NOTHING IN LIFE compares to the beauty of bringing a smile to the face of a child. It's a little-known specialty of the Baltimore Orioles. Put aside team standings, attendance figures, how much money the owner is making per ticket and other assorted business items.
What counts far more than any of that is what happens in the way of a commitment to the public, the response time in moments of need and fulfilling the role of a good citizen. The Orioles do it every day of the year in countless ways. Results on the field, by comparison, are inconsequential.
Focus on the efforts of the Orioles' public relations department, directed by Rick Vaughn, and the community relations staff of Julia Wagner, and get ready to cheer. They combine in a myriad of programs geared to benefit every reasonable request of children and adults, without regard to whether they can afford to buy a seat in Memorial Stadium.
Their work isn't predicated on "what can you do for the Orioles." It's physically impossible for every young fan to meet his favorite player. And, sometimes, an overzealous grandmother will ask the Orioles to send Billy Ripken or Randy Milligan to talk with little Johnny or Joanie in a hospital when their reason for being there is merely a routine recovery from a minor accident or an appendicitis.
If the Orioles answered all such non-emergency situations, they wouldn't have nine players available to take the field. They'd be making more house calls and hospital visits than some doctors and nurses do.
But if there's a serious or an important cause, the Orioles react -- and with a willingness for whatever role they are asked to play. Wagner says, "We can't bat 1.000, but we would never say no to a youngster, or an adult, with a terminal illness or a serious handicap. And for a kid, maybe a foster child who is in need of a morale boost."
Mail to players is answered by them, with postage and envelopes paid for by the club. Pictures are autographed and all requests considered, even if some are impossible to satisfy. Kids ask for bats, balls, gloves and even "everything you got" but the Orioles attempt to send something, even if it's a schedule or a team logo.
On the average, 20 birthdays a night are celebrated at the ballpark, and the Orioles provide certificates. The same for anniversaries and foreign visitors. A special unit, called the "Base Runners," go to faraway places in the stands and randomly select four fans for box seat locations. The recipients improve their spectator status; it's called an "Oriole Treat."
The Oriole Bird, a happy-faced mascot, makes 650 appearances a year, not including the 81 dates at the stadium. Most of the focus is on children -- such as a rookie league for 6- to 10-year-olds, where the Orioles supply balls, caps, shirts and even a pitching machine, in conjunction with the Department of Recreation. On and on it goes.
There's an "adopt a school" curriculum, in its fourth year, where tickets are awarded for academic achievements; a "Read Like a Pro" concept, giving tickets to fifth graders who read and report on six books in a 12-week period. The students adjudged to be the best readers in the city and Baltimore County get to throw out a "first ball."
Orioles wives stage frequent fund-raisers (a cruise accrued $38,000 for the Johns Hopkins Children's Center) and food drives. Cal Ripken Jr. and wife, Kelly, sponsor their own program and Gregg Olson gives $100 for every recorded save. Corporations join in with the Orioles to provide even more help and good work.
For a recognized charity, having a fund-raiser, the Orioles provide tickets and even memorabilia to be auctioned. Regional undertakings take precedence over national events, says Wagner, who notes that contributions to charities this year totaled $230,000, plus 7,000 complimentary tickets distributed to needy causes. Such requests average 135 per month.
How much does it all cost, taking in the giveaway items and salaries for Wagner and her assistants, including Stephanie Kelly and Kathryn Case? "Just say the budget is significant," says Wagner. All major-league clubs make similar efforts but the Orioles do as much or more than any of them.
The organization's willingness to assist such causes may occasionally be abused by recipients. That's disturbing, but the overall good of what's achieved far surpasses those isolated disappointments.
It just might be the Orioles lead the league in corporal works of mercy and, yes, bringing a precious moment of pleasure for a child to treasure.