Pirates' minor leaguers go to bat for community

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- There are times when playing baseball really starts to feel like a job, Larry Broadway, the Pirates' director of minor league operations, told the team's minor league players last week at Pirate City, the team's spring training facility.

Times, he said, when you haven't had a hit for three weeks, and you start thinking about the tough hand you've been dealt -- "until you go one day to Children's Hospital and spend some time with a kid who's not going to see his seventh birthday."

It's the kind of thing that puts baseball in perspective, he said.

Since 2008, community service has been a mandatory requirement for every Pirates minor league player. The initiative, called the Pirates Community Commitment Program, requires that each player complete at least 10 hours of community service per season, whether that be volunteering at a food bank, mentoring a child or playing with dogs at an animal shelter.

Assistant general manager Kyle Stark believes the Pirates are the only organization in baseball that makes community service a mandatory requirement for its minor league players. Since it became a requirement, more than 10,000 community service hours have been logged, the Pirates said.

This year, the program has a new component. If a player completes at least 20 hours of community service in-season and another 20 hours of community service off-season, he will receive a $5,000 scholarship toward the cost of school tuition.

Community involvement provides the frame of reference needed in baseball, Mr. Stark said.

"This is a hard game. It's a tough game," he said. "It's hard to feel sorry for yourself, it's hard to feel so inwardly focused, when you have some different perspectives. And we believe that this helps guys change their perspectives. It is a game. There are people in tougher, more challenging situations."

People such as Neil Alexander.

Living like Lou

Mr. Alexander, 47, of O'Hara, was diagnosed in the summer of 2011 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. The neurodegenerative motor neuron disease, which has no cure and an average life expectancy of two to five years after diagnosis, is more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Crushed at first by the news, Mr. Alexander and his wife, Suzanne, were soon inspired by the example set by Gehrig, the New York Yankees Hall of Famer who died from the disease that now bears his name. They founded LiveLikeLou.org, an organization geared to raise awareness of ALS and to raise funding for research and patient care.

The Pirates knew of Mr. Alexander's story, and they learned that he would be in Florida with his wife, their 11-year-old daughter and their 9-year-old son to attend spring training, fulfilling a lifelong dream for Mr. Alexander. The Pirates asked him to speak to their minor league players -- about 150 of them from teams including the Altoona Curve and the West Virginia Power -- to offer perspective and inspiration.

"He's an example of what giving back is, and the legacy you can create, beyond just being a good player," Mr. Stark said.

Mr. Alexander, his arms weakened and his hands showing the effects of the disease, stood at the front of the Pirate City cafeteria, looking out at ballplayers who ranged in age from 17 to 30. He recounted the daze he and his wife found themselves in after his diagnosis.

"We were just kind of sleepwalking through our lives," he said, but soon they decided to change the way they were reacting and launch LiveLikeLou.org.

The fund is named for Gehrig, but on Tuesday Mr. Alexander connected it to another baseball great: Roberto Clemente, the Pirate who died in a plane crash in 1972 as he attempted to deliver supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims.

Clemente may have had great accomplishments in baseball, but Mr. Alexander argued that his more defining legacy is the way he lived and eventually died, helping others. He called on the Pirates players to live like Gehrig and Clemente.

"All of you have an opportunity now, through this program, to find out what's going to be your legacy," he said.

Jameson Taillon, 21, of The Woodlands, Texas, the No. 2 pitching prospect, posted a message to Twitter that night: "Count your blessings before bed tonight. Got to listen to an incredible talk by a man facing ALS fearlessly. Leave a legacy, starting today."

Zach Von Rosenberg, a 22-year-old from Lake Charles, La., called Mr. Alexander's talk "inspiring."

Mr. Von Rosenberg, who was drafted by the Pirates in 2009 and played last year for the Power, did about 15 community service hours last season, spending time on his days off or before games doing service such as working at food banks. Last year, he won a Pirates community service award for his team.

This year, before spring training has ended and the regular season began, he had already logged two service hours, visiting an elementary school across from Pirate City with other teammates.

Tim Alderson, a 24-year-old Scottsdale, Ariz., native who plays for the Curve, also won an award for his service last year, which has included running baseball camps and talking to kids about drugs and alcohol.

Mr. Broadway, in his speech to the minor leaguers, said players are representative of their community and they have a responsibility to their community. Mr. Alderson, describing the service he has done, echoed that sentiment.

"It gives [the community] a good change to get to know us, also, instead of just as baseball players," he said. "They get to know us off the field and interact."

The service is performed off the field, but ultimately the Pirates believe ensuring that players have a broader perspective can be a performance enhancer on the field. And although community service is not a requirement at the Pirates' major league level, it is encouraged. By making it a requirement for minor league players being prepared for the major leagues, "ultimately, it becomes the culture," Mr. Stark said.

"It is an expectation."

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Michael Sanserino contributed. Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707. First Published March 24, 2013 4:00 AM


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