By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Take it from Billy Butler.
You can’t play baseball or feed the poor by yourself. Teammates are important.
On a rare day off, the Kansas City Royals’ designated hitter called on some special teammates from area little league teams to help him kick off this year’s “Hit It a Ton” campaign to benefit the poor served by the Bishop Sullivan Center’s two locations.
The little leaguers and Butler quickly filled 18 sacks of groceries to be distributed to the hungry, then they helped serve a Zarda BBQ-catered meal to anybody who came to the center’s St. James Place community kitchen in midtown.
The younger athletes were among 36 Kansas City-area little league teams who have signed up to conduct food drives and raise money to feed the hungry as part of this year’s “Hit It a Ton” campaign.
“This is definitely fun,” Butler said as he tried mightily to keep pace with his far younger teammates. “It’s fun being around and teaching these kids.”
Yes, it was fun for the kids who came from teams in Lee’s Summit and Overland Park to hang around and work with one of the most feared hitters in major league baseball.
But it was more than that, said Paul Cole, centerfielder for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Lee’s Summit Legacy Park League.
“I’m just glad I can help other people in need,” he said. “I don’t want people not to have enough food.”
Neither does Butler or his wife, Katie, who began volunteering with St. James Place when Butler was first called up from the minor leagues in 2007.
The very next year, Butler agreed to donate the Bishop Sullivan Center’s costs of purchasing a ton of food from the Harvester’s community food bank — about $250 — for every home run he hit.
The Bishop Sullivan Center then invited the community to join in. In just seven years, with Billy knocking ‘em over the wall and community partners and individuals writing checks, Billy and Katie Butler’s “Hit It a Ton” foundation has raised more than $500,000.
And last year set records, thanks to Zarda BBQ.
Terry Hyer, chief operating officer of the Zarda restaurants, said Zarda began offering a Billy Butler sandwich with profits going to the Bishop Sullivan Center.
Then last winter, he had a brainstorm. Why not kick the recipe for Zarda’s signature sauce up a notch, put Billy’s name on it, then sell that to raise even more money?
He pitched the idea to the Butlers, and they said go for it. Thus Billy Butler’s Hit It a Ton BBQ Sauce was born.
An instant hit? Not quite. Zarda was able to get some bottles on store shelves, where they sat in a sea of barbecues sauces in the Barbecue Capital of the World — Kansas City.
Then a minor miracle happened.
With the Royals mired in a deep slump last May, Billy’s teammates learned he had a sauce, but wasn’t sharing it with them. It took some good-natured clubhouse ribbing before Butler agreed to bring in a few box loads.
Then, from the mind of starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, sprang the idea of “Rally Sauce.” A bottle of the sauce became a fixture in the dugout, grabbed and waved around every time the Royals needed some runs.
And they got them. In bunches. Suddenly, the Royals got as hot as a slab of ribs right out of the smoker, and “Rally Sauce” was featured on every televised game.
It started flying off supermarket shelves, sometimes so fast that marketers didn’t even have to put it out on shelves. They’d just leave a pallet loaded with boxes of sauce, and Royals fans would snatch up every bottle.
Yes, it’s good sauce, but Hyer said another hand was at work.
“It felt divine, like God was pushing the agenda here,” he said. “He was feeding the hungry through our barbecue sauce.”
True to Zarda’s word, Hyer presented a check for $31,000 — every nickel of profit earned from the sale of Billy Butler sauce — to the Bishop Sullivan Center and to St. James Place director Mike Mathews.
Butler was in awe over what he and his new bride began when he was a rookie.
“We didn’t envision anything as big as this,” he said. “We just figured we wanted to help out. We just tried to make things better for people, and now it’s grown into this.”
More information about joining Billy Butler’s “Hit It a Ton” program can be found online at www.bishopsullivan.org.