Professional baseball players find themselves in a unique position.
In the course of pursuing their dreams, young men inadvertently become role models for the next generations. Intentionally or not, they set an example that children often look up to.
The Philadelphia Phillies recognize the impact that professional athletes can have on their communities, and in turn, the benefits volunteering may bring to the participants themselves. In 2012, the Phillies instituted the Step-Up Program, a community service project that encourages player involvement throughout its minor league system.
"All of the Threshers players have to have five hours in the first half of the season, and five hours in the second half of the season," says Amanda Koch, the Promotions and Community Relations Manager for the Clearwater Threshers. "They can sign up for anything that they want. They can come to me and tell me if there is something they're passionate about and want me to set up."
Many trips involve interaction with elementary-age children, when Threshers players stop by to sign autographs, read, play catch, and share stories about the game of baseball.
"I know I'm in a situation where I can speak to people and try to get through to them, so that's what I'm going to try to do," Cornelius Randolph, the Phillies 2015 first-round draft pick, explains.
"I can tell they're getting what I'm saying, like everything's just not going to be given to you, you have to actually work for it," Randolph says. "You have to get your grades and you have to make sure you do school work - that's my biggest thing that I told them."
Pitcher Cole Irvin, along with since-promoted pitcher Austin Davis, has been one of the most active Threshers volunteers.
"I have a blast every time I get an opportunity to go do something. Maybe reading to the kids is not my strong suit," Irvin laughs, "But I have fun nonetheless."
Irvin has been volunteering in various capacities since his days at Servite High School in Anaheim, CA, and as a starting pitcher keeps copious notes while watching the game from the dugout.
On a trip to an elementary school this year, he noticed a boy in class doing the same.
"It was cool because I pointed him out and I said, 'You're taking notes on what we're saying, right? That's what I've got to do too!' And I think it kind of influenced me more than us influencing the kids.
"It kind of made me feel like my job there was special, and those are the instances that I look forward to when I do the community service. It's not necessarily about me, but it makes me feel good by making someone feel probably the best they've felt all day. I know some people don't have that feedback all the time."
In addition to visiting several elementary schools, the Threshers have also volunteered at the Humane Society, Bay Care Medical, the Homeless Empowerment Program, and the Morton Plant Mease Hospital, as well as taking part in the annual Threshers Baseball Camp.
The player on each Phillies affiliate with the most hours at the end of the season receives a trip to Philadelphia, where the winners are honored on the field at Citizens Bank Park prior to a Phillies game. Previous Threshers to earn the award include Matt Hockenberry, Art Charles, and Cameron Perkins.
Koch tells of another visit this year to Eisenhower Elementary school, where a large percentage of the student body is not fluent in English. Davis, Irvin, Jose Pujols, and Jose Taveras dropped in to teach the children about the game of baseball.
"One of the teachers told me that one of the little boys that she'd taught all year didn't speak much in class. She said 'I don't even remember the last time I heard him speak,' but he was interacting really well with the players that day, and he even volunteered to answer a question," Koch says. "His teacher said how awesome that was, because he doesn't really interact with his classmates that much."
Koch says that one of the most rewarding trips every year is when the Threshers visit the Paul B. Stephens School in Clearwater, which was built specifically for students with special needs.
"When the guys come in, there's so many students with disabilities and autistic kids that want to interact, and they play baseball with them or they walk up and give them a high five, and it's just the kind of interaction that doesn't happen on a daily occurrence with these kids.
"I've had multiple years when the teachers have been like, 'That's awesome, because that's not something we see."
This year the Threshers visited on May 1st, with Herlis Rodriguez, Jacob Waguespack, Davis, and Tyler Gilbert in tow. Two players helped the kids hit and field in a tee-ball game, while the other two played catch with another group of children.
"Some of them aren't able to physically run and play," Koch says of the students at Paul B. Stephens, "So even that little bit of interaction with the players, it's a big deal for the students."
"Every single year when (the players) go there they're always really sweet," Koch says. "I think they see their surroundings and you can't help but want to interact."
The benefits of community involvement clearly extend to all sides.
"Honestly, it's my favorite part of my job," Koch says.
"I know when I'm watching professional athletes, especially when I was younger, it was one of those things I appreciated," catcher Austin Bossart says, "The guys who gave back and really cared about other people, and not just themselves. So it's really cool for me to be able to be in that position to have people look up to me and still give back to the community.
"The last one I was on was the food kitchen. It was really eye-opening for me seeing people who don't have everything that I have struggling to get by, and still being so grateful for just us serving them food, and just to be able to talk to them," Bossart says. "It made me understand what I have, and keeps me motivated to keep working hard and keep giving back."
"One of the schools we went to there was a little kid, and he talked about how he wanted to play baseball when he got older," infielder Drew Stankiewicz says. "And he wasn't the biggest kid, but I told him I play second base and I'm not a big guy either, and I'm playing professional baseball.
"So he was like 'Oh my god that's so cool!' Basically that you don't have a to be a big guy, you just have to have a lot of heart and and play the game the right way, and I felt like I kind of helped him.
"It made his dream achievable that he saw that I'm doing it. That he can do it too."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.