Sometime around 2007, Jason Zillo had an idea. The Yankees were already heavily involved with charity work, but the team's head of media relations wanted to do more. He wanted something lasting, impactful and repeatable for years to come.
Since 2009, the answer has been HOPE Week, a five-day stretch every season of Yankees home games dedicated to charitable causes and saluting those who make meaningful but sometimes unrecognized contributions to the community.
The idea started in the Bronx, but over the last five years has been replicated at each of the team's four full-season affiliates: Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Trenton, Tampa and Charleston. The team's other minor league clubs—short-season Staten Island and the Rookie-level affiliates in the Appalachian and Gulf Coast leagues—are involved with plenty of charitable work as well, but the full-season clubs are the only ones where HOPE Week is duplicated.
"It was always meant to be an inclusive thing, not an exclusive thing," Zillo said. "It's something that it's no secret that we go to pretty great lengths to involve as many minor leaguers as we can about learning how we do things at the major league level."
Almost immediately, Zillo could see how successful HOPE Week was and would become. The gratitude from the honorees was obvious, but the zeal with which the players embraced the idea over its first few seasons drove home the message.
It got to the point that players started coming up with their own suggestions for individuals or groups that could go into the expansive pool of potential honorees in future seasons.
"A lot of guys come up to me long before HOPE Week begins asking how the stories are coming. Guys over the years have caught wind of a person or a family and nominated them," Zillo said. "Really, for me, it's the sign-up sheet going up and seeing all of them proactively wanting to get their names up on the board first. They read through the stories and try and find the story that appeals to their heart the most."
Jessica Lack joined the Tampa Yankees five seasons ago and shifted into her current role as the team's community relations coordinator two years into her tenure. Part of her job involves overseeing and planning and improving the team's version of HOPE Week.
"They weren't really coming to the ballpark to see the players in action and kind of getting that fan experience also," Lack said, "so I really wanted to tie in the two where we would go in the morning and then they would come here and hang out and see the players and double the experience."
The players are always enthusiastic about participating, but lefthander James Reeves' efforts stood out this year. Promoted to Double-A in the middle of the season, he signed up for all five days.
"I just figured, I'm a relief pitcher and our schedules are so night-loaded. You show up to the park in the afternoon and then you stay there at night. It's one week a year where you have a really good opportunity and good events set up to get out in the community and meet some people and do some pretty cool thing," Reeves said. "That's the reason I signed up for all of them, just to get out there and do what I can to get out in the community a little bit."
There have been plenty of memorable moments during Tampa's HOPE Weeks throughout the years. Like the bowling night with Special Olympics athletes who all took turns autographing current Yankees lefthander Jordan Montgomery's arms. Or the wife of a soldier and mother of four who told Lack that their event was just about the only thing she could do specifically for her only son while her husband was deployed.
One of the children who visited with the Tampa Yankees this year loved baseball, but because of the social struggles some children with autism sometimes experience had decided to stop playing. Something about spending a few hours with professional players provided the inspiration he needed to re-think his decision.
"The mom was telling me how her son used to play baseball and he loves baseball but with his autism he wasn't as social with his teammates and they started to leave him out and eventually he quit, he didn't want to play anymore. So spending the day with our guys, Erik Swanson and James Reeves, his mom was telling this story of when he walked up was like 'Can I sign up for baseball again?," Lack said.
"And she got tears in her eyes and she was so happy and excited. It's the moments like that. I let James know, I said 'You had a huge impact on him today. He wants to play baseball again.' So, it reminds the players that this is why we do these things."
That was the moment that Reeves felt the gravity of the difference he could make with just a few hours of his time. That's what the Yankees have aimed to accomplish in each of the last nine seasons, from the top of the organization to the bottom.