O's change tune, trumpet their community work

The Baltimore Sun

Before the Orioles' game last night, 23 wounded soldiers from across the nation were honored. Reliever Jamie Walker met them on the field beforehand. By now, he's well-versed in the early stages of this type of conversation.

The soldiers shake his hand and give Walker an enthusiastic "thank you." And Walker interrupts them as soon as he can. "Hell, nah," he tells them. "Thank you."

I don't share this with you because it is especially out of the ordinary. In fact, Walker does quite a bit of work with wounded soldiers and veterans of the armed forces. And there are similar ceremonies before every Orioles game.

I share this anecdote today because the Orioles want you to know about it, and when we have a chance to share some warm news from a cold franchise, we jump on it like the last beer in the icebox.

This week the Orioles are rebranding and reorganizing their community efforts under the name OriolesReach. They've relaunched a section of orioles.com, lumped all of their initiatives under a single umbrella and this week Orioles employees will be licking stamps to mail out 10,000 copies of a new report -- a first annual, team officials hope -- which documents their good deeds. The hope, they say, is that finally sharing their community work might help unearth more groups in need and advertise to everyone just what they have to offer.

"We plan to beef up, to be more places, to be more visible," says Greg Bader, a team spokesman. "We want our season-ticket holders, our fans and our supporters to know that we're giving back."

It's not that the Orioles didn't do important work in the community before, but for too long, they seemed to prefer to hide their charity under a cloud of modesty. This is noble, I suppose, but probably counterproductive when the team is losing year after year and its fan base is desperate for reasons to wear the team colors with pride.

Bader shared a copy of the new report with me yesterday. As critical as I've been of the ballclub at times, it is a refreshing reminder that the Orioles' brand exists somewhere besides the fourth-place slot of the American League East standings.

Some report highlights, according to team estimates:

Since the start of the 2006 season, the Orioles have joined and helped more than 700 groups.

They've donated more than $8.5 million to local organizations since Peter Angelos took over in 1993 (this includes the $1 million donation that was pledged recently to Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation).

Through the OriolesReach Ticket and Gameday Experience program, this season the team expects to give more than 10,000 children free admission to the game, plus hats, T-shirts and snacks. Last night, for example, Walker sponsored a group of 150 inner-city Boy Scouts, who sat in the upper deck and didn't have to spend a dime of their own.

In addition, the team helps facilitate appearances with area hospitals and other organizations that might interest each player and coach. While Brian Roberts and Melvin Mora might prefer to focus on pediatric hospitals, Walker's cause is veterans.

Walker's dad served in World War II. Other family members served in Vietnam, and some of his friends served in the Gulf War. Walker has a suite at Oriole Park, and he has joined with the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to make sure that his box is filled with veterans at least once each homestand.

"Alcohol, food -- the party's on me," Walker said. "There aren't that many places where you can make the kind of money we got in baseball. This is the least I could do. The least.

"God's given me the great opportunity to help others. I don't tithe at church. I see this as my tithing," he says.

In addition to hosting veterans, Walker donates $200 for every game appearance to Army Emergency Relief. You can't see it because he's way out there in the bullpen, but before every first pitch, Walker refuses to utter a word or take his eye off the flag during the national anthem.

Like several players, Walker doesn't seek attention for what he does away from the park, and Baltimore's the type of city that can appreciate such reservations. No one wants to see a company or an individual do any chest-thumping over good deeds. But there's nothing wrong with a struggling team reminding the community that it is, in fact, a part of the community.

"It says right there in our mission statement, our two primary goals are to win on the field and in the community," says Bader, the spokesman. "We feel like we should be winning in both areas every year. And we want both obviously, but at least we feel we're winning in this area."

And that should be reassuring to the larger community. So now on to that other area ...


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