Every minor leaguer across the country spends their time working toward getting the call. Every swing in batting practice, every grounder fielded, every hour they spend on a cramped bus in the middle of the night is done in pursuit of the call that will make it all worth it.
For Dennis Bair, a lefthander taken by the Cubs out of Louisiana-Monroe in the eighth round of the 1995 draft, the call came under very different circumstances.
It was 2001. He was out of affiliated baseball, four shoulder surgeries deep and playing for the Canton Crocodiles of the independent Frontier League, when his phone rang with the call that changed his life.
He wasn’t going to the major leagues, but what he heard on the other end of the phone was just as impactful.
A little girl who was missing in Ohio had been found, and his fledgling charity, BairFind, had played a big part in the effort.
“When I was in college, I threw a no-hitter and I thought that was the best feeling I ever had,” Bair, 41, said from his office in Jacksonville, Fla. “And of course getting a phone call on draft day was a good feeling, but throwing that no-hitter was the best feeling that I’d had. When I found out that the girl that we’d featured had been safely located, that was a better than throwing a no-hitter in college. That’s how good of a feeling it was.”
Fifteen years later, BairFind is one of just five official Minor League Baseball charities. It’s also one of just two designated as a “homegrown charity,” which means it was started by a former minor leaguers. Ed Randall’s “Fans For The Cure,” which helps raise awareness to fight prostate cancer, is the other.
With the official designation has come better access to minor league parks, and this year BairFind’s signs were in 139 of 160 full-season minor league stadiums across the country.
The concept behind the charity is simple: Thousands of children go missing around the country, and millions of people come through minor league turnstiles each year. Putting signs with the faces of missing children in each park, Bair reasoned, greatly increased the probability those children would be found. More eyes meant more exposure and, Bair hoped, more success.
So far, he’s been right.
This past season alone, 164 children who were featured on BairFind’s signs were found and safely returned home. That’s an average of nearly one per day during the course of the minor league season.
Before this year, more than 100 children and counting who had been rescued, but there’s one who stands out above the rest in Bair’s mind.
Her name is Gina DeJesus, a young girl who was kidnapped in Cleveland when she was 14 years old. She wasn’t discovered until 2013, when she, along two other captive girls, was freed by authorities. While DeJesus was in captivity, Bair began putting up her picture in ballparks.
One of those ballparks was Canal Park, home of the Akron RubberDucks, the Indians’ Double-A affiliate. Their general manager, Jim Pfander, had known Bair when Pfander was working for the Charleston RiverDogs and was familiar with the good work done by BairFind.
“Back in 2005 or 2006, (Dennis) contacted me when I was with the RiverDogs,” Pfander said. “He had been trying to get a hold of Mike Veeck, and Mike said, ‘Why don’t you give him a call to see how we can help him?’ Dennis had the idea of putting a missing person’s picture on a team photo . . . I thought it was a great idea, so we talked about it, we worked it out and we actually put Gina DeJesus’ photo on team photos, and we sent them out all over. When fans came to the ballpark they got the team photo and it had Gina’s picture. This was probably five, six, seven years before she was found.”
DeJesus’ mother caught wind of the effort and reached out to Bair, asking him to continue his work. She believed her daughter was out there, and she didn’t want to give up. When she was freed, Bair found out just how much of a difference his sign had made.
“That day they were rescued, I spoke to Gina’s mom, who was at Gina’s bedside in the hospital, and she said all of those years that we’d been out there throwing out the first pitch and getting on the news, Gina was inside the house watching us on the news,” Bair side. “She remembered seeing her parents out there with some big guy at the baseball stadiums throwing out the first pitch. I was the big guy.
“She said that’s what gave her the will to stay alive and survive her ordeal because she knew that her family hadn’t given up.”
From here, Bair wants to get his signs into all of the remaining minor league stadiums, but he’s not stopping there. One day, he wants to see BairFind signs in the major leagues, as well as stadiums that house other sports. More eyes, after all, mean even more chances of bringing home another child safely to his or her parents.
“Our goal is to have the verified sign in every stadium and arena in every sport in the country in every city, year-round,” Bair said. “Because we know our program works. We know that it’s a numbers game. We know that it’s just the mathematical probability and certainty that the more profiles we get out in front of sports fans, the more kids are going to be identified and the more people are going to call in their tips.”