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Minors lend hand to tornado victims
05/06/2011 10:00 AM ET
Minor League stadiums are built with entertainment in mind, but when disaster strikes, they can be used for causes far more important than professional baseball.

This was certainly the case at Huntsville's Joe Davis Stadium this past week as the facility was transformed into an impromptu shelter, dining center and hotel in the wake of the devastating tornadoes that swept through Alabama.

Joe Davis' usual occupants -- the Double-A Huntsville Stars of the Southern League -- had been able to make it out of town before the storm hit. Stars general manager Buck Rogers and his staff took refuge in the stadium as it passed through, then immediately began devising ways to respond.

"We took a look around and asked ourselves, 'Well, what do we have?'" said Rogers. "In this facility, we still had gas and hot water, so we could cook, wash dishes, do laundry and provide showers. And we have plenty of space, so rescue workers and police could crash here if need be. ... We were ready to rock and roll all the way through this."

In a baseball context, Joe Davis Stadium is rarely celebrated for its amenities. But in this situation, the 25-year-old facility was more than adequate. The Stars immediately sprung into action, working with their concessions partner, Sodexho, to provide free food for rescue workers. This quickly evolved into what Rogers called a "a real hodgepodge community crockpot," with "people bringing food from every direction."

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With many of these donations, time was of the essence. Local chefs came through with food from their restaurants that otherwise would have expired, resulting in cuisine not generally thought of as ballpark fare.

"At some points we were serving four- or five-star dinners, stuff like pork loin and beef tenderloin. But two hours earlier, it might have been chicken wings and French fries," said Rogers. "The menu evolved every day."

And there was plenty of food to go around. Rescue workers ate for free, and anyone from the community could get a meal in exchange for a small donation toward local relief efforts. Meanwhile, rescue workers, police and firefighters made use of the ballpark's showers and washing machines, with some sleeping in luxury boxes at night.

A sense of normalcy finally began to return to Huntsville earlier this week, as did the Stars. The team's first game in Huntsville since the storm was played on Tuesday morning, with Rogers declaring it "Tornado Relief Day." Admission and parking were free and the team raised more than $3,000 for the local branch of the Red Cross.

"[The past week] was an opportunity to do what's best for the community with no worries about the bottom line," said Rogers. "Baseball took a backseat -- it was all about making Huntsville a better place to live."

Good neighbors

Approximately 100 miles south of Huntsville are the Birmingham Barons, who made it home from a road trip several hours before the storm hit. Some team members opted to seek shelter at Regions Stadium, where they were joined by a smattering of residents who had been staying at a nearby RV park.

"They were all super-nice people," said Barons clubhouse manager Jeff Perro of the unexpected guests. "Older folks mainly, from places like Texas and Colorado, all just passing through."

Regions Park, located in the suburb of Hoover, escaped largely unscathed. But nearby communities such as Pratt City were decimated by the storm, and the team wanted to pitch in. This past Monday, 16 members of the Barons volunteered at an aid center set up in a Pratt City elementary school.

"It was crazy just getting there; the Air Force was there and the National Guard," said Perro. "But once we finally did, they put us right to work."

The Barons contingent helped to unload, load and sort the prodigious amount of donations that the aid center had been set up to process and distribute, departing in time to prepare for that evening's game against Mobile. The Jacksonville Suns coincidentally visited the same aid center the very next day, as part of a travel day volunteer outing organized by manager Andy Barkett. (The team was en route to Huntsville for a series with the Stars.)

Examples of such spontaneous kindness were evident throughout Minor League Baseball. Mobile's Hank Aaron Stadium is being used as a drop-off center for donations to the Tuscaloosa Boys and Girls Club, while up north the Akron Aeros are collecting donations that will be loaded into a tractor trailer and driven to Tuscaloosa on Saturday. And in Burlington, Iowa, the Bees have been collecting ballpark donations to support the relatives of grounds crew intern Cody Wells, whose family's home was destroyed by the tornadoes.

Silver linings

Jack Roeder, who served as the general manager of the Cedar Rapids Kernels for 20 years before retiring this past offseason, offered encouraging words to the Alabama communities devastated by the tornadoes.

"It's a very trying time but can be very rewarding," he said. "No matter how bad it is right now, there are blue skies ahead. It might take a while to get to that point, but it can be done."

Roeder should know. In 2008, the Kernels' Veterans Memorial Field became a command center for city government after extensive flooding caused severe damage throughout the region.

"We were able to provide the space for so many things that the city needed to do," he said. "It was a little bit of everything, from providing donuts and coffee at morning meetings to housing the National Guard at night. It was very much a collaborative effort between the team and the city. We just tried to help out wherever we could."

In the aftermath of the flood, the Kernels coordinated a host of fundraising efforts. The Minor League Baseball head office (based in St. Petersburg, Fla.) got the ball rolling with a $25,000 donation to the local Boys and Girls Club, and the team went on to help rebuild local playing fields while raising money for schools hit hardest by the flood.

In the midst of Minor League Baseball's day-to-day emphasis on affordable (and often quite ridiculous) family fun, it can be easy to forget just how crucial that teams can be to their communities. Vancouver Canadians president Andy Dunn, who frequently dealt with hurricanes in a previous stint as GM of the Brevard County Manatees, articulates this point.

"I tell my staff that we're not just part of the community, but we're leaders within it," said Dunn. "But anybody can be a leader when times are good, when there are seven thousand people in the ballpark on fireworks night. It's when the community is in trouble that you really have to step up.

"Sure, [Minor League teams] all want to beat each other, but we're all in the same business, all pulling the same rope," he continued. "We have to help one another when we can, always ready to lend a helping hand."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.