After the deadliest school shooting in Texas history, baseball became a tool to bring the community together and help them heal. That’s why we’ve selected the San Antonio Missions (Double-A; Texas League) and their Uvalde fundraiser night for the 2022 Ballpark Digest Charity Event Award.
A lone gunman walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, killing 19 students and two teachers. It was an event that hit close to home, as the Missions play about 80 miles away from Uvalde. General Manager David Gasaway says he remembers the day well.
“The 24th was our staff’s first day back after a 12-game homestand. They had the 23rd off. We were getting news throughout the day and it was just horrific,” Gasaway says. “We routinely get groups from Uvalde here at Wolff Stadium. That includes their high-school baseball team. On weekends when our team is on the road, we try to host high-school playoff games and Uvalde has been here several times.”
For players like infielder Connor Hollis, who called San Antonio home during the season, there was a different shift after the shooting.
“Being in that area right after it happened especially the west side of San Antonio where you start getting into the country and the suburbs, it was eerie,” Hollis said. “I would imagine it was the same feeling as being in New York City after 9/11. People weren’t as talkative or as social because they were processing the tragedy.”
Hollis said even the atmosphere at games changed.
“You’re used to hearing typical crowd noise but after that, I don’t want to say the crowd wasn’t as involved but for about one to two weeks, unless something big happened on the field, it was like you could hear a pin drop.”
Only two days went by before the Missions knew they wanted to do something to help. The idea of a jersey auction came up, but because of the turnaround for specialty jerseys, they weren’t sure if they’d be able to pull it off in a timely manner.
“Specialty jerseys usually take anywhere from two to three months to have them made and delivered to the ballpark. That would mean doing an event in possibly August, which didn’t feel soon enough,” Gasaway said. “We were looking at one of the last weekends in June because school would have let out for the summer and it was approaching Memorial Day weekend.”
The team reached out to officials with the City of Uvalde and the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District to discuss options. The athletic director signed off of letting the Missions use the Uvalde jersey designs, and that’s when Wilson Sporting Goods stepped up.
“Without Wilson’s help, we wouldn’t have been able to pull this off. We called them and they said we can get it expedited and to you as fast as possible. They got the jerseys to us in under 10 days,” Gasaway said.
San Antonio hosted the Uvalde jersey night on June 16 at Wolff Stadium. The team said they wanted the tone and atmosphere to be just right by showing respect to the community and finding ways to honor them. One was having the Uvalde High School baseball team join the San Antonio Missions wearing their Uvalde jerseys before the game for a photo. They also brought a maroon Uvalde Strong flag that the team kept in the dugout with them during the game.
“It was awesome having them on the field with us,” Hollis said. “It was almost like giving them not a distraction but a way to take their mind off things for a bit. We started talking to the players and you could see the twinkle in their eye and how much this means to them.”
Up on the concourse, the jerseys were up for sale and, unlike previous auctions, the Missions decided not to cap the price on them.
“Normally, when we do a jersey auction, we have a buy-it-now price usually set at $750 or $1,000. When we announced the Uvalde jersey night, we had people calling in that same day wanting to buy them outright for $1,000,” Gasaway said. “We said no. We didn’t want to put a ceiling on it because we didn’t know what the support would be.”
The Missions also passed the bucket between innings to collect money from fans. And the front-office staff didn’t know until after the game, but players and coaches also passed the bucket in the clubhouse to raise money.
“We felt like we needed to do our part other than playing a baseball game and that moment was like a light switch for us. Internally, it almost helps you decide why you’re playing the game,” Hollis said. “People become scientists or doctors because they want to change the world. I want to play baseball because it makes people happy.”
And happiness is something the Missions’ staff says they saw throughout the ballpark as families were able to enjoy a night out.
“A lot of people from Uvalde came out to that game. Two teachers were victims and both of the families were at the ballpark that night,” Gasaway said. “People would come up to us on the concourse and say thank you for doing this. It was almost like their first moments of relief and knowing that it was okay to smile again.”
The electric and memorable atmosphere led to a Cinderella ending to the game. The Missions were down 3-1 for most of the game but came back and won it with a walk-off sacrifice fly ball in the bottom of the ninth. That’s when pitcher Henry Henry grabbed the Uvalde Strong flag and ran on the field with it as the team celebrated in a giant dogpile.
“When we won that game, that was the loudest I have ever heard a crowd in my entire career playing,” Hollis said. “Everyone was just so joyful and delighted to find something positive to hold on to. It was so surreal. It was like God was watching over us and it was something that was meant to happen. I still get chills thinking about it.”
By the end of the night, San Antonio had officially raised $50,357 for the Robb Elementary School Memorial Fund. Gasaway and Assistant GM Mickey Holt drove out to Uvalde about a month later to deliver the check to the bank that’s the caretaker of the fund and to meet with officials from the school district.
“We thought we were just dropping off a check. We ended up staying almost two hours,” Gasaway said. “The bank’s CEO and president met us and told us how people kept saying that night at the Missions game was so special and what it meant to them.”
They saved one Uvalde jersey and had the entire team and coaching staff sign it. The jersey was then framed before the Missions gave it to Uvalde’s superintendent who says it was have a special place at their school district.
“They were talking about setting up a permanent memorial and they’re putting the jersey with it. We just wanted to use our platform to try to help in any way we could,” Gasaway said. “Hopefully, we won’t have to host any events like this again because we don’t want to see tragedies in our communities. But if we do, there is another 119 Minor League clubs that would do the same thing in a great way. That’s one of the things we love about Minor League Baseball.”
Three other baseball teams teams earned recognition for their charity efforts. Our first runner-up (in no particular order, by the way) for the Charity Event Award, sadly, also involved a school shooting. The Charleston RiverDogs (Single-A; Carolina League) hosted the the conclusion of a youth baseball game, featuring nine- and ten-year-olds from the North Charleston Recreation Royals and Angels, that was interrupted by gunfire in Pepperhill Park in April 2022. Compelled to lift the community and the young players involved, the RiverDogs hosted a make-up game between the Angels and Royals at Riley Park before the RiverDogs faced the Fayetteville Woodpeckers. In addition to recognizing the Angels, Royals, and 15U Yankees, the RiverDogs honored coaches and city personnel involved in keeping those at Pepperhill Park safe from harm. During the youth game, a video message from Boston Red Sox’ Jackie Bradley Jr. played on the video board encouraging the kids to overcome trauma and continue their baseball career. After the youth game North Charleston players, coaches, and families were treated to a picnic and a surprise Zoom call with Kansas City Royals’ Whit Merrifield.
Our second runner-up: The Pensacola Blue Wahoos (Double-A; Southern League) partnered with the United States Navy and Naval Air Station Pensacola to raise $11,000 to benefit local servicemembers and their families through the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society during the 2022 season.
As part of a season-long commitment to honoring local military members and their families, the Blue Wahoos took the field over Memorial Day Weekend and Fourth of July Weekend in special Navy Baseball uniforms, honoring Pensacola’s Navy Baseball history by wearing authentic recreations of the uniforms worn by the Navy’s baseball team during World War II. The team also unveiled a new wall mural display at Blue Wahoos Stadium honoring Pensacola’s Navy baseball teams, including the 1943 Pensacola team that featured Ted Williams and reached the Navy equivalent of the World Series.
At each of the three Navy Baseball Nights at the ballpark, the team invited local servicemen and women from N.A.S. Pensacola and their families to the ballpark to be honored, and the team made multiple visits to the base with franchise co-owner Bubba Watson to spend time with military members.
The initiative culminated in late August at the team’s Blue Angels in the Outfield event at Blue Wahoos Stadium. The legendary U.S. Navy Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron was joined at the game by 130 local servicemembers and their families, meeting fans and the team. A check for $11,000, the proceeds from the auction of the Navy Baseball uniforms worn by the team during the season, was presented to the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, a non-profit that provides financial, educational, and other assistance to members of the Naval Services, their family, survivors, and veterans.
Our third runner-up: The Portland Sea Dogs (Double-A; Eastern League) partner with the Maine Children’s Cancer Program, and in the past 29 years, the Sea Dogs have raised over 5 million dollars for MCCP. Fundraising includes a donation made for every Sea Dogs pitcher strikeout (Strike Out Cancer in Kids), fundraising challenges between Slugger (the mascot) and each season’s Slugger Kid (a child going through cancer treatments) and a special MCCP jersey night with signed, game worn jersey auction. Non-fundraising contributions to the charity include donation of game tickets throughout the season and several “Heroes at Hadlock” games, where a child cancer patient and his or her family receives a skybox for the game and gets to round the bases with both teams on the first and third base line to high-five the kid on the way by.
Top photo: (From L to R) Nolan Watson, Korry Howell, Chandler Seagle, Henry Henry, Agustin Ruiz (#27). Bottom photo: (From L to R) Henry Henry, Domingo Leyba, Juan Fernandez, Angel Felipe, Tirso Ornelas
All photos courtesy San Antonio Missions.