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Angels feed the hungry, give fans chance of a lifetime

ANAHEIM -- The Angels' Thanksgiving food drive creates incentive with a rather unique trade-off: Bring cans or money to feed the hungry and cash it in for the opportunity to partake in a slew of activities at Angel Stadium.

Joseph Lyman, a 30-year-old local architect, did his best to maximize that concept last weekend.

He walked in Friday with a $40 donation to Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County, which annually redistributes the collections, and in return got 20 swings. Then some of his balls started bouncing just in front of the fence, making him think just how cool it would be to actually hit one out from the same batter's box as Albert Pujols and Mike Trout.

By mid-day Saturday, the allure of that had translated into a handful of checks totaling $370.

"I just thought I'd come up like two or three times," Lyman said. "You get closer and closer to hitting it over the fence, and then you have to keep trying."

None of that spending led to any home runs. But it takes just $1 to provide three meals for the needy, so Lyman's contributions actually traveled miles farther than the Angels' home ballpark.

"I think that's a win-win," said Lyman, a transplanted Giants fan from the Bay Area, who may now switch allegiances. "It's just a great situation, a great opportunity, a great event. You just can't beat it."

Twelve years ago, in hopes of bringing in more donations, Angels head groundskeeper Barney Lopas thought about opening Angel Stadium to the fans and got a quick thumbs-up from the organization.

Every year since, Lopas' crew -- the same one that renovated Orange High School's baseball field in January -- has been giving up its precious time off, working day and night on the weekend before Thanksgiving, to host this three-day event and the hundreds of people that attend.

It's a lot of extra, voluntary work. But to Lopas, it's well worth it.

"We feed a lot of people, man," Lopas said. "That's what it's all about."

And every year, the method for doing so has expanded -- to taking grounders, throwing in the bullpen and even rare half-hour tours of the home and visitors' clubhouses in the bowels of Angel Stadium, courtesy of visiting clubhouse manager Brian Harkins.

"They can't get enough," Harkins said. "Some did it three or four times last year."

"They take time off their busy schedule on their vacations to come out and put on this event," said Lorina Smith, food resource coordinator at Second Harvest. "It brings out a lot of people, creates a lot of dreams for people to get to go out on the field, and we bring in a lot of money."

In 2003, the event brought in more than 7,000 pounds of non-perishable food items and $7,500 in donations. By '08, it was bringing in close to 17,000 pounds and more than $14,000. Last year, nearly 800 people showed up, resulting in more than 6,600 pounds of food and $21,000. And this year, 4,438 pounds of food were collected, coupled with a record $25,010.

It turns out Lyman had a lot of weekend warriors with him.

"We kind of consider it like Christmas come early, to go out and play on a Major League field and practice and catch fly balls and field ground balls, and he got to hit this year," said Daniel Lewis, a Huntington Beach, Calif., resident who has attended the event with his son, David Drigla, for three straight years.

"The energy feeds on everybody," Angels groundskeeper, and designated BP thrower, Vinny Ayala said. "It's just the grin on their faces, the excitement of being out here, the smile that they bring. That's what it's all about."

Smith started to tear up while recounting a touching story from the 2011 event. An older man donated $50, but wanted the on-field experiences that come with it to go to a fan of his choosing. So he leaned up against the gate and watched several others come through the turnstiles until he noticed a young boy drag his piggy bank to the table, asking if his hard-earned dimes and nickels would be accepted.

"No, you keep your change," the old man told the boy, instructing the staff to "give him the works."

"Long story short," Smith recalled, "he spent the whole day out on that field and came out from ear to ear with a smile. It was obvious that he made a dream come true for a little boy."

And in the process, he helped feed about 150 families.

Not a bad trade-off.

Los Angeles Angels