The baseball will travel 9.49 miles through the hands of some 2,500 people spaced 20 feet or so apart in a game of catch important enough for a police escort. The ball will be thrown and caught by fathers and sons, by old ladies and little girls, by business leaders and the Kansas City mayor, and by Dayton Moore and George Brett.
The ball will be cherished, and it will also be dropped, and by the time it is used for the ceremonial first pitch of the Royals’ season opener on national television next month, it will almost certainly be scuffed beyond official Major League Baseball standards.
“It’s going to be pretty damn fun,” says Sly James, Kansas City’s mayor.
The year’s best game of catch will start the morning of April 3 at Union Station, where the 2015 Royals season effectively ended with a parade that drew the largest gathering of Kansas Citians in history. The ball will travel down Grand Boulevard, hang a right on 18th Street, go past the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and through the site that will soon be the Urban Youth Academy, and eventually make its way to the Truman Sports Complex in time for Kansas City’s most anticipated regular-season baseball game … ever?
They are calling it “Relay The Way,” the brainchild of Kansas City-based marketing firm VML working pro bono to raise money and awareness for a beautiful project that could reshape the experiences of children in Kansas City’s urban core. This is the kind of story with no losers, only winners, the result of ambition and generosity and all the right motivations.
Last fall, just before a postseason run that ended with a parade, the Royals and local government officials announced plans for the Urban Youth Academy. Construction will take place adjacent to the Negro Leagues museum, be run at no cost to the city or the hundreds of disadvantaged kids who will play baseball, receive education in STEM courses, and learn life lessons from coaches and teachers.
The response has outpaced expectations. When news of the baseball academy first appeared in this space, emails and phone calls rushed in from people asking how they could help. Donations are coming in fast enough that the Royals might be able to scrap original plans to do the academy in two phases, instead constructing the whole thing at once and opening next spring.
On Wednesday, the City Council’s Finance Committee endorsed about $2 million in city funds, with $2 million more coming from the state, $2 million more from MLB and another $1 million from the players’ association. Also, Royals catcher Sal Perez is donating $1 million for the project. Alex Gordon and Chris Young have also given undisclosed amounts. Once the project is up and running, the Royals will cover the operating costs, but money is still needed to close fundraising. Organizers are asking for a $30 minimum donation to participate in the first-pitch relay (You can sign up to participate here).
The hope is that a big turnout and the symbolism — the ball starting where the 2015 parade ended, and being passed along by fans to where the 2016 season begins — raises money but more importantly awareness for more donations or volunteers.
“When I heard the idea, I was just disappointed I didn’t come up with it,” Moore says. “This academy is so much bigger than baseball. It’s a platform for us to use baseball for the greater good of the community.”
This project is close to Moore’s heart. He has called it as important as anything the Royals do, up to and including the performance of a team that is now the defending World Series champion.
That’s more than a good line, too. Even last year, as he was scrambling to make two major trades ahead of the deadline, he was dividing his time with plans for the academy. The year before, when some fans and media were calling for him to be fired, he was on a plane for his first trip to the commissioner’s office to present the idea.
Or there was the time Moore got off the plane from New York the day after the Royals won the World Series, drove home to shower, and then to a restaurant on the Plaza for an event promoting the academy.
“I don’t know if I had my A-game that night,” he says, but the event did help land a major donation.
Nobody has ever done something exactly like this before, so they don’t know what to expect. The marketing team took to the downtown airport to estimate how long it might take, but how do you account for errant throws, or a mother and daughter throwing back and forth to each other a few times?
It is, in many ways, a logistical nightmare to undertake, this game of catch winding more than 50,000 feet through downtown and the east side and somehow ending up on the field before a baseball game likely to be watched by millions.
And, like the mayor says, it’ll be pretty damn fun.