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Major League Baseball teams step up to give back

KEVIN BAXTER / ON BASEBALL

Teams such as the Arizona Diamondbacks, New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers have made community philanthropy a large part of their organizations.

August 13, 2011|By Kevin Baxter
  • Daniel Trush, who survived an arterial brain aneurysm, gets a hug from Yankees catcher Russell Martin after throwing out the first pitch. Trush was honored as part of the Yankees HOPE week after his family, which used music to aid his recovery, established Daniel's Music Foundation, which provides free music instruction to individuals with disabilities.
Daniel Trush, who survived an arterial brain aneurysm, gets a hug from Yankees… (Ray Stubblebine / Reuters )

The Arizona Diamondbacks, New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers are among baseball's leaders — and this time we're not talking about the standings.

Those teams, though widely separated in geography, tradition and fan base, have stepped up to the plate where it's mattered most — in their communities, by giving of their time and treasure.

In Phoenix, the Diamondbacks, who like most teams already were giving away more than 100,000 tickets a season to various organizations, also have awarded more than $250,000 in season tickets and food vouchers to needy fans over the last four years.

In New York, the Yankees recently finished their annual HOPE Week, in which everyone from General Manager Brian Cashman to the players to the grounds crew ventured into the city's neighborhoods to serve causes large and small.

And in Detroit, where high unemployment and a fractured infrastructure have ravaged a once-proud city, the Tigers and their management, headed by pizza baron Michael Ilitch, work with more than 3,000 charitable organizations in two states and one Canadian province, refurbishing playgrounds, funding scholarships and helping to feed the homeless.

"A professional sports team is a kind of public trust," says Ilitch, who also owns hockey's Detroit Red Wings. "I take great pride in the fact that I made a commitment to and an investment in this community. I have a passion for the people here. They have grit and they work hard."

That bond has held even in the toughest of times. Three seasons ago, with Detroit's unemployment rate hovering just under 30%, the Tigers endured the largest drop-off in average attendance in more than four decades.

Rather than trying to recoup the lost revenue by raising prices, the Tigers lowered the price of thousands of tickets, parking and combo meals to $5 each. The team also will give away 140,000 tickets this season to police, firefighters, teachers and public service groups.

"Unless you're here, I don't think you can understand how devastating the economic downturn has been to this community," says Michael Porter, CEO of Think Detroit PAL, which serves more than 10,000 children in some of the city's most impoverished areas. "At times like this you do look for the leading institutions in the city to do what they can to help others."

As a result, Father Steven Kelly, the rector of the 151-year-old Episcopal Church located across the street from Comerica Park, says of the Tigers, "I think people really feel this is our team."

The Yankees started HOPE Week three years ago at the behest of communications director Jason Zillo. Each summer, the Yankees set aside a week to work with people in their communities, from Haitian refugees and Russian orphans to a Staten Island girl with cerebral palsy.

"We have a platform and we need to use it," Zillo says of HOPE Week, which stands for Helping Others Persevere and Excel. "The easy thing in many cases is to open up a checkbook.

"But for a person to know that another person is giving of themselves is a valuable commodity."

This year, one of the men who helped build the new Yankee Stadium designed a wheel-chair accessible lemonade stand for 17-year-old Megan Ajello, who uses it to raise money for the Special Olympics. The Yankees then held a block party for Ajello during which GM Cashman set down his cellphone and climbed into a dunk tank.

"People in the area are shocked that an organization like the New York Yankees even is aware of what's going on in someone's backyard. And not just aware of it, but to show up with such a big presence and shine a light on what these people are doing in the community," Cashman says. "We really do need to take time to stop, pause and give ourselves to others."

The program has been so well-received that the Minnesota Twins already have copied it and the Angels hope to follow suit.

"The guys in the clubhouse make this possible," says Zillo, who had Derek Jeter deliver pizzas this year and last year sent closer Mariano Rivera and outfielder Nick Swisher swimming with a teenager whose hands and feet were amputated shortly after birth.

Over in Arizona, Diamondbacks President Derrick Hall, a former Dodgers executive, learned about a single mother of two boys who had been left homeless and near penniless by divorce. Both boys were baseball fans, so a season ticket-holder had stepped up and was bringing the children to games.

"I thought, 'Why aren't we doing that?' " Hall says. "We're not sold out every night. We have the seats. These people want to come see baseball [and] they can't afford it. It's a no-brainer for me."

The Season Ticket Scholarship Program was born four years ago and has expanded to nearly 60 families, with the team giving away more than 200 lower-level season-ticket packages. In extreme cases, the Diamondbacks also provide parking, vouchers for food and even help pay the taxes on their gifts.

"I love personally making the phone calls," says Hall, who heads a committee that selects the scholarship winners just before Christmas. "Most people are shocked. It's more rewarding than [signing] a big-name free agent.

"When we have the ability to impact lives positively, we should do it."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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