Dayton Moore entered the ECF Spiritual Life Center and shook hands with the congregation along the way toward a podium embellished with a Kansas City Royals crown in his honor.
The general manager of the Royals, though, never stepped up on the stage for his speaking engagement Wednesday in the building seasonably adorned with special lighting, wreaths and Christmas trees.
Instead, he simply walked around the front of the room, essentially among the population within ECF: the Ellsworth Correctional Facility.
The “high-medium” security institution is one notch below maximum, warden Martin Sauers said, and it houses men convicted of murder and rape as well as lesser crimes. Some will be here forever, but most will return to society.
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Men like James, who during Moore’s nearly two-hour visit asked an astute question about how he might deal with a star player whose negative spirit affects everyone in the locker room.
When Moore praised the question and said it was one worthy of his own staff, James replied, “I’m available in April.” Moore smiled while much of the room broke up laughing.
That was just one of the ways Moore connected with a mostly riveted audience of about 200 or so – including counselors and a corrections officer who kept leaving the room to jot down notes. Beyond Moore’s voice, about the only noise was the rhythmic clacking of a loose fan and some occasional squawk over an officer’s radio.
Many of the men in their facility-issued gray T-shirts and denim leaned forward in their seats. There were amens and mm-hmms and nods and contemplative hands in chins and eyes fixed on a man whose strongest message — and perhaps greatest gift — is empathy.
You could sense it in his exchanges as he took questions for more than an hour after his initial speech, including his response to one inmate who asked about how to move forward.
“I cannot let the troubles of the past infect what I have to do in the moment,” Moore said, fixing his gaze on the questioner. “See, my interaction with you, for those 30 seconds, was very positive. You made a positive impression on me.”
Reiterating the point to the grateful man moments later, Moore talked about his Christian faith and his family as his greatest priorities in life, but added this: “You know what the most important thing in the world to me right now is? The most important thing in the world to me right now is you guys. Because that’s where I am. That’s where I am.
“Delight in where you are. Make the best of where you are.”
You could feel his compassion, too, as he spoke afterward individually with several offenders he later said were contrite. The last of them confided in Moore his obsession with measuring himself by the money he made … and his notion that selling drugs was the only way to make as much as he wanted.
After Moore tried to reassure him this worth to society isn’t whether he makes money but what kind of father he is to his three children, Moore put his hand on the inmate’s shoulder and prayed with him.
If it seems improbable that Moore might relate to this audience, it’s not. For many reasons, including the geniality and curiosity and authenticity that enable him to connect with almost anyone.
In this case, though, there’s also this feeling he can’t shake and wanted them to understand.
“You know what the difference between a lot of you in this room and me is?” he said, pausing then adding, “You got caught. You got caught.”
While getting nabbed pocketing items from convenience stores in his 20s likely wouldn’t have landed him here, some other regrettable decisions — like nearly all of us have made — easily could have.
“When I made choices to abuse alcohol as a young person and get behind the wheel and partake in behavior that was reckless, by the grace of God, I didn’t kill anybody or kill myself or do something really stupid,” he told them. “I’m no different (than you). And if the world is honest, they have to say the same thing.”
The event Wednesday marked the third time Moore has spoken in a prison, including in Larned, Kan., the day before with Matt Fulks, director of Moore’s “C” You In The Major Leagues Foundation that seeks to give hope and promote character and community.
Moore wasn’t seeking attention for this. But ever since he told me two years ago that visiting Lansing prison was one of the greatest days of his life, I started nagging him about going along next time.
As we got talking about why this mattered so much to him, Moore offered several emotional — and revealing — reasons. Including something he said he had never shared before:
His sister married a deeply troubled man who robbed an Alabama convenience store with a knife, resulting in a 10-year prison sentence after they had a child together. In prison, he gave his life to Jesus Christ and renounced his past as a white supremacist. But when he got out, Moore said, the group with which he was affiliated shot him in the back of his head on a dirt road.
During that time, Moore and his wife, Marianne, got involved with Angel Tree Prison Fellowship, which seeks to help the children of prisoners and their families.
Moore also said he was motivated by former Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson, the 50th-round pick who came out of thorny circumstances in McComb, Miss. Without elaborating on specifics, Moore said Dyson might have been on a path to trouble without the nurturing of the Royals organization.
“We saw how he became a man because of our belief in him,” said Moore, who notes how much he learned about leadership from Dyson. “If you just give people hope and believe in them, they’re capable of reaching their ceiling.”
Which was at the crux of all this. Ask Moore why he makes such commitments, in this case driving 500-miles plus over two days to speak to prisoners, and the question almost becomes reversed: It would be negligent to waste his influential position by doing less than he can do to make the world better.
Even in places housing what some might consider lost or irredeemable causes.
“If we want our community to thrive, it takes everybody,” he said over breakfast at the Ellsworth Steakhouse before he spoke at the prison. “Not just the pretty people.”
As Moore met with officials including Sauers and Kansas secretary of corrections Joe Norwood before addressing the group, he told them he knew he couldn’t change anybody’s heart.
“Yeah, but you might be the one who puts that spark out there — you never know,” said Sauers, a lifelong Royals fan. “We all have that chance to do that.”
Afterward, Sauers was elated about how Moore had resonated and struck by how he had conveyed that he was no better than anyone there and elicited questions that were smart and from the heart. Sauers hopes Moore’s visit can play a part in what they hope to accomplish at a facility that offers work activities and life-skills programs as it seeks to prepare its occupants to successfully return to life outside.
“The bottom line is that 97 percent of all offenders are going to walk out the door one of these days,” said Sauers, who intended to rebroadcast Moore’s talk on the prison’s internal television platform. “Our job isn’t to punish them. Our job is to keep them here to keep the public safe, and hopefully they walk out of here a better person. And these are the kinds of things that are positive towards that.”
While it’s more likely the spirit of his visit will endure longer than any specific words, Moore had many memorable things to say.
He told the inmates that he didn’t know their individual stories, but he knew they were important … and that they should be shared to help others.
He told them that anything that might be good in him comes from God, but that he still had his own demons and struggles at times to forgive. And he gave strong examples of the need to stay open to those who seek to help.
That included the wisdom of elder mentors, but also that of Onil Joseph, now coaching with the Royals in the Dominican Republic. He gently came to Moore a few years ago when Moore was lashing out under pressure to win.
At the time, Moore recalled thinking, “If I go down, I’m going down my way,” and micro-managing and being prickly to everyone from KC manager Ned Yost to the media. Until, that is, the intimidated young coach found it in himself to tell Moore that God had spoken to him and that “you need to start fighting on your knees” — praying. Because Moore wasn’t being true to himself.
“Took a lot of guts to do that. Changed my life as a leader. Reset the direction of the organization,” Moore said. “Without him coming into my life, who knows what the outcome would have been? I may not be here today.”
Moore also spoke of such things as not measuring your success by what others are achieving and about having the ability to break cycles — like his own father, Robert, did: Despite growing up with an abusive stepfather who scarred Robert Moore’s face with the butt of a gun, Moore’s father didn’t pass along that behavior.
He conveyed the urgency of applying moral principles and embracing diversity — we’re all different by design — and how liberating it is to put others first, and the virtues of making yourself vulnerable through honesty.
Even when it might seem to their own detriment. If there is a deal brewing, Moore told them in the little bit he spoke of baseball, he will tell his prospective trade partner even the downside about those they are considering obtaining.
“I don’t want them to be fooled. I don’t want them to have that on their resume. I don’t want them to lose their job,” said Moore, who added that transparency and honesty are the priorities. “It’s more important.”
Just like this day was.
“I know God is not impressed with the general manager of a baseball team. You think God’s impressed with a World Series championship?” he told the audience. “It’s our job, it’s our responsibility, to use that gift as a platform to help others.”
In this case, a Christmas gift both for Ellsworth and Kansas City, which is blessed to have Moore in this role for so much more than just the ecstasy of 2014 and 2015.