For the past seven weeks, a group of 46 players, including many of the Mariners’ top young prospects took part in a High Performance Camp at the club’s Spring Training facility in Peoria, Ariz.
Players used the time to expand their minds in mental-skills and meditation classes. They refined their bodies with a heavy dose of weight-room work. For the most part, the focus wasn’t on hitting and pitching in the immediate aftermath of their long seasons, but on thinking and conditioning.
Yet, not all the work revolved around helping themselves and their budding careers. For the Mariners, helping others is part of the process, as well. Which is why the entire group spent one day at a food bank packing Thanksgiving meals for the homeless, another at a local park playing baseball with kids with disabilities in a Miracle League program and another taking part in a Phoenix Alzheimer’s Association walk to raise funds for teammate Braden Bishop’s 4MOM charity.
“It’s just to remember that not everything is about you,” said 20-year-old third baseman Joe Rizzo, the Mariners’ No. 15 ranked prospect, per MLB Pipeline. “As players for the Mariners, we’re very privileged to have what we have, and do what we do. So going out and helping people in the community is a good reminder that we can help others, too.”
Rizzo returned Saturday to his offseason home in Virginia, where he was greeted by snow in the air and a reminder that Thanksgiving is near. And he carried that fresh reminder of what the holiday spirit is about.
“It’s fun working with kids and helping people,” he said. “I’m not big on charity events just to put pictures on social media and all that, because that just puts it back on you. But to spread joy to others, that’s a great feeling.”
And that is music to the ears of Andy McKay, Seattle’s director of player development, who is a big believer in the benefit of teaching young players the positive impact of helping others as they are integrated into the Mariners’ system.
McKay said community service has been a “major year-round push” throughout all levels of the organization, with an extra effort recently at the High Performance Camp in Arizona as well as in the Dominican Republic last week where bench coach Manny Acta’s foundation, ImpACTA, put on a clinic for 90 kids with help from the Mariners.
McKay said the benefits are two-fold for both the young prospects and the Mariners’ organization.
“One, it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that need help and we’re trying to provide services. And two, we’re trying to develop character in our people. In their, at times, individualized pursuit of getting to the big leagues, which is perfectly understandable, you have to balance that with activities that remind it’s not always about yourself.”
McKay was hired as farm director by Jerry Dipoto three years ago and said Dipoto encouraged the community involvement from day one. It helped immensely, he said, that the Mariners already had a strong history of community service at the Major League level and longtime Mariners like Dan Wilson and others already had deep connections in that area.
Now young players like Rizzo, Bishop and the rest are quickly learning the value of community involvement as well.
“Our guys now know, especially ones that have been here, that it’s part of the program,” McKay said. “You find people that have different niches. There’s different ways to help. Not everybody is comfortable reading a book in front of a first-grade class. And that’s OK.
“But between schools, hospitals, building houses with Habitat for Humanity, there’s lots of ways to get that internal reward of feeling good about yourself for helping others and that begins to build over into teams. Who can I help today in the locker room to make our team better?”
Rizzo spent his regular season with Class A Advanced Modesto in the Cal League and said his club did work nearly every week with the area Boys & Girls Club and also took part, en masse, in a Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event to raise awareness of domestic violence.
He said when he was drafted out of high school in the second round by the Mariners in 2016, he knew charity work was done by Major League stars, but has been surprised to see the emphasis runs throughout the entire system.
“I didn’t know it was such an organizational thing,” Rizzo said. “I knew a lot of higher-up guys did stuff that way. I didn’t know it spread so deep.”
Jimmy Van Ostrand, who oversees mental-skills coaching throughout the Mariners’ Minor League system, said the focus on community-service work and developing leadership skills is one of his favorite parts of the job.
“It can be humbling at times,” Van Ostrand said. “The ability to have a positive impact on other people can really shine through. Sometimes we picture that being these huge, crazy activities and fundraisers. But a lot of time, if you just help somebody’s day a little, that can go a long way.”