Years after shoulder problems cut short Dennis Bair's career as a professional baseball pitcher, the Steel Valley native has a new way of bringing the heat.
He is asking college and professional sports teams across America to post photos of missing children in their stadiums so that millions of fans can be enlisted in the effort to find them. While milk cartons and direct mail long have taken the search for missing children door to door, Mr. Bair's strategy attempts to capitalize on the monumental reach of athletics.
"We are 100 percent working toward the goal of revolutionizing the search for missing children, nationwide, through sports," said Mr. Bair, who founded BairFind Foundation of Pleasant Hills.
He is calling his campaign "BringHome 100."
The Pirates were the first to step up to the plate.
An illuminated 5-by-7-foot sign displaying photos of 10 children hangs from the main-level, right-field concourse at PNC Park. An advertisement with more photos appears in each issue of Pirates First Pitch, the program magazine that is provided free to every ticket holder.
The Steelers also have agreed to display a concourse sign for the upcoming season, and the Cleveland Indians have agreed to a promotional event in September, said Mr. Bair, who grew up in Homestead and Munhall and graduated from Pittsburgh Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill in 1992. He played minor league baseball before shoulder problems cut short his career last decade.
In 2008, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children said 1 in 6 children featured in its photo distribution program was found because someone recognized the photo. With so many fans attending sporting events, Mr. Bair and his supporters believe the possibility for child recoveries through stadium exposure is high.
"We draw a different crowd almost every night," noted Michelle Mejia, community relations director for the Pirates.
Mr. Bair began his work with missing children more than a decade ago after realizing that posters signed by players are likely to be kept and passed around, unlike milk cartons and direct-mail pieces.
In 2001, while playing for the Frontier League's Canton (Ohio) Crocodiles, a franchise that later became the Washington Wild Things, Mr. Bair and teammates autographed posters that contained photos of missing children. Since then, Mr. Bair has produced similar posters in cooperation with minor league players in the Pirates, Indians, Chicago Cubs, Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins and Philadelphia Phillies organizations.
Mr. Bair said authorities eventually found seven of the children featured on the posters, although he doesn't know how the disappearances were solved. One of those featured and then recovered was McKeesport resident Tanya Kach, seduced and kept hidden for a decade by a school security guard.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which provides Mr. Bair with photos to disseminate, had different numbers. Since 2010, Mr. Bair has publicized the disappearances of 132 children, 11 of whom have been found, said Bob Lowery, executive director of the center's missing children division.
Mr. Lowery said he's optimistic about the potential of Mr. Bair's new plan to publicize missing children at sporting events. "We do look for those unique partners who can get us in front of a wide audience," he said, noting previous efforts to publicize missing children at NASCAR races and on Maryland lottery machines.
Mr. Bair said he would like to expand the program to cities nationwide; his targets include college and professional baseball, basketball, football and hockey venues. On Sept. 19, he said, the Indians will host a "BringHome 100" night that will publicize the case of Gina DeJesus, who was 14 when she disappeared in 2004.
While messages about missing children often are geared to adults, Mr. Bair hopes a campaign based at stadiums and involving athlete-spokesmen will get youngsters to pay attention, too.
In addition to the concourse sign and ad in First Pitch, the Pirates air a 30-second public service announcement about Mr. Bair's campaign before each game. The speakers are infielder Neil Walker; Steve Blass, Pirates broadcaster and former pitcher; and former Steelers running back Rocky Bleier.
"I think it's a different type of community outreach for teams," said Dave Synowka, professor and chairman of the sport management department at Robert Morris University. Different methods of presentation, he said, increase the likelihood that the photos will be noticed.
Joe Smydo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1548.