Diaz, volunteers build playground for kids
Pirates outfielder heads group of roughly 120 on coveted off-day
WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- Pirates outfielder Matt Diaz grabbed the megaphone, gathered the approximately 120 volunteers around the back of the Citrus Center Boys and Girls Club and put them to work.
Indeed, the Pirates' first off-day of the spring turned out to be very much a work day for Diaz and a number of his teammates and coaches. All volunteered their time on Tuesday to build a playground for the near 450 children who spend time at the center.
"I'm watching Gregg Ritchie sweat through his shirt on an off-day," Diaz said. "I'm humbled and amazed at the teammates that have showed up today. They have given up their off-day -- as a baseball player those are few and far between -- so for them to give up their off-day to help kids [in an area where] they don't live in or play in just speaks volumes to where their hearts are."
Ritchie, the Pirates' hitting coach, was arguably the hardest worker of the bunch, mixing concrete and drilling in the playground slide, among other tasks. But he was hardly the only one sweating.
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Expecting hardly anyone to consider sacrificing time on the first of the team's two off-days this spring, Diaz put out an invitation to see if anyone would volunteer. He was overwhelmed with the response.
Pitchers Charlie Morton, Justin Thomas, Brian Burres and Jeff Karstens all dedicated their off-day to helping with the playground build. So, too, did Triple-A manager Dean Treanor and some front-office members. The Pirate Parrot showed up to entertain the children.
"It's fantastic to see the players doing that," Ritchie said. "They're giving something back. They're showing their emotions, passion for kids."
"Any time you can donate your time to benefit kids, it's for a good cause," added Karstens. "Matt asked for some guys to show up, and a few did. I know these days are hard to come by, so to come out and give a few hours of your day is beneficial to come by."
In addition to the players/coaches who made the three-hour round-trip drive from Bradenton, Fla., to provide physical labor, many other teammates approached Diaz to offer financial support. With those donations, Diaz said almost all of the money needed to cover the cost of the equipment has already been raised.
"I was shocked," Diaz said. "It floored me. I barely know these guys -- I've known them for four weeks. It just goes to show the kind of players that the Pirates look for and have. It's not just a ballplayer, but a good person as well."
The Winter Haven community is now home to Diaz, who -- after growing up in nearby Lakeland -- resides there with his wife, Leslee, and the couple's three young children. Together, they formed the Matt and Leslee Diaz Family Foundation two years ago with the intent of helping orphaned and disadvantaged children.
Diaz toured the Boys and Girls Club this past winter in an effort to determine how the foundation could help the facility, which has served children in Winter Haven since 1967. Diaz's first impulse was to restore the backyard T-ball field, but he quickly realized more children would be impacted if a new playground was built.
"Matt saw the backyard just swarming with kids," said Walt Hall, the Chief Professional Officer of the Citrus Center Boys and Girls Club. "I think his heart just kind of went out to our kids."
What Diaz saw did startle him. There, behind the facility, was a wooden playground that was built about 15 years ago and didn't have much more than two makeshift slides. And, because it was big enough for only about 15 children, Diaz saw more kids sitting and watching than actually enjoying their time outside.
"Kids in the nice areas of this community have nice playgrounds," Diaz said. "Kids from the not-so-nice areas, those kids come here after school and now they have a nice playground, too."
Diaz partnered with PlayCore to purchase the playground equipment and enlisted local businesses to help sponsor the community project and provide food and drinks to Tuesday's volunteer corps. Diaz had hoped for 120 volunteers, and he saw that many showed up Tuesday morning.
Along with the Pirates' representatives, two local college sports teams and dozens of community members pitched in digging, carrying and building.
"This is a good cause for us to come out and help," Burres said. "I think it's very important and a great thing for us to be able to do. It helps so many people. It's a big thing for me."
By midday on Tuesday, the playground was already nearly finished. The concrete will be dry by the time the children return from camp on Thursday, and the official Grand Opening ceremony is planned for next Monday.
"We have been talking about this for years," Hall said. "There are several people who have been dreaming of having a nice playground for our kids. It will be smothered over. Where a lot of playgrounds probably get a lot of use over the weekends, this one will get use every day for hours. This is just going to be awesome."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.