Sports: Baseball gives back

One day last summer, the New York Mets hosted the San Francisco Giants, but that wasn’t the main event. Not to the softball players tearing around the field before the baseball game. To Marine Sgt. Marco Velarde, Coast Guard specialist Kayla Hartley, and a couple dozen other soldiers, the annual Mets Military Softball Classic was the contest that counted.

They were here to settle an interservice softball rivalry, but also to meet Mets players, introduce their kids to the baseball-headed mascot Mr. Met, enjoy a family meal, stay for the home team’s 5-4 victory over the Giants, and generally have a grand time at the old ball yard.

“We won the softball title,” Velarde exulted, “and I got a selfie with Curtis Granderson! How are you gonna beat that?”

Granderson, the Mets’ right fielder, shook hands and posed with the players. “They’re fired up to be here,” he said. “How many people get to play on a big-league field?”

More and more of them, it turns out. In recent years, major league baseball clubs as well as pro football, basketball, and hockey teams have expanded their charitable efforts. Few fans know it, but we’re living in an age of big-league good-deed-doing.

“Please don’t call it charity. It’s more than that,” says Danielle Parillo. She grew up in Queens, not far from the ballpark, and climbed the corporate ladder to her current post as the Mets’ director of communications. “We give away thousands of tickets. We host events like this one. Our players go out into the community to build bicycles, serve meals, give salsa lessons. …”

OK, but if not charity, what is it?

“It’s being part of our town,” Parillo says. “And it’s fun.”

Sports fans of a certain age grew up with tales of Johnny Sylvester, a dying boy Babe Ruth visited in the hospital in 1926. “I’ll knock a homer for you, Johnny,” the Babe told him. Ruth clouted three homers that day, and Johnny made a fast recovery. Since then, sports teams have made a sideline of dispatching ballplayers to children’s hospitals, soup kitchens, and assorted photo ops for heartwarming stories that fans can’t resist. Cynics call it shameless PR, and they’re right in some cases, but the fact is, sick kids get visits from their heroes. Soup kitchens get publicity and donations thanks to drop-ins from multimillionaire jocks. And the vast majority of those visits you never hear about.

Seventy years ago, Ted Williams kept his good deeds under the radar. The Red Sox hero used to show up unannounced in the children’s ward of Boston hospitals. Williams often pulled up a chair beside a young patient’s bed and stayed overnight. If a newspaperman came around, Williams aimed a finger at him. “If you report this,” he warned, “I’ll never talk to your paper again.” Then he doubled down on his threat. “And I’ll never come back to this hospital.” No reporter defied him.

Since then, sports teams’ charitable efforts have grown into something like an industry. Baseball, the pro pastime with the longest history, has one of the best charity arms, a dizzying array of programs and events at ballparks, medical and community centers, and a thousand other sites all over the country. On the national level, Major League Baseball honors a humanitarian of the year with its Roberto Clemente Award, named for the Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder who died in a 1972 plane crash while flying supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

Each 15 April, every big leaguer wears Jackie Robinson’s number, 42, to celebrate Robinson’s upending the major league ban on black players in 1947; the Breaking Barriers program, headed by Robinson’s daughter, Sharon, supports more than 22 million elementary and middle school students.

Each May, players don camouflage caps and jerseys to mark Memorial Day. The game’s Welcome Back Veterans program has committed more than $30 million to U.S. soldiers living with brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. The Baseball Assistance Team has given almost $30 million to former players and personnel and their families who need help. More than a dozen other programs – including Stand Up to Cancer, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, and a Mother’s Day breast cancer awareness event when players swing pink Louisville Sluggers – add millions more from the coffers of Major League Baseball. Then there are the free tickets, millions of them each year, going to Little Leagues, Miracle Leagues, and other community groups. In all, baseball gives away more than $100 million per year in donations, tickets, and other contributions. MLB clubs have distributed more than 15 million tickets since 2004, including almost 2 million during the 2014 regular season.

Today, each big-league team contributes more than the whole sport donated in Ted Williams’ time. In 2014, for example, the Seattle Mariners contributed $225,000 to aid victims of a mudslide in Snohomish County, Wash. The Cubs spent $330,000 fixing up baseball and softball diamonds in some of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. The Reds opened a 33,000-square-foot indoor training facility for Cincinnati kids to use, free of charge. The Phillies provided uniforms, equipment, and coaching to 8,000 Philadelphia-area youngsters and gave 22,000 other kids a chance to swing for the fences in a fun-first Home Run Derby. The Padres offered free uniforms to every Little Leaguer in a 10-mile radius of San Diego’s Petco Park. The Nationals opened a Youth Baseball Academy that uses baseball to teach local kids science, math, and nutrition skills, and partnered with clubs including the Rotary Club of Washington, D.C., to donate a portion of ticket sales to Rotary’s End Polio Now campaign.

Not to be outdone, the Mets reached out to their diverse fan base in Queens. Several Mets joined City Harvest volunteers to deliver 20 tons of apples to hungry people all over the Big Apple. Players’ wives hosted a prom at a children’s hospital. Outfielder Michael Cuddyer did card tricks for kids at a Mets-and-fans Christmas party, where pitcher Jeurys Familia served as an elf: Santa’s only 6-foot-3-inch, 240-pound elf.

Lest you think baseball is the only sport with signs of a heart, soccer’s D.C. United joined the Nationals in Rotary’s push to eradicate polio. The charitable efforts of the NFL, NBA, and NHL rival baseball’s. If you live in a city with a big-league sports team, you probably know someone who has been touched by one of these programs.

Good PR for wealthy sports teams? Sure. To celebrate hosting baseball’s 2015 All-Star Game, the Reds donated $5 million to various charities. That fact got several mentions during the run-up to the game and its prime-time telecast. But the new backstops on inner-city ball fields were still standing after the All-Stars left town. The kids who got free bats and balls and gloves and uniforms are still using them.

In the words of Sgt. Velarde, “Who cares why? I’m just glad they do it. Here I am, running around a major league field. I’ll never forget this day.”

Kevin Cook’s latest book is The Dad Report: Fathers, Sons, and Baseball Families.