Arizona Diamondbacks Host 22nd Annual Winter Classic
PHOENIX, Dec. 5th – Several members of the Arizona Diamondbacks – including executives, coaches, broadcasters, players, and the manager – gathered at Chase Field Thursday morning for the 22nd Annual Winter Classic. They gave over 750 children from the area backpacks, shoes, socks, books, a sweatshirt, and more in an event Randy Johnson started two decades ago.
The Beginnings of the Winter Classic
Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson joined the Diamondbacks in December of 1998 as a free agent. Shortly after arriving, he decided to help children in the area by giving those in need a new pair of good shoes. “There’s always been a need for young children to be taken care of and feel special all the time, and especially at this time of year,” Johnson said. He sought help from the Diamondbacks organization to find kids who could use the help, and one person who helped tremendously was the late Joe Garagiola. He was “well-connected” with Catholic churches in Metro Phoenix, according to Johnson. Combined with the children on the bordering reservations, there was “definitely a need” for the shoes.
The Arizona Diamondbacks Continue the Legacy
Johnson said that the event started with “primarily just shoes that were being given away in the rotunda area at the ballpark – the entrance.” It worked so well that Johnson continued it through the rest of his time as a Diamondback. After he left, the team continued with it every December. “…every year, it gets a little bit bigger. There are more activities for the kids, and more people have gotten involved. I just started with giving the shoes away, but there are all kinds of activities that have been added along over the years. It’s still a thrill to see a young boy or girl come in and get a pair of shoes and say, ‘Thank you.’ It’s an important time of the year, especially for our young children, to make them feel special, because they are.”
Johnson returned even after his retirement from baseball 11 years ago. “It says a lot about the kids that came back then – they’re young adults now – but there’s still a need. These are young kids that weren’t even born when I was playing baseball, and they have a need, so it’s great to still come and be associated with it and be a part of the Winter Classic,” said Johnson.
One regular attender is pitcher Robbie Ray. This is no surprise to Debbie Castaldo, Vice President of Corporate and Community Impact for the Diamondbacks. She said he comes every year. “Robbie and Taylor (his wife) are extraordinarily generous people,” Castaldo said. Ray said that he thinks this year’s event was his third time doing this, and “it gets better every time.” When asked what he would like about this if he were one of the children in attendance, he said, “Honestly, that someone cared. That someone took time out of their day to come up here, be with me, and give me a pair of shoes. Just having that time to spend with someone that took time out of their day.”
Another person whose attendance is no surprise to anyone who knows him is Torey Lovullo, the Diamondbacks manager. He and his wife, Kristen, have a heart for people in general, but especially children. “It’s always been a great day for me and (Kristen). We’ve come out here since we’ve arrived in Arizona. It’s about giving back to the children and watching them smile – watching them interact in a very special way. Really, that’s the spirit of this season. That’s what you want to do. To be a part of that on the level that we are – it’s pretty intense, and we enjoy it.”
Since their arrival in Arizona, they have made sure to come every year. This event was one event that impressed Torey and Kristen. “…it keeps getting better every year. These guys come out and really do a nice job of supporting the community and increasing the number of kids and giving them a great opportunity to get something special,” Torey said.
The Arizona Diamondbacks and the 2019 Event
Thursday’s event included 750 children from 11 schools. They got to have, according to the team press release, “photos with Santa, an Arizona Humane Society and Phoenix Herpetological Society petting zoo, a Phoenix Symphony petting zoo, the University of Phoenix Reading Center, the Diamondbacks Science of Baseball zone, STEM activation with Play Well TEKnologies, Fitness Zone with Diamondbacks Trainers, dance time with team organist Bobby Freeman and Baxter – the team mascot – and lunch provided by Raising Cane’s.” These stations were scattered throughout the upper and lower concourses of Chase Field.
All 11 schools were Title One schools serving at-risk and low-income children. Several of the children were homeless, and some of the children were newly settled refugees. Castaldo said that they were children from “all over the Valley (of the Sun) who really will benefit from the new pair of shoes, socks, a sweatshirt – those things that are essentials. This may be the only thing they get for Christmas.” She added that Santa “often tells us about the wishes that he receives from the children. Many of the children wish for a home to live in. They wish to have mom and dad get a job. They wish for really simple things that we sometimes take for granted.”
Gratitude of the Children
The children in attendance certainly didn’t take the gifts for granted. Joy abounded on their faces as they received a box with a brand new, high quality pair of shoes. Their reactions warm the hearts of those who witness them. Castaldo observed, “When they put on a new pair of shoes that fit, they believe that the shoes are magic – that they make them jump higher, or run faster, or make them dance. It’s incredible to see the simple joy of a child wearing a brand-new pair of tennis shoes.”
Lovullo crouched and talked with several of the kids as they tried on shoes. “I like to get down on their level, see eye-to-eye with them, and let them know that I’m like them. They can have a special day. They can have a dream. Just because I’m the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks doesn’t mean that I don’t have the same feelings and same cares and concerns that they do. I’m on their level, and I want them to know that,” he said.
The Arizona Diamondbacks Look Ahead
As the years progressed, the event grew. A lot of it happened because of teachers. Castaldo pointed out that the Diamondbacks “have teachers who have been transferred to other schools. They’ll keep us aware of what other schools and opportunities are, so we can continue to grow every year and don’t ever turn anyone away.”
It’s been humbling for Randy Johnson to see what the event has become. “This is at a much bigger scale than I ever imagined it being,” he said. “It was fun getting everybody on board. It was fun to know that so many other people had the same interest in doing something. I had a Nike contract – I wore their shoes back when I played, and so I reached out to them. They said, ‘Sure, we can help you,’ and so that’s how it all got started. You get a lot of people involved and get everybody on the same page, and you have something like this that has been going on now for 20 years.”
It’s safe to say that it will continue for another 20 years and beyond. Castaldo said that the players, coaches, broadcasters, and staff “love this event – you see them meeting the kids and interacting with the kids.” As for her, the biggest thing “is the kids’ faces.” After she said that, she noticed something nearby. “I just heard that little boy just said, ‘These are AAAAAAAAAAAAWESOOOOOOOOOOOOOME!’ (Chuckles) Isn’t that cool? That’s amazing! That’s what gets you!” Robbie Ray said that he loves “giving back to the community. They support us day-in, day-out during the season. To be able to give back and put some smiles on kids’ faces – there’s nothing better than that.”