Reds give back as much as they get
Team connects with community with new fields, youth teams
CINCINNATI -- Baseball clubs forging relationships with their community can't expect a one-way arrangement. It's not enough for a Major League team to simply play its games and take fans' money for the right to watch.To get the kind of goodwill from the people that really lasts, it's expected that even more has to be given right back by the team in return. The Reds get that. "You always want to give back to the community, especially in the area you play in, and help out," said Reds pitcher Aaron Harang, who was the club's nominee for the 2007 Roberto Clemente Award, which honors community service. The Reds Community Fund was founded in 2001, but its efforts have successfully moved into hyperdrive over the past two years, under the ownership of Bob Castellini. The chief executive officer has mandated that the club must be active in the community. Harang was among several Reds players and front office members who have taken the mantra and run with it. "Overall, the most exciting part to us is the ongoing cultural change," Reds Community Fund executive director Charley Frank said. "At the league meetings, we heard from some teams that have to fight for their voice [within the franchise]. Our team is supportive. We don't have to fight at all. Our ownership and executive level management is fighting for us." Charity and community programs aren't just limited to Cincinnati. As the team has worked to expand its reach and increase its fan base, the RCF has immersed itself in efforts that cover Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, West Virginia and Sarasota, Fla. The Reds exceeded a goal in 2007 by raising $1.1 million for the club's community programs. The 2008 goal is $1.3 million. One of the centerpieces of the RCF has become its field renovation program. The club has worked with inner-city programs to improve playing conditions by removing dangerous hazards and installing new fields, drainage systems, benches and scoreboards. Not only has the program helped improve field safety, it's given children more access to play baseball, while also upgrading the identity of a neighborhood.
By the end of 2007, 164 ball fields will have been renovated since the spring of 2006. About $1 million has been invested in the program in cities like Cincinnati, Hamilton, Dayton, Columbus, Northern Kentucky, Louisville, Lexington, Indianapolis, Huntington and Sarasota."That's something we're proud of," Frank said. "I really think, for our community, our model works for us. We don't focus on building palaces. We like getting out there and sprinkling a little magic on a lot of fields." Stemming from their involvement in Knothole Baseball, beginning 75 years ago, the Reds have continued to invest in multiple youth baseball programs. The Reds Rookie Success League is a non-competitive, coed, character-building baseball league for 8-to-11 year-olds. Participants are provided with introductory baseball instruction as well as character-based lessons two days a week during the six-week program. All 32 teams in the program were "adopted" by a Reds player or coach. This year, the Rookie Success League expanded into nearby Butler County with the help of native son and legendary broadcaster, the late Joe Nuxhall. Nuxhall's son, Kim, an elementary school gym teacher for 30 years, was also centrally involved in the effort. It's something even more appreciated in the wake of Joe Nuxhall's Nov. 15 death due to lymphoma. "I can't say enough about how perfect the fit was," Frank said. "Joe was an obvious connection, but the work Kim Nuxhall did with character building was in tune with what our program is about." The Reds Youth Baseball Funding program invested $260,000 for 2,600 kids over 176 inner city teams. It underwrote expenses for uniforms, equipment and league or tournament fees. A requirement for funding was the participants also having to perform community service projects of their own. After years of being dormant, the Reviving Baseball in the Inner City (RBI) program was re-launched in 2007. Two leagues were formed with six Cincinnati Public Schools with a 10-game spring schedule. A summer league consisted of local inner-city Knothole players that also played a 10-game schedule with junior and senior divisions. All-star teams from both divisions played in a season-ending tournament at Pittsburgh in July. The Reds also helped foster a match baseball program that paired youth baseball teams from the suburbs with inner-city teams. This year, there were three team pairings with Anderson Township. Little League and Madisonville Braves organization; Wyoming and Bond Hill and the Loveland/Cincinnati Stix and Evanston's Six Men Tigers. Each team played a home and home series where the teams were blended together. "The coaches do the work," Frank said. "They were fabulous having the coaches, kids and parents blend. They formed friendships with baseball as the common language." Their eye is already on doing more in 2008. The Reds have sponsored the construction of the area's first Miracle League field at Oskamp Park in Western Hills, which is set to open in April. The Miracle League, a national program, offers fields that are accessible to all children with disabilities. "It's one of the biggest things we've invested with, to date," Frank said. When the RCF began its outreach programs in the summer of 2003, it helped 125 kids. In 2007, according to Frank, 15,000 children or coaches have benefited from the Reds' community efforts. When it comes to community involvement, bigger is definitely better.
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.