Jack Cassel, like most professional baseball players, has a lot on his mind right now.
The 29-year-old right-hander is hoping to rebound from an injury-plagued season with Triple-A Columbus, where he was able to make just 15 starts. He's currently a free agent and may soon depart the country in order to play in a winter league.
But as committed as Cassel is to his currently influx baseball career, his performance on the playing field is far from his only area of focus. Last year, the Los Angeles native teamed up with Cincinnati Reds outfielder Chris Dickerson on an altruistic project of remarkable ambition -- Players 4 the Planet.
Originally named We Play Green, Players 4 the Planet is an organization whose mission statement reads, in part, "[Our] goal is to bring professional athletes together to inspire communities to build awareness of the growing environmental crisis. [Players 4 the Planet] intends to use professional athletes and how they incorporate green in their own lives to demonstrate various methods that sports fans can utilize to make a difference themselves."
This is not your typical off-field diversion, in other words.
'Every little bit helps'
Cassel's upbringing -- and birthplace -- go a long way toward explaining his passion for environmental activism.
"I grew up in L.A., where my family always recycled," explained Cassel, who has logged Major League playing time with the San Diego Padres and Houston Astros. "They took the initiative to make sure that things were put in their proper place. But in L.A., we'd sometimes have [baseball] games canceled because the air quality was so poor. And every time I'd travel somewhere to play baseball, I'd fly back into L.A. and -- boom! - the first thing I'd see was a thick layer of smog. When you're in that kind of environment, it's hard not be concerned."
This concern turned into action when Cassel met Dickerson, who is now a 27-year-old outfielder with the Cincinnati Reds. The two grew up in the same neighborhood and had mutual friends, but didn't actually meet until they both attended Super Bowl XLII between the New York Giants and New England Patriots (Cassel's younger brother, Matt, who now starts for the Kansas City Chiefs, was suiting up for the Patriots at the time).
"[Chris] and I started talking at the Super Bowl, because we both shared a concern about the growing environmental crisis that the world is facing," said Cassel. "We wanted to use our positions in our respective communities to put a face on the issue. We wanted to educate, to get information out there for other players, fans and front-office personnel. Every little bit helps."
The organization was officially launched in fall 2008 as We Play Green. Quickly, the duo zeroed in on what has become their signature issue.
"We wanted to corral the excessive use of plastic water bottles, because that's something we had been aware of and to some extent guilty of," said Cassel. "There are 25 guys on a [professional baseball] team, and in the dead of summer they're easily going through six bottles a day. And then multiply that by 140 games and 160 teams.
"That's just Minor League Baseball in one season," he added. "Throw in MLB on top of that, and then little leagues, high school, and other sports ... it adds up to a lot of waste."
While with Triple-A Louisville in 2008, Dickerson implemented a clubhouse recycling program and also equipped his club with reusable non-plastic water bottles. Cassel found similar success in Columbus last season.
"[The Clippers] provided us with additional recycling receptacles in both player clubhouses and dugouts," he said. "As players, if nothing else, we're setting an example. If a kid asks his dad, 'Why are they throwing their bottles in a blue trash can?' then that sparks a conversation on why recycling is important."
A literal team effort
Players 4 the Planet has been able to amplify their message by partnering with two influential allies: The Minor League Baseball Green Team (run by the National Association of Professional Ball Clubs) and trendsetting California League franchise, the Lake Elsinore Storm. All three entities converged at last season's California/Carolina League All-Star Game, which took place at the Storm's The Diamond.
"We launched our plastic bottle recycling initiative [in Lake Elsinore], and we're working with recycling companies and clubs spread across the country," said John Cook, Minor League Baseball's senior vice president of business operations. "It can be challenging, working with so many vendors in so many different markets, but it's a worthwhile initiative and something we're all going to keep working on.
"Our goal is to be a best practice resource," he added. "We're keeping our finger on the pulse, both learning from and educating clubs. The bottom line is that there is strength in numbers and 160 heads [are] better than one."
Of those 160 heads, the Lake Elsinore Storm is certainly the most forward-thinking and influential. The team's reputation for environmental leadership can be attributed to president Dave Oster, who got to know Cassel when the latter suited up for the Storm as a San Diego farmhand in 2002.
"Jack used to play here, he still lives in the area and we've always been friends," said Oster. "It's a no-brainer to work together, so that we can create change through the world of sports. More people are going to listen to them than they are some team in Lake Elsinore."
Under Oster's leadership, The Diamond has become one of the country's most environmentally-friendly sports facilities. Among other things, the stadium boasts waterless urinals, water-saving sprinkler heads, an energy-efficient lighting system and, of course, an extensive recycling program.
But despite his team's established role as a leader in the field, Oster claims his approach is more pragmatic than idealistic. His energy-saving initiatives have paid for themselves through lower energy and water bills, resulting in what he dubs a "classic win-win situation."
"I'm not going to argue with someone about global warming, because I'm not smart enough," he said. "But if you're doing something the right way and for the right reasons, then you have nothing to worry about. ... As a baseball operator, if I have the opportunity to save a boatload of money then I'm going to take advantage. One of the biggest hurdles we have going forward is that there are still teams that don't feel that [an environmental approach] is cost-effective.
"That's why it's great that the Storm and Players 4 the Planet can come together to make a bit of noise and improve people's awareness."
'An ideal venue'
And if speaking to Cassel is any indication, Players 4 The Planet is intent on making a lot more "noise." For starters, the organization has recruited an ever-expanding roster of like-minded players to spread the word -- including Chase Utley, Ryan Braun, Hunter Pence, Jacoby Ellsbury and Freddy Sanchez.
"Our goal is to have a green representative on every [professional] team, to be the go-to guy for community outreach and appearances," said Cassel. "Someone who can say 'here's what the plan is and here's what we need.' And because of the guys we have so far, like Ryan Braun or Chase Utley, then other players are more likely to get on board."
One issue these athletes will lobby for is to have their teams promote environmental education programs.
"We have been working diligently on grade-specific, downloadable lesson plans," said Cassel. "And we can promote these through the players themselves -- for example, 'Hunter Pence's lesson plan.'"
One of the longer-term goals Cassel and Dickerson are working toward is a "Green Day" that would be celebrated throughout the world of sports.
"Similar to breast cancer and prostate cancer awareness, we'd like to see teams dedicate one day a year to environmental awareness," said Cassel. "Players would wear green wristbands and use green bats. Because in every city there are issues that need to be addressed, whether it's higher temperatures, polluted rivers, trash disposal ... we feel that a baseball stadium can be an ideal venue for change."
So even while dealing with the professional uncertainty and erratic availability that goes hand-in-hand with playing baseball for a living, Cassel and Dickerson are confident that Players 4 the Planet is set up for long-term success.
"There are ups and downs definitely as we learn to juggle baseball and running a company," said Cassel. "But overall, the feedback we've received has been great, and people throughout the baseball world have been responding to our efforts. We continue to get better with the business side of things and are confident that this organization will continue to grow."