By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Now here is a real baseball fan.
So many children brought their parents along to the annual “Breakfast with Billy” event Aug. 10 that the line stretched all the way out the front door of Archbishop O’Hara High School.
But they were eager to talk about which of the seven Royals player’s autograph they wanted the most.
The most frequent answer? Billy Butler, who with his wife Katie began the Hit-It-A-Ton Foundation in 2008, his first full year in the big leagues, to benefit the Bishop Sullivan Center, where Katie had volunteered.
Others chimed in with some American League All Stars: outfielder Alex Gordon or pitchers Aaron Crow and Greg Holland.
Not 10-year-old Ryan Hageman. He was after the autograph of Elliot Johnson, a utility infielder.
“I was watching him on TV, and I saw that Elliot Johnson was pretty good. He plays hard and I just like him,” Hageman said.
Never mind that Johnson was released from the team just a few days later. Young Mr. Hageman was right. Elliot Johnson is a gamer, both on and off the field, as he proved by sitting side by side until every autograph was signed with his teammates Butler, Gordon, Holland, Crow, relief pitcher Tim Collins, and starting pitcher Bruce Chen who just two days earlier, tossed a gem to beat the Boston Red Sox.
This was Chen’s second trip to “Breakfast with Billy” which was open to people who accepted Butler’s challenge to join him in feeding the poor.
Some 1,200 families a month seek groceries from the center’s food pantry on Truman Road or at the midtown St. James Place location. Another 250 people come every night to eat a hot meal at no charge with no questions asked at St. James Place.
“Food is important, and I’ve been to this for the last two years,” he said.
It’s his way of giving back to the community he has come to love and to a baseball club who took a chance four years ago that Chen still had some years left on his arm.
“I appreciate everything that Kansas City and the Royals organization has done for me,” Chen said.
That doesn’t tell the whole story, said Katie Butler, who volunteered with St. James Place as a college student in 2007.
“Last year, Bruce was scheduled to pitch that night, and he still came,” Katie said. “He was still here a half an hour after it was supposed to be over. We had to tell him, ‘Bruce, it’s time to go.’”
That didn’t really surprise her, she said.
“We’ve got the greatest teammates in the world,” Katie said. “They support each other on the field. They support each other off the field. And they support each other’s charities.”
And it was hard to tell who was having more fun – the players or the kids who got to meet their heroes, who this year find themselves in the thick of a battle for the first Royals post-season birth since — well, 1985, which could have been before some of their parents were born.
And one of the biggest kids and biggest Royals fans there was 89-year-old August DeSchetter, who brought along his excitement for the Kansas City Royals.
“You’re (doggone) right I’m excited. Even my wife (whose health kept her from coming Aug. 10) is excited. Boy, does she love her Royals,” he said.
DeSchetter brought along son-in-law Tom Rider, a native Kansas Citian who lives in Andalosia, Ala., and grandson Lane Rider, 26, born two years after the Royals won their only World Series in 1985.
“They are shocking me,” Lane said. “They have a strong chance of making the wild card” which goes to the two teams in each league who have the best record among teams that don’t finish first in their divisions.
The excitement this year was thick, as the commons area of Archbishop O’Hara High School was packed and lines for autographs seemed to grow longer.
Seven-year-old Will Atchity wanted to meet Billy himself.
“He’s really good at hitting. He hits home runs a lot,” Will said.
Billy Butler is also the favorite of 11-year-old Emma Foley. “He’s a good designated hitter,” she said, showing off her knowledge of the game.
Nine-year-old Lindsey Barker was elated to get Chen to autograph the back of her jersey.
“He’s a really good pitcher,” she said, quickly adding, “and he’s really nice.”
Katie Butler noted that a new wrinkle to Hit-It-A-Ton was added this year. Zarda BBQ began producing Billy Butler’s Hit-It-A-Ton sauce with the proceeds benefitting the Bishop Sullivan Center, and it took off with the increasingly good fortunes of the Kansas City Royals, who make sure to keep a bottle of “rally sauce” in the dugout.
“Zarda came to us with the idea,” Katie said. “They have supported us before by selling sandwiches with the proceeds going to the Sullivan Center. So they wanted to produce some, thought not that many, bottles for sales in area stores.
“It started out with a few stores doing us a favor by stocking a few bottles. Then the guys (the Royals) began using it as a good luck charm, and stores were ordering it by the flat. It was a perfect storm,” Katie said.
The people at “Breakfast with Billy” were also snapping up bottles of sauce — though none were seen pouring it on their Chris Cakes pancakes. They were also buying photos, T-shirts, and autographed bats and balls, all to benefit the Bishop Sullivan Center.
“It’s crazy,” said Katie. “I think we may have outgrown this space a little bit this year.”