Baseball Men - The Humanitarian


Posted Nov 22, 2006


Our ‘Baseball Men’ interview series continues with Jamie Moyer, former All-Star and winner of the Clemente Award for civic service.

Peter Handrinos is a frequent contributor to Scout.com and author of the upcoming The Best New York Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Fans’.

 

 

The conventional wisdom says that big-time sports are about larger-than-life athletes, the ones with enough money and fame to be treated as immortals and idols. Gods, even. We don’t want ordinary, everyday guys.

 

Nonsense.

 

Baseball may be beloved exactly because it’s such a human game. It’s in the nature of the sport for ball players to stumble and fail while overcoming the limitations of their very normal-sized physiques and, very often, those with the kind of persistence needed to overcome those challenges can be exceptionally humble, down-to-earth individuals. It’s no coincidence that ball players have long been counted among the most generous philanthropists in sports - for all the extraordinary performances, the game forces its players to develop an appreciation for everyday struggles, on and off the field.

 

Jamie Moyer is an example of the extraordinary/ordinary guys to be found within baseball.

 

Throughout his early career, Moyer struggled to find a place in the game, going 66-77 with five organizations, mostly due to his lack of power pitches. He finally established himself as a Seattle Mariner in 1996, however, and more than made up for lost time since then, going 145-79 from 1996-2005. Well before his 2006 trade to Philadelphia, he’d utilized a devastating changeup to establish himself as the Mariners’ all-time leader in wins.

 

Moyer’s elite success is special enough, but what really sets him apart is the way he’s kept faith with the less fortunate. First inspired by his father-in-law, former Notre Dame basketball coach Digger Phelps, Jamie Moyer has been among the great baseball philanthropists of the modern era, committing his fame and fortune to establish a foundation dedicated to fighting childhood diseases and enhance quality of life for trauma victims. The Moyer Foundation has raised more than $6 million since 2000, and used it for good deeds like medical research, bereavement camps, and family counseling.

 

All along, Moyer has been more than a famous name on a recruiting poster - he’s been a driving force in the charitable work, the leader who’s solicited donations, met with volunteers, and organized the events. On many occasions, he’s opened his own home to givers and volunteers, and on even more occasions he’s taken the time to meet with the Foundation’s many beneficiaries.

 

They’re the reasons why Jamie Moyer was selected as the 2003 recipient of the Roberto Clemente Award, given annually to the individual who best typifies both best ideal in outstanding play and devoted community work.

 

Recently, Jamie discussed his career in baseball and humanitarianism:

 

 

What did baseball mean to you when you were growing up?

 

I grew up in a small town between Philadelphia and Allentown, Pennsylvania, and baseball was a passion for me, even as a young child. I was lucky in that I grew up with a great family and a great group of kids. We were all very athletic and we pushed each other to get better.

 

I watched the Phillies on TV from time to time but I was a little hyper. I couldn't sit still for too long, I had to get up and do something. Looking back, baseball was primarily about getting out with my friends.

 

As a young man, did you think of ball players as role models off the field?

 

Probably not. I probably didn't understand that much, even on the field. Sure, I saw Steve Carlton, but I really understand what he did as a pitcher? No, not really, not like I do today. I didn't get a sense of ball players' off-field character until much later, when I had a chance to meet guys like Ernie Banks in person. 

 

One of the things that's unique about baseball is the emphasis placed on character, on ‘the right way to carry yourself’ and relate to others. Did you have a sense of that when you were coming up to the Majors?

 

The Cubs organization definitely taught us about that kind of thing. 'It's a privilege to wear the uniform'. 'Take pride in it'. 'Know that whenever you wear the uniform, others are watching you'. 'Be a professional, on the field and off'. There was a gentleman in the Minor League staff, Jim Snyder, who constantly emphasized those kinds of lessons.

 

Were charities a big part of your early career?

 

Not really. I think it all started when I met my wife and lived in South Bend for a time. I saw my in-laws' activities in the larger community, especially my father-in-law and, over time, through that example, I saw how you could make a difference in people's lives. You know, just by going over to a school and doing a book reading, or signing some autographs. Just showing people that you care.

 

In the past you've mentioned a young man named Gregory Chaya as an important inspiration in your getting more involved. How did that start?

 

There was a little bit fate in that. A parish church priest, who had married my wife and I, told us he had a parishioner who could use a visit. That's all he asked, just one visit.

 

Gregory was two years old when I met him in 1993, as a patient in Johns Hopkins Medical Hospital. He was a very, very sick little boy, afflicted with a rare form of leukemia. Karen and I had a one-year old at the time, and to see a kid battling for his life - it really hit home. It didn't take much for us to put things in perspective and appreciate how fortunate we were.

 

It was tough for Gregory - after he was first diagnosed, he went into remission for a time, then the cancer came back at Christmastime. He had to go back to the hospital and some good medical people said, 'Let's just make him comfortable and give him the best quality of life'.

 

Fortunately, the Chaya family didn't accept that and they had the foresight to seek out a great institution, the Fred Hutchinson Research Center of Seattle. They didn't know what was going to happen when they walked through those doors, but the family had faith.

 

Gregory's still alive to this day, as a healthy 15-year old boy, the only one that made it from his time at Hutch. He's a miracle. I don't know how many times I've talked about that meeting and the relationship since then, but I just don't have the words to completely describe it. It's just a special bond that developed over the years, through our visits and calls.

 

As you know, others might have avoided that situation in the first place, if only because of the potential heartbreak involved. Why did you decide to establish such a personal bond?

 

Gregory, thankfully, survived his illness, but we've had our share of losses. You might know that we named our bereavement project, Camp Erin, after a brave young lady named Erin Metcalf, who didn't win her battle.

 

I don't minimize the heartbreak. It's there. It can be so, so difficult when you see kids and families suffering terribly through absolutely no fault of their own, but if you step back and listen, though, you can learn a lot in their stories. It's amazing what you can learn from children. Gregory's survival is a tribute to some terrific doctors, but it was about a belief, too - the Chaya's believed, Gregory believed. After a time, so did we.

 

In his own way, he's been a fighter. He taught us to be fighters, too.

 

Is it ever draining for you on a personal level?

 

One thing I've found out over the course of, now, a relatively long career - you really find out about true colors during struggles. When a player or a team is facing adversity during a slump, that's when you find out how strong they really are, and it's the same thing in a hospital. Helping distressed kids helps you see that strength, too.

 

I'll tell you what, you don't see a lot of sick kids sitting around saying, 'Poor me'. They're very resilient. They find ways to believe. This may sound corny, but most of the kids I've come across, whether they make it or they don't make it, have ended up inspiring me. There are big lessons in their bravery, and openness to that's helped make us better people.

 

How have you gone about establishing a personal bond?

 

Kids, when you first meet them, they might be a little nervous, they might not know how to act, but after a little bit, they warm up to you. All you really need is a good attitude and some common sense.

 

You know, it's like meeting someone out in the community, say at one of my kids' ball games, for the first time. They might be afraid to talk to you, it can be a standoff. If you welcome them, though, the next thing you know, you're chatting away. That's the neat thing.

 

A lot of people give their time and money to charities, and that's generous enough. Why did you decide to take the extra step in establishing your own foundation in 2000, then becoming so involved in its operations?

 

When I had a chance to really establish my career in Seattle after 1996, we realized there was a great need out here and we could help. As I mentioned, I knew about Hutch due to my friendship with Gregory.

 

Why do my wife and I get so involved? Because, if you do it, you do it right. We wanted to make sure to prove our legitimacy; that we weren't going to spend the money frivolously or hire family members on the payroll. My wife works [at the Foundation] a lot, but donates all her time as an unpaid employee.

 

We wanted to be hands-on for another reason - to ensure that operating costs are kept to an absolute minimum. When people give to the Moyer Foundation, they can be completely comfortable that their donation will impact on those who need it. Our goal has been to keep operating costs under 10% and, at certain events, a full 100% of the funds go right back to the community. That's key.

 

I don't doubt your sincerity, but it's kind of remarkable that you'd be so willing to roll up your sleeves so often. I mean, Major Leaguers, on some level, are like astronauts and Presidents - the elites of the elites. It's not necessarily reasonable to  expect them to excel in their job, then turn around and give back in their everyday lives.

 

I think the media attention has changed everything from 25, 40, 50 years ago, whether through national ESPN coverage or local coverage. I think - and I don't mean this in a disrespectful way - that the fans and the media can put players on a pedestal. They can forget that we are human beings, that we do have issues in our lives, just like everybody else.

 

Of course I want to be a great baseball player. It's nice to be in front of big crowds and to be on TV, and I'm not fooling anybody - the salary's pretty good. At the same time, I would never put myself above anybody as a person. I don't think it's a good way to go through life.

 

It's funny - when I was a young player, I ate, slept, and lived baseball, and I couldn't let it go. When I was struggled, I couldn't get away, and it drove me crazy. The experiences with the Foundation have taught me that, you know, I can give 100% at work and still have other things in my life. It's OK. The charitable stuff is sort of like my six children - it's a good outlet away from the professional side.

 

I'd never make a comparison between sports and someone’s fight to live, but there is at least a superficial similarity in that ultimate success can turn on mental focus and motivation. Can you talk about that?

 

You're right, saving lives is a lot more serious, but there is some connection.

 

The first thing that comes to mind is - conquering fears. Anyone who tells you that he doesn't have fears is lying. We all have fears. We all fear failure. We all fear dying. What I've learned in the course of my career is to be persistent and channel that energy in a positive way, so fear isn't a roadblock, but a motivation. That's how you can be a success.

 

I know that, in my younger days as a pro, I used to say 'Why me?' or 'Here we go again'. I've been able to turn my career around partly because I learned to say, 'It is what it is. It's up to me to get better'. So, I'd say that facing your fears is key - in baseball and in life.

 

Another thing that comes to mind is balance. I played with guys like Andre Dawson [of the Cubs] and Nolan Ryan [of the Rangers] and if there’s one thing I learned from those gentlemen - if you have a bad day, it's OK. You don't have to like it, but, hey, you can learn from bad days, work, and turn it around. That always applies.

 

Coincidentally or not, your arrival in Seattle marked an ongoing period when you've been one of the most successful starters in baseball. Has your celebrity helped recruit volunteers and donors?

 

Well, my job definitely allows me to introduce myself and establish positive relationships, because people naturally want to be associated with positive things.

 

That's helpful, but it's really not about Jamie Moyer and Karen Moyer, the president and vice president of the foundation, it's about taking ideas and energy from a lot of good people and making them happen. Without the volunteers and the in-kind contributions, the Foundation wouldn't exist, and that's why we make a point of constantly thanking them. It means so much to us. Like police officers and firefighters, they can help save lives.

 

At the Foundation, it's about all of us. It’s a team. You don't know how many times my wife says that word - 'team'.

 

Speaking of another team - did Mariners contribute to the Foundation's work and events?

 

I try to be respectful in asking my teammates in asking for help, but I believe the majority know about our work, and many have helped out at events like our bowling tournament. They're very relaxed environments for families, and a chance to have fun.

 

You're in elite company in being cited for the Roberto Clemente Award, as you know. What did that recognition mean to you?

 

I never had a chance to meet Mr. Clemente, but I did meet his widow and his grown children. He was an outstanding, outstanding player on the field and someone who had to lay down his life in the service of others.

 

It was incredible, a huge honor. Again, I'm at a loss for words to express what's it's really like. I've never had the chance to win the World Series, but I imagine it would be that same kind of feeling.

 

What do you see in the Foundation's future?

 

Hopefully, we can gain more awareness of our charity's work and our web site, www.moyerfoundation.org, so we can grow in Seattle and the Northwest. I certainly hope we can do more nationwide efforts, like our bereavement camps for the families affected by 9-11 and our relief drive for the victims of the Asia tsunami.

 

More than anything else, I just hope we attract more and more good people to the Foundation, long after I retire as a player. I've seen it make a remarkable difference.

 

 

The complete Table of Contents for the ‘Baseball Men’ interview series can be found here.



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