By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Here’s a sign of hope for you long-suffering baseball fans.
This batch of Kansas City Royals is tight — with the community, with the fans, and with each other.
The event on the morning of Aug. 20 was billed as “Country Breakfast with Billy Butler,” a chance for the Royals’ designated hitter to personally thank donors to his “Hit-It-A-Ton” campaign to raise food for Bishop Sullivan Center’s two food pantries at its St. James Place midtown community kitchen.
It could have been called “Country Breakfast with Half of the Royals’ Active Roster.” That is how many of Butler’s teammates showed up at Archbishop O’Hara High School to support the project that Billy and Katie Butler started in 2008.
“This is special for Billy and Katie, so it’s special for me,” said right fielder Jeff Francoeur, who earlier that week signed a two-year contract extension to remain a Kansas City Royal.
“This is a no-brainer,” he said. “It’s for a great cause, and it’s fun for me to get away and meet all these kids.”
Francoeur spent that Saturday morning signing anything and everything any kid put in front of him.
Also at the event were rookie pitchers Blake Wood and Greg Holland, as well as outfielders Mitch Maier and Alex Gordon, who have been teammates of Butler since their minor league days in Wichita five years ago.
They all had a simple reason for being there: “Billy asked me to come.”
“He’s one of my best friends,” Maier said. “We all want to help him out and support him. This is his way of giving back to the community, and I’m happy to be here.”
“This isn’t a big deal to come here,” said Holland. “I’m glad to do it.”
Likewise for Wood.
“It’s always good to give back to the fans and to the community,” he said. “You see these faces on these kids? That’s what it’s all about. These fans are spending their hard-earned money to support me and see me play. It’s the least I can do to give back to them and to the community.”
Gordon said that in return, Butler is always willing to help him or any of their teammates in charitable outreach to the community.
“I have things that I do, and he supports me,” Gordon said. “It is great what he is doing in the community, and I’m happy to help him do it.”
The “Hit-It-A-Ton” campaign is the brainchild of Katie Butler and Mike Mathews, director of St. James Place.
When Butler was first called to the majors in 2007, she was Katie Hansen, his fiancé, who didn’t know a soul in Kansas City, and who needed community service hours for college courses she was taking on.
Among the first friends she made in Kansas City were the volunteers at St. James Place, with whom she helped stock shelves, sack food pantry groceries, and prepare and serve hot meals for anyone who came to the door.
“They were just so great to us when we were rookies, and seeing their dedication to the poor was inspiring,” Katie Butler said.
The “Hit-It-A-Ton” campaign was launched in 2008. The Royals slugger agreed to donate $250 — enough to buy a ton of food from Harvesters’ Food Pantry, and roughly equal to the food the center’s pantries and community kitchen serve to the poor every day — for every home run he hits.
In addition, Butler agreed to give away autographed bats, balls and other Royals’ memorabilia to people in the community who also gave one ton of food, $250 to the community.
But that wasn’t enough. Like a veteran stepping up his game and knowing that his home ballpark, Kauffman Stadium, is notorious for not giving up home runs, Butler this year agreed to donate a half-ton of food for every double he hit. On top of that, he began “Billy’s Doubles Club” for children whose parents gave $50 to the Bishop Sullivan Center in his name.
As of Aug. 21, Butler had hit 15 home runs and 30 doubles, enough for 30 tons of food for Kansas City’s hungry.
Katie Butler said it meant a lot to her and Billy to see his teammates solidly behind him. But it’s the way these Royals, the youngest roster in major league baseball, are with each other. In fact, Katie said, they were all heading over to the home of pitcher Luke Hochevar and his wife right after the charity event to celebrate the first birthday of the Hochevar’s first child.
“That’s the way we are,” Katie said. “We are always supporting each other, and backing each other up. There is always something going on at somebody’s house.”
As for their choice of charity as a way of giving back to a Kansas City community they have grown to love, what better way than feeding the hungry, she said.
“Everybody needs to eat before they can do anything else,” Katie said. “It’s just as simple as that.”
More information about Hit-It-A-Ton and Billy’s Doubles Club can be found at the Bishop Sullivan Center Web site, www.bishopsullivan.org.