Rays enjoy helping community

Rays enjoy helping Tampa Bay

ST. PETERSBURG -- Partnering with the community and giving back have always held great importance to the Rays, and once again, the Tampa Bay area felt the presence of the Rays organization in the community in 2008.

"It was a successful year on numerous fronts," said Suzanne Murchland, the Rays' director of community relations. "We were really happy with a lot of the success that the foundation had this year."

The Rays Baseball Foundation is the charitable arm of the Rays, and its primary focus is on youth and education programs in the Tampa Bay area.

The foundation is funded through three main revenue streams: owner contributions, player contributions -- all players who sign long-term contracts donate to the foundation -- and fundraising events throughout the year.

"Three of our biggest [fundraising events] are the Rays Charity Golf Classic in the spring, two broadcast auctions during the year, and then we do the Shirts Off Our Backs fundraising event [where players jerseys are sold off their backs] at the end of the season," Murchland said.

During the broadcast auctions and the Shirts Off Our Backs fundraiser, the Rays partner with a community non-profit organization.

"We're not only raising money for the foundation, but we're also raising money for a local non-profit," Murchland said.

In addition, the foundation has three main grant programs: The Community Fund Grant, Field Renovation and the All-Star Grant.

The Community Fund Grant averages approximately $5,000 per grant. This year, 28 grants were awarded for a total community contribution of $125,000.

In the past, Field Renovation has seen the Rays refurbish the fields at West Tampa Little League in 2007 and historic Oliver Field at Campbell Park in St. Petersburg in '06. This year, two fields were selected: Azalea and South Brandon Little League fields.

At Azalea Park, the renovation work includes replacing infield sod, adding 200 tons of clay and two tons of clay conditioner, applying fertilizer and weed control, replacing the fence and backstop, adding a windscreen on the outfield fence and repairing the field's electrical service.

At South Brandon, the improvements will include replacing infield sod, adding 200 tons of clay and two tons of clay conditioner, applying fertilizer and weed control, replacing the backstop and improvements to the fence, replacing the bleacher roofs and improving drainage from the dugouts.

Azalea Park's project was funded in part by Evan Longoria's contribution and South Brandon's by Scott Kazmir's.

"It's humbling, seeing these kids just so excited right now," said Kazmir at South Brandon on the day of the announcement. "I would also like to see their faces after everything is done, because I guarantee they are going to love it."

The All-Star Grant Program normally awards around $100,000.

"It always varies on what applications we get," Murchland said. "We just awarded that, and we actually awarded $150,000 total. We gave a $50,000 grant to three different organizations -- two of them are Big Brothers Big Sisters chapters."

One of the chapters is located in Hillsborough County and serves Hillsborough and Pasco counties, and the other is in Pinellas County and serves Pinellas, Hernando and Citrus counties. The third grant from the All-Star Grant Program went to Community Tampa Bay for their Anytown program.

Another popular program by the foundation was a summer reading program called "Reading with the Rays: Read Your Way to the Ballpark."

"That was a very successful program," Murchland said. "The mission for that was to encourage kids to read over the summer and also to encourage them to use their local libraries."

Carlos Pena became the Rays spokesperson for "Sports Buddies," which is a program by Big Brothers Big Sisters that encourages men to become mentors and asks them to either play or watch a sport with their little brother throughout the month.

"He did a wonderful job with it," Murchland said. "He did some public service announcements for the program and was part of a newspaper insert, and then he hosted two groups of matches that had been made through sports buddies. We had them out on the field before the game, and he came out and met them and had pictures taken and signed autographs. He did a great job with that."

A program with Champs Sports called "Tuesday's Champion" saw the Rays host a child from the Make-A-Wish Foundation or the Children's Dream Fund. Each child was, in essence, given the red carpet treatment on the field.

"They would come down and watch batting practice, they received a great gift pack, and they would have a chance to meet a lot of the players," Murchland said. "So as the guys were coming off the field for practice, they would stop and sign autographs and take pictures and talk with our Tuesday's Champion guest.

"I think it's something they enjoyed, which really meant a lot to these children. It's funny to see in each event we do, who lights up more, the kids or the adults. Because the kids really are very impressed and appreciative of the time the players take, and I know that the players don't have a lot of free time. But they are always extremely willing to give up their time to help our community effort."

Finally, the Rays have a holiday outreach program. The club recently fed approximately 300 people at the Childs Park YMCA, with Tampa Bay staff, current and former players, coaches, broadcasters and their families doing the serving. And manager Joe Maddon will once again open up to the community with his annual "Thanksmas" event.

"He cooks the family meatball and sausage recipe," Murchland said. "He does all the shopping for that. He brings in people to help him do all of the cooking, which they do at Tropicana Field.

"This year we are expanding that program. Last year, we were in three counties. This year, we are in four counties."

Murchland said none of what the Rays do would be as special without the players.

"We couldn't make it as special as it is for people in the community if it weren't for the players," Murchland said. "They really enjoy seeing them and getting an up-close and more personal kind of look at the players and meeting them. It's really a rewarding experience for them."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.