MLB raises funds, awareness for autism

MLB raises funds, awareness for autism

MLB raises funds, awareness for autism
NEW YORK -- A cathedral of antiquities stood at the cutting edge of sports and society Monday, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted the Lead Off For a Cure gala in support of autism awareness.

The stately museum, framed by epic columns and housing ancient tapestries and mosaics, provided a remarkable location for a group of people dealing with one of the most pressing issues of the day.

More than 400 people attended a dinner and silent auction in support of Autism Speaks and the Gillen Brewer School, and Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig served as co-chair of the event. Selig, moments before the dinner started, spoke about the importance of the project.

"I often say baseball is a social institution with important responsibilities. And the work that these people do is so remarkable," he said. "All 30 clubs have participated, and the Boston Red Sox are going to be honored tonight for their very special participation. It's a very worthwhile cause."

Diagnoses of autism have increased exponentially over the last few decades, and a recent study by the Center of Disease Control estimated that 1 out of 88 children -- and 1 out of every 54 males -- is born with a condition that ranges somewhere on the spectrum for autism.

That estimate represents a 1,000 percent increase in the past 40 years, and the reasons for that are dramatic, mysterious and incompletely understood. Mark Roithmayr, the President of Autism Speaks, said that funding is necessary for research, awareness, advocacy and family services.

"We're blessed to be partnered with Major League Baseball," said Roithmayr. "Every year, we hold an event here at the Metropolitan Museum, and we rotate the sports leagues. We're setting a record tonight -- both in gross dollars raised and net -- and that's all because of Commissioner Selig and the Major League Baseball front office. Every single team is participating financially tonight, and so many of those that are business partners with MLB are participating financially tonight. We've raised an all-time record of more than 1.3 million dollars to help families with autism."

The early cocktail reception was held in the Great Hall of the Met, but the dinner was held in an even more exotic setting. The tables were arranged around the ancient Temple of Dendur, which was built in Egypt around 15 BC and later taken apart, transported and rebuilt stone-for-stone.

That backdrop -- lit with fluorescent lighting -- served as witness to the night's proceedings, emceed by Bob Costas and attended by several well known business executives. Tom Werner, the chairman of the Red Sox, was honored for his team's work toward autism awareness.

"Generally, when you're involved with the Red Sox, you get booed when you're in New York. But I expect I won't get booed tonight," quipped Werner, a native of New York City. "The commissioner has said that baseball is a social institution, and I think what we do in the community is as important as what we do between the lines. This is an affliction that we're becoming more sensitive to, and we're on the cusp of several important diagnoses. ... Early treatment and early diagnosis can really affect hundreds of thousands of families. Whatever we can do is important and useful."

There were several former Major League players on hand Monday, but two former All-Stars -- Reggie Sanders and Mitch Williams -- stepped forward to talk about their personal connection to the cause.

Sanders said he had just come from Scottsdale, Ariz., where his foundation had hosted a charity whiffle ball game in support of autism awareness. Sanders said that his life had been irrevocably changed by autism through the condition of his brother, who was diagnosed at age three.

Sanders, who played in parts of 17 big league seasons, said that he started the Reggie Sanders Foundation in support of his brother, Dee, and in the hope that someday there would be a cure for autism.

"He's doing extremely well and I'm happy to be able to help him," said Sanders. "Back then, 30 years ago, it wasn't really talked about. Nobody knew what it was. I came from a family that didn't have very much money and we really didn't know what to do to help them. ... In 1992, when I got to the Majors, I set off on a mission to become knowledgeable about it and to be able to help him."

Williams told a similar tale, and he said that two of his five sons have tested on the spectrum for autism. The former reliever said that he tries to contribute to the cause of raising autism awareness whenever he has a chance, and sometimes that means speaking to unafflicted children.

"My kids have Aspergers, and physically, there's not a thing wrong with them," he said. "My 16-year-old plays baseball, and I just spent a half-hour the other day explaining to his team the social ramifications. I basically said to them, 'I'm going to ask you all a question and I want you to be honest. How many of you think my son is weird?' And then I said, 'Now, I'll explain why.'

"It's a social disorder, and they don't understand it. And I know that when I was in high school, I wouldn't have understood it. Having people explain it to you, you get an awareness of it."

One speaker noted that April is both autism awareness month and this week is national volunteerism week, a perfect confluence of circumstances for a cause that needs all the publicity it can get. For Selig, a chance to aid in autism awareness is a link to baseball's proud past of social activism, a tradition best exemplified by the dramatic tale of Jackie Robinson integrating the game.

"I've always said the best part of my job is the sociological impact that we have," he said, "And when you think of Jackie Robinson -- April 15, 1947 -- it's probably the most important and powerful moment in baseball history. Jackie is one of the two or three most important people in the 20th century. That's the kind of role that baseball can play and does play, and tonight is another example."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.