Ty Whittaker was sitting on his couch, perusing the Internet on his iPad last month when he saw the horrifying news: an EF5 tornado had ravaged Moore, Okla., and the surrounding area.
Whittaker, an assistant coach for the Team Maryland, and his players were supposed to stay in the area during the all-star baseball team's upcoming trip for the Heartland Classic tournament from June 18-22. He immediately contacted host families in the devastated area and learned that all of the families' houses were safe.
"From what I understand, tornadoes are very erratic," said Whittaker, who was born in Oklahoma and still has relatives in the state. "They'll hit one block, and then they'll just jump and they'll skip to blocks away or miles away, but everyone is affected when you have something like that.
"As a community as tight as those people are in Oklahoma — some of the friendliest people you'll ever meet — they open their doors to us every year for our players, and one of the things I think is most incredible about it is how their own community rallies around them."
Team Maryland and other Baltimore-area organizations are also rallying to support the Oklahoma community.
The Orioles, Geier Financial Group and Robbies First Base donated memorabilia — an Adam Jones autographed bat, a J.J. Hardy autographed jersey and signed photos of Al Bumbry, Dylan Bundy and Matt Wieters — that will be auctioned during the tournament's opening ceremonies, which will take place at Southmoore High School at 7 p.m. today. The proceeds will benefit the recovery process.
In addition to the memorabilia auction, Eastern Tech teacher Amy Thonnings is driving to Oklahoma to deliver school supplies and a $2,000 check from donations that were raised for the cause. Mount St. Joseph also raised $900 and will present a check to the tournament director.
Cheryl Kuwitzky will serve as a host for the 10th time during this year's tournament, opening her house once again to Team Maryland players.
A Norman, Okla., resident, Kuwitzky's house was in the middle of the tornado's initial projected path. The storm eventually shifted four miles north, sparing her neighborhood any damage. Surprisingly, she said it didn't even rain at her house.
After the storm, Kuwitzky received messages from former Team Maryland players who she hosted through the years, each of them — including Orioles pitcher Steve Johnson — checking to see if the family was safe.
"Anytime you're exposed to life being frail, it makes the relationships you have a little stronger," Kuwitzky said. "They have done things that they are going to be bringing back to the community, so it's not all us opening our homes and giving to the players. They want to give back."
Kuwitzky said the week of the Heartland Classic is always special — her 13-year-old son has counted the days until the arrival of the five players they're hosting — but this year's itinerary has a new activity.
Kuwitzky and the players she hosts will be touring the devastated areas and will spend a day volunteering there.
Team Maryland infielder Jay Patti (Hereford), who also stayed with the Kuwitzky family last year in Oklahoma, said he's apprehensive to see the state following the tornado.
"It's really going to hit me hard," Patti said. "It's going to be tough seeing all that stuff and knowing that I was down there last year and had the best time ever, and now I'm going back down again, and it's going to be a whole different situation for me."
Whittaker, who is also a baseball coach at Eastern Tech and the president of the Maryland State Association of Baseball Coaches, hopes the trip will give his players a new perspective on life.
"Sometimes the grass isn't always greener on the other side," Whittaker said. "We get a snowstorm or a hurricane maybe, but we get plenty of notice on that kind of stuff. Those people in Oklahoma got very little notice.
"Being in Baltimore, sometimes these cities aren't the friendliest places, but it's efforts like these that kind of give you a little like, 'Hey, man, there is a little humanity out there.' Those people in Oklahoma, they don't have a big-city mentality. They're as friendly and as open as can be, so it's the least we can do for those people."
Team Maryland in Oklahoma
When: June 18-22
What: Heartland Classic
Where: Norman, Okla.
More information: heartlandbaseball.org