Most young amateur baseball players eagerly watch the Major League Baseball Home Run Derby to see their favorite superstars’ jaw-dropping power displays. But the Orangewood Christian Rams got the opportunity to experience a home run derby when they took on one of the most prolific home run hitters of the last decade, Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista, in the “The O vs. The Pro” fundraiser.
Assistant coach Kevin Davidson was brainstorming in mid-January when the idea came to him about how to raise the necessary funds for the Maitland, Fla., based school.
“We had a gap in fundraising that we really needed to kick off and then it hit me,” Davidson said. “I approached Jose with the idea and he was excited because this supports everything he believes in: kids, education and baseball.”
Mobilizing a fundraising event in two weeks required excitement and initiative, which were both ample.
“Coach Davidson came to practice and asked, ‘What do you guys think about Jose Bautista coming to face you guys in a home run derby?'” senior second baseman Forrest Wall said. “We all started freaking out. We couldn’t believe it.”
Each player was expected to sell 10 home run derby outs that would secure each player’s entrance into the first round of the event and at least 10 tickets for general admission to the eager public.
“All the kids and parents worked tremendously hard to go out and sell tickets and raise funds,” Davidson said. “I couldn’t be happier to have that support system by my side because there is no way that this could have come together without this being team effort.”
With more than 700 tickets purchased leading up to the event, “The Pro” was almost sidelined on the eve of the event. It appeared Bautista, who was bedridden the day before the event due to food poisoning, would be unable to participate, but he regained enough strength to make the nearly two-hour drive from Tampa.
To accommodate Bautista’s top-of-the-scale power that enabled him to lead the majors in home runs in 2010 (54) and 2011 (43), the pull-oriented Bautista had to hit against an altered left field line.
Bautista faced stiff competition in the first round, as the lefthanded-hitting Wall put on a show, hitting home runs on his first five swings and finishing with 11 home runs before accumulating his 10 outs.
“I had never been in a home run derby before,” Wall said. “I took the first pitch and then let it fly. I wanted to stay in the center of the field so that I wouldn’t roll over.”
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Wall is one of the top hitters in the 2014 high school class, with exceptional feel for the barrel to go with emerging power potential. The plus runner burst onto the national scene this summer with one of the top performances at East Coast Pro, where he created the most loud contact of any player, hit a home run in game action and barely missed another as it sailed just beside the left field foul pole. Wall, a North Carolina commit, has been a hitting pupil of Dante Bichette Sr., whose son, Yankees supplemental first-rounder Dante Jr., attended Orangewood.
The recovering Bautista conserved his energy in the first round and hit seven home runs to qualify for the second round against five Rams players: Wall, Florida Atlantic commit Vinny Catanza (8), switch-hitting Florida State commit Jackson Lueck (6), Elon commit Michael Gizzi and South Alabama commit Jason Cryar.
Orlando-based Fla-Cat and financial service company UBS, where Davidson is a wealth strategist, donated $25 for every home run Bautista hit. The righthanded slugger turned it on down the stretch and finished with 29 home runs to best Wall in the final round.
Although Bautista eclipsed each individual Ram, Orangewood Christian, which has 10 players committed to Division I programs and another five committed to Division II, combined to hit 53 home runs.
The players were in awe of Bautista and learned from their exposure to the slugger, who in 2010 posted the highest single-season isolated slugging (.357) since Barry Bonds in 2004.
“It was truly a blessing and a humbling experience,” Wall said. “He stepped up to the plate and made it look effortless. It goes to show how much work he has put into it and how he has perfected his swing, which is something I would like to do as well.”
With 100 percent of the funds raised going to the school’s baseball program, Bautista donated $50 for every home run he hit, as raising money for amateur baseball is near and dear to the Dominican-born Bautista.
“Jose’s passion for helping out youth baseball is because he was able to come to the U.S. and play baseball at Chipola (Fla.) JC based on a foundation giving him a scholarship,” Davidson said.
An auction with autographed memorabilia from many baseball stars, including Bautista, Giants outfielder Hunter Pence and former major league manager Davey Johnson, headlined the auction list. Money raised from the auction, coupled with donations from sponsors Fla-Cap, McDonald’s, Marruci and UBS, raised more than $25,000 for the program.
Davidson’s UBS, meanwhile, donated $25 for every home run Bautista hit to the Bautista Family Education Fund.
A list of high-profile guests attended to support the event: 13-year NBA veteran Keyon Dooling, Super Bowl-winning linebacker Kawika Mitchell and former major leaguers Mike Stanley, Kris Benson and Jason Romano. Another supporter was Rays catcher Ryan Hanigan, a friend of Davidson from their time playing together at Rollins College. Before his six-year professional career, Davidson caught and Hanigan played the outfield before transitioning to catcher.
“On the behalf of our team, we would like to thank Jose for a memorable experience and coach Davidson for putting this whole thing together,” Wall said. “It was an idea for a week, then he went full throttle on it and then dedicated his life to it for like a week. I don’t know how he did it, but this is great for our program.”