Barry M. Bloom

B.A.T. Celebrity Ball assists baseball families

Bloom: B.A.T. Celebrity Ball helps good cause

B.A.T. Celebrity Ball assists baseball families
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- It was a night of some laughter and more than a few tears as a group of the 2001 World Series champion Arizona Diamondbacks and a quintet of baseball Hall of Famers graced the inaugural B.A.T. Celebrity Ball.

"We never had a crowd like this in the old days," Joe Garagiola Sr. told a sold-out dinner crowd gathered at the Talking Stick Resort. "If we had four people in a telephone booth we'd be happy."

B.A.T. is the acronym for the Baseball Assistance Team, which has awarded more than $23 million in grants to those who are down and out in the baseball family since Garagiola founded the organization some 35 years ago.

"B.A.T. is people," said the former catcher and long-time baseball broadcaster, who was honored with the non-profit foundation's first Lifetime Achievement Award on Wednesday night. And that it is.

It is Ted Polakowski, the director of Minor League operations for the A's, whose wife, Cheryl, died after a sudden horrific battle with pancreatic cancer nearly two years ago. B.A.T. helped the Polakowskis fund experimental treatments for Cheryl in Mexico that weren't covered by medical insurance. She is survived by her husband and three young children.

It is Jerilyn Winston, whose husband, Darrin, died in surgery on Aug. 15, 2008. Winston, a former Phillies pitcher, left his wife and six children. B.A.T. has since paid her mortgage and associated bills.

"Allowing me to stay at home with my children during one of the most trying times in our lives," Jerilyn said.

The grants to baseball families -- players, scouts, umpires and front-office staff -- are mostly anonymous. But not all were so on Wednesday night.

"The best thing about B.A.T. is that it's anonymous. No one knows who they help," Polakowski said. "The worst thing about B.A.T. is that it's anonymous. No one knows who they help."

Polakowski was determined to change that. That's why he told his story and why he's volunteering time to the organization to give back for all the help he was given at a time of need.

The first B.A.T. dinner in the West, following January's annual fest in New York, was chaired by former D-backs left fielder Luis Gonzalez. You may remember that he's the guy who broke the collective heart of Yankee fans and gave Arizona its only professional sports championship with his duck bloop of a single off Mariano Rivera that won Game 7 and the 2001 World Series.

A decade later, as the season-long celebrations begin, it's still the singular moment in Arizona sports and baseball history.

"This is exciting," said Gonzalez, who is now an advisor to D-backs president Derrick Hall. "It's great to see all the guys come back here from the team and all the Hall of Famers, especially the first time we've had this dinner in Arizona."

The lure was the dinner on Wednesday and Thursday's round of golf on the adjacent course, which is located just on the other side of the freeway from the new $120 million Salt River Fields training facility. The Hall of Famers in attendance included Rickey Henderson, Ferguson Jenkins, George Brett, Robin Yount and Joe Morgan, who helped emcee the program.

Gonzalez was joined by nine teammates from the '01 team and the hierarchy -- owner Jerry Colangelo, general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. and manager Bob Brenly. Colangelo, who is now the director of USA Basketball, is the former owner of the NBA's Suns as well as the D-backs, considered to be the Godfather of sports in Phoenix. He was happy to be there.

"It brings a lot of memories for me," Colangelo said.

Primarily, though, Colangelo was in attendance to acknowledge the work of Garagiola Sr., the winner of the Ford C. Frick Award,which honors a broadcaster each year at the National Baseball Hall of Fame's induction ceremonies.

"Joe is one of my heroes," Colangelo added. "He came from The Hill in St. Louis. I came from Hungry Hill in Chicago. We're both Italian-American. We have a lot of things in common: our faith, our family, our love of sports. I have a lot of admiration for him for how much he has put back into the game of baseball. He loves the sport. I never had any doubt that that's exactly what he would do."

Garagiola said he had the vision and a dream of developing the B.A.T organization when he was offered a private grant of $300,000 if he could generate matching funds from Major League Baseball. He did that one better. He raised $300,000 from baseball and then went to the Players Association and asked for the same sum from then executive director Don Fehr.

"You're boxing me into a corner," Garagiola recalled Fehr telling him.

Still, the union came up with the money and ultimately Garagiola raised over $1 million. The dream was realized.

"Ignorance is great," he said. "When you don't know what you're doing, you're usually going to get it done."

Today, the players generate $8 million a year by agreeing to automatically donate a percentage of their salaries. The dinners, that include auctions of memorabilia, raise more. It's another good example of baseball people helping their own.

Setting the tone for an emotional evening, Garagiola, who just turned 85, said he has always wept openly like a leaky faucet.

"This is hard on me," he said. "I cry at a hockey game for cryin' out loud."

He got the laughs. The tears were soon to come.

Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.