When tragedy strikes, America answers.
But what about the effect of such despair on America’s favorite pastime?
The baseball community had its heart strings pulled when Joplin, Mo., was hit by a tornado on May 22. The disaster left 154 people dead and just under 7,000 homes damaged, making it the single deadliest tornado in more than half a century.
Joplin was a second home for the staff and players of USA Baseball, as it was the host of the Tournament of Stars from 2001 to 2006 and for multiple 18U Junior National team trials in the late 1990s. The community opened its arms to the organization each summer, welcoming the top Junior National players into their homes while they stayed in town.
“For a lot of us there are some very personal connections,” said USA Baseball executive director Paul Seiler about the organization’s relationship with Joplin. “A lot of those personal connections are born from our time in baseball. It’s kind of a closed circle.”
Seiler’s relationship with the town is perhaps the most intimate of USA Baseball. He met his wife Wendi while he was serving as the program director for USA Baseball’s Junior National team when the trials were held in Joplin. And though the effect may hit home on a slightly larger scale for him, the entire organization felt the ramifications of the near mile-wide funnel that tore through the town at up to 200 mph winds, leaving a six-mile wide scar.
A day after the devastation, USA Baseball issued a statement sending their thoughts and prayers to those affected by the devastation, with future plans to provide support and assistance in Joplin. With emergency services and first responders still taking care of the immediate needs of the town of 49,000, USA Baseball is hoping to extend their commitment to a time a little further down the road, when the focus falls away from the city and help is once again at a premium.
“We want to step in and keep the energy level going when the cameras are gone and when the world is already looking at whatever the next tragedy may or may not be, or the next world event or whatever it is,” Seiler said.
On June 19, the efforts for tornado relief extended to major league baseball, coming in a game between the Cardinals and Royals. Players from both teams—including Jeff Francouer, Bill Butler, Eric Hosmer and Matt Holiday—are USA Baseball alumni who came through Joplin and were among several major leaguers who contacted Seiler about the families who had hosted them while in the town as junior national players.
“It means a lot,” Butler told mlb.com about the relief efforts in Joplin. “Obviously I got to see the city firsthand. It’s a good place. It’s a family-oriented community. I enjoyed my time there. I had a host family and the first thing I did when the tragedy happened was to check if they were ok, and they were good. I was glad to see that.”
Seiler would like to see his baseball family take one step further and actually assist the town in its rebuilding enough to leave an impression as lasting as the one Joplin has had on USA Baseball.
“Wouldn’t it be awesome if the baseball family, and I’m talking about USA Baseball, our athletes and others can step in and say, ‘You know what? We’re going to take ownership of this issue and we’re going to fix it’,” Seiler said. “‘We’re going to fix this for the community and the kids and we’re going to do it the right way.
“And years from now, the people who use that facility are going to understand that again, it’s a legacy that came out of a tragedy.’”
Though the baseball organization currently makes its home in Cary, N.C., USA Baseball will forever have a connection to the community and the people in the small Missouri town. With Seiler’s relationship with Joplin extending from baseball to family, his motivation to assist in any way possible couldn’t be more genuine, and the feeling is mutual among the rest of the organization.
It is the hope of USA Baseball that they might be able to go back sometime in the early fall, and help to rebuild. Though the focus of their attention would be on children and youth facilities, they are willing to lend a hand wherever necessary and encourage others to do the same.
“I spoke with people in Joplin, and the sense that I’ve gotten from both my USA Baseball side and also from the personal side, my family, is that there’s all this energy right now because it’s fresh and new and immediate,” Seiler said. “But when we’re really going to need people, when we’re really going to need support and resources, is several months from now when the cameras aren’t on us anymore.”