ST. PETERSBURG, FL. – Few will soon forget the evening of April 12 at Tropicana Field.
As the Rays’ Brett Phillips was circling the bases after launching a home run, with the ball coming to rest in a catwalk high above right field, Chloe Grimes, an eight-year-old battling cancer, and her mother, Jacquie, were being interviewed by Bally Sports Sun reporter Tricia Whitaker.
Before the game, Chloe met Phillips, her favorite player, and threw out the first pitch with the outfielder on the receiving end. Chloe gave Phillips several items, including a bracelet, which he wore during the game.
It was a heart-warming evening that served as an exclamation point to the many things the Tampa Bay Rays’ organization does, and has done, with respect to community engagement.
Chloe was a guest of the Rays through its Tuesday Champion program. Before every Tuesday home game, the team hosts a child from the Children’s Dream Fund, which was the case with Chloe, or the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Children and their families are invited to be on the field for batting practice, meet players and coaches, enjoy dinner in the Rays Club and throw out the first pitch.
While the Tuesday’s Champion program has been a pillar among the Rays’ community initiatives since the team’s inaugural season of 1998, its profile was elevated thanks to the aforementioned magical evening.
“It was incredible to see Brett and Chloe make that connection,” said Kim Couts, the Rays’ director of community engagement. “What an amazing story it was with how that whole night unfolded. It really shined a light not only on the Tuesday’s Champion program, but the community initiatives that we are doing here with the Rays.”
It also highlights what can happen when people and organizations truly care.
“It shows how much the team believes in the Children’s Dream Fund and how much the players love supporting making dreams come true,” said Amanda Griffin, who is the executive director at the non-profit. “With the Tuesday’s Champion program, it is like the dream child is a celebrity that day.”
The Rays, which through the team’s charity, the Rays Foundation, and Rowdies Soccer Fund combined to donate $1.4 million to nonprofits throughout the bay area during the pandemic, have had many different types of fundraisers (fashion shows, auctions, etc.) through the years and in concert with the many organizations they support.
“They are always very generous doing stuff for our kids and they help us with our fundraisers,” said Lisa Andrews, regional director at Make-A-Wish of Southern Florida. “That helps us raise money so that we can grant more wishes. The also send out (mascot) Raymond and their street team for different events. The Rays are always very helpful.”
Among other programs the Rays are involved with is The Home Run Club. Originally known as the Big Game James Club, it was launched by former Rays pitcher James Shields and his wife, Ryane, in 2010. The program hosts foster children and their families in a donated suite.
“It offers a sense of belonging and offers families and children an opportunity to attend a Rays game when they would otherwise not be able to do so,” said Couts. “Although James Shields is no longer with the Rays organization, his passion for foster care and children live on. It was something the Rays absolutely wanted to continue.”
Through the Rays Jersey Program, which was initiated in 2014, more than 90,000 tee-ball players throughout a nine-county region have worn jerseys and caps supplied by the team.
“We are very proud of that program,” said Couts. “It is one of our long-standing programs and we love to see the little ones out there sporting Rays jerseys.
As fans notice during each home game, active and retired military members are acknowledged on the video board. The Rays have a Salute to Service ticket program, which also includes first responders and teachers, that provides opportunities to take in a game at the Trop. In addition, the team has a relationship with St. Vincent de Paul, which has long assisted veterans and their families.
“Using our platform to give back has been so much part of our DNA and our culture here as an organization,” said Couts, who noted that $500,000 in grants is given to community partners every year.
Phillips is from Seminole, not far from Tropicana Field, and has long valued the importance of supporting and giving back to the community.
“I have been blessed with a platform and, being a major league baseball player, people look up to you, especially kids,” said Phillips, whose special home run ball was retrieved and given to Chloe. “When there is an opportunity to give back, and the Rays’ community is also my community because I was born and raised here, I want kids to see me going about my business, and in a certain way. I hope they want to do the same type of things when they are older.”
Phillips has raised funds for non-profits through playing video games, speaks to students at area high schools, including Seminole High, which he attended, and has visited several Little League programs. As one of the team’s many active players in the community, he has a strong appreciation for the effort the Rays put forth as an organization.
“It shows how important and how serious they take giving back to our community,” he said. “I am glad that I am with an organization that values things like that.”
Something that cannot get enough attention is mental health, and May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Sadly, the Rays lost bullpen catcher Jean Ramirez, who took his life earlier this year. Through the efforts of the team and Lowe, who with his wife, Madison, founded the Home Runs For Hope campaign, education and awareness are first and foremost.
“In addition to the financial contribution that his home runs result in, it is really about the awareness of the platform and awareness of the Crisis Center services,” said Couts. “It really brings value to that program.”
Bringing value to such programs is what the Rays do.