the 2013 WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon.
David Ortiz shares a moment with a pediatric patient during the 2013 WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon.

The teenagers were already having the time of their lives, walking on the sacred Fenway Park grass and meeting Red Sox players, when the exhilaration suddenly reached a new level. There, emerging like a rock star from the dugout, was the biggest star in the Sox stratosphere: David Ortiz.

“Everyone got so excited, and we all rushed over to get his autograph,” recalls Maddy Manganello, a recent high school graduate and Hodgkin lymphoma survivor who met Ortiz at last summer’s annual behind-the-scenes visit to Fenway by teens receiving treatment at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. “He took time to talk to or smile at everybody, and it made us all feel great. There is just something special about him.”

Manganello is just one of many cancer survivors of all ages who feel a special connection to Big Papi, whose clutch-hitting heroics have been a great diversion during their treatment – and played a major role in the World Series championship trophies players have brought to Dana-Farber’s pediatric and adult clinics after the 2004, 2007, and 2013 seasons. Now, with Ortiz planning to retire after this season, those with Dana-Farber ties are reflecting on what he has meant to them.

“His spirit and determination to win the World Series helped give me the courage to get through treatment in 2004,” says Marlene Nusbaum, a breast cancer survivor who received care at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center who now volunteers at Dana-Farber. “I’ve watched as countless patients light up whenever Big Papi’s name is invoked. His legacy of beating the odds will remain a beacon of hope and healing for generations to come.”

Lisa Scherber, director of patient and family programs at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s, who leads each year’s visits by pediatric cancer patients to Sox games at Fenway and (during spring training) in Florida, says it’s Ortiz’s charisma that makes him special.

“When it comes to the Red Sox, kids will love any player who is kind to them, even if he is not a huge star,” says Scherber. “In the case of Ortiz, he just has a way about him that makes everyone feel like he’s the only person in the room with them – he truly brings you into his world.”

Red Sox Hall of Famer and President/CEO Emeritus Larry Lucchino, who is also now chairman of the Jimmy Fund, has seen this magic from all sides.

“At Fenway Park and at the Jimmy Fund, David Ortiz invariably rises to the occasion,” says Lucchino. “He promises a child a home run and delivers. He pledges a donation to the WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon and generously delivers. He embraces the leadership role, reminding us of Ted Williams and a host of legends who followed. ‘Big Papi’ has as big a heart as any player with whom I have worked in nearly four decades in baseball.”

During the “Boston Strong” summer of 2013, Michael Johnston, a burly Navy veteran who had been shocked by a breast cancer diagnosis a few years earlier, was still worrying about a recurrence when he got a pleasant distraction from Ortiz’s playoff feats – which helped the Red Sox rebound from near-defeat to a World Series title.

“Just when it looked like the Red Sox were down and out, Ortiz put them right on his broad shoulders and brought them back,” says Johnston. “He’s a reminder to anybody with cancer to never give up and keep pushing forward.”

Saul Wisnia
Department of Communications, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute