"It's gonna be awesome."
It was Friday, Sept. 4, the last weekend of the Minor League season, and Portland Sea Dogs pitcher Mike McCarthy was talking about his offseason plans. The "awesome" of which he spoke was in reference to a pair of international excursions planned for the fall. Both involved baseball; neither were involved with advancing his pitching career.
McCarthy's trips, to Kenya in October and Honduras in November, are being organized by the non-profit organization Baseball Miracles. Founded by Chicago White Sox scout John Tumminia, Baseball Miracles is dedicated to the simple (perhaps in theory, though not in execution) premise of teaching baseball to disadvantaged children across the globe. McCarthy got involved with the organization during the 2013 season, while pitching in the Carolina League for the Salem Red Sox. Tumminia was scouting that evening's ballgame at Salem's Lewis-Gale Field, and between games of a doubleheader, he and McCarthy struck up a conversation.
"Once I heard [Tummina's] energy and what he was trying to do, I said 'Look, I want to be involved. I'll pay my own way, I'll find a way to get it done, I'll fundraise," said McCarthy, a California native who attended CSU Bakersfield. "A few days later, he sent me an email, 'All right, you're on board. Let's do this.' Sometimes those things just fall into place when you're least expecting it."
Of course, to have a commitment like this just "fall into place," one must already possess a strong commitment to philanthropy and volunteerism. McCarthy said that he was "big on community service growing up," taking leadership classes throughout high school and serving as president of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee at CSU Bakersfield. In this capacity he put together a project in which the athletics department combined to contribute 3,000 hours of community service throughout the course of the school year.
"It actually worked out great," he said. "At first guys were a little hesitant, having to get up at seven in the morning on a Saturday, but once they saw the energy behind it and how good it made them feel and how they were doing something to benefit someone else, they really got involved with it. ... In my life, I faced some challenges early on, and if people hadn't given back and helped me out, I wouldn't be where I am today. So I realized I need to give that back. And what better way than baseball? So I continue to do that, both domestically and abroad."
McCarthy's first trip with Baseball Miracles came in January 2014, when he was part of a delegation that went to Ireland. The following October, he visited South Africa.
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"In Ireland we worked with two very different groups. We worked in a highly impoverished region, within the Limerick area. We also went over and worked in Dublin, where we worked with people of a lower income class, all the way up to their national team," he said. "We helped them understand strength and conditioning, shoulder programs, how to keep their arms healthy, how to be more efficient on the field. ... They knew that there was a high level of knowledge there and they wanted to soak up every minute they could get."
He continued, "And then South Africa, working with orphanages and kids who never put a glove on in their life. Swinging the bats, at first that was a little rough. But these kids love it. They were passionate. Some of them didn't have shoes on and they didn't even have gloves in their hand. But they'd be running around, picking ground balls up, throwing them. We played hot potato, and pickle drills, practicing soft hands with water balloons, things like that. And then [retired professional pitcher and fellow volunteer] Virgil Vasquez and I are doing a double barrel bullpen at the end. Two kids are throwing 65, 70 miles an hour. It was awesome. So there were challenges with the newness of it, them being green, but there was a passion to learn, and that was what made it all worthwhile. Baseball unifies us, it brings us all together."
The steep learning curve was mutual, as prior to 2014, McCarthy had never been involved with charitable work along the lines of what Baseball Miracles provides.
"It's like when you get drafted or take on any new challenge," he said. "You say, 'All right, I know this is going to be a lot. I'm open to knowing I'm going to fail, but through failure I'll find success.' With Baseball Miracles I know I haven't done everything right, but I've found a way to continue to grow and be a part of it."
Such growth is evident in the equipment drives that McCarthy has organized in each of the past two years at the Sea Dogs' home of Hadlock Field. In conjunction with this event, he collects equipment from his teammates throughout the season.
"I've got a box in the clubhouse that says 'Baseball Miracles' on it," he said. "Guys know when they're done with their equipment, don't throw it in the trash. Even if it's got a hole in it, we'll still use it. There are plenty of people in need in the world, so let's find a way to give back to them. So we load that box up, and when it's done, I tape it up, take it to my host family. They put it in their basement, and I put a new box out. And it's been awesome. Those guys, 142 games -- you use a lot of equipment. And they just say, 'Hey, let's give it a good home.'"
Those 142 games are a perennial challenge, full of late nights, low pay and a general air of uncertainty. McCarthy said that his persistent emphasis on volunteer work has helped him through this annual grind, giving him a perspective that he might otherwise have lacked.
"Financially, I don't have much," he said. "It's living paycheck to paycheck and in the offseason it's a scramble trying to make your money. There's always going to be money to be made, but you can't always affect lives like this, you won't always have this voice. I want to use it as much as I can while I have it."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.