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Mariners making a difference through United Way

SEATTLE -- When it comes to giving back to the community during the holidays, Mariners employees are batting 1.000.

In fact, charity for the Mariners runs year-round, as the team's 188 office employees just completed their third straight year of 100-percent participation in their United Way fundraising campaign.

Every full-time front-office worker -- and we're talking secretaries, sales managers, marketing, human resources, baseball information, ballpark operations, you name it -- has taken part in the team's contribution program with donations coming out of their twice-monthly paychecks, which the Mariners then match with an equal contribution of their own.

"The Mariners are a quality organization doing great things in the community," said United Way of King County president Jon Fine. "And we definitely appreciate it."

This year, the club is involved in the local United Way more than ever, with former Mariners catcher Dan Wilson and his wife Annie serving as co-chairs of the 2012-13 United Way campaign in King County.

Though Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln and several other part owners of the team have served as annual chairmen for the charity at various times over the past 15 years, this is the first time a Mariners player has undertaken the role. And the response to the Wilsons has been tremendous, according to Fine.

"They've stepped up in a huge way," he said. "We knew they'd be good at it. But they've been more than good. They've been great."

The Wilsons have spoken at nearly 50 charity events already during their tenure and have received enthusiastic feedback from major companies like Microsoft and Nordstrom. They've taken hands-on roles in volunteer programs and fundraisers and stood side-by-side in front of dozens of groups to encourage people to donate their time or money or just to educate them on the multitude of services available through United Way.

Wilson, 43, was one of the quiet leaders of the Mariners during his playing days, the solid backbone of a team filled with more colorful characters like Ken Griffey Jr., Jay Buhner and Randy Johnson. But he and Annie have flourished in their visible role as United Way spokespersons.

"At first, we were a little nervous because we aren't people who like to be in the limelight and talking," said Annie, a former teacher. "We like to be more active and backing up [others], more walking the walk. But we realized this is a perfect place for us right now and we owed it to ourselves to find out what was going on and to help out. "

The Wilsons are raising four kids, including two adopted children, but found themselves looking to do more now that Dan is retired from baseball.

"We really believe that to whom much is given, much is required," said Wilson, who was inducted into the Mariners Hall of Fame earlier this year. "And we've really been given a lot here in Seattle."

Wilson says he was impressed as a young player by how much stars like Griffey, Buhner and Edgar Martinez did with charity. And with his wife pushing him to get involved, the transition was easy.

The two became members of the board of directors at First Place, a school for children of families that are homeless or in transition, and Dan has long been active with the Toys for Kids program of Mariners radio voice Rick Rizzs and other charities.

But taking on the United Way co-chair positions?

"This is probably the most concentrated commitment, for sure," he said. "But I love that it's dealing with things that are right here for people in the community. Fall is probably the busiest time, so I'd say we're out talking to groups 3-4 times a week. But every time we go, we're energized by the excitement and how supportive people are."

The Wilsons said they've been surprised to learn how many volunteer programs United Way offers, and the key is matching people with their passions. Dan said he likes numbers, so he's been attracted to programs where volunteers help families in need with their tax returns or college loan applications. Annie, meanwhile, is excited about a community gardens project to reduce hunger and a parent-child home program to help better prepare underprivileged kids to begin school so they don't start at a disadvantage.

And, of course, there is the critical issue of fundraising for all of United Way's programs and the goal of raising $111 million this year in King County. That means a lot of pitching for the former catcher. But he said it helps to come from a place where giving is expected.

"I can't tell you how exciting it is to get in front of other organizations and say that we're from the Seattle Mariners and they place a high value in giving back to the community and they back that with 100-percent participation," Wilson said. "That makes me really proud."

And, of course, when Wilson speaks, people listen. It never hurts to have a few baseball tales to tell, especially when the man doing the talking is one of the most respected Mariners of all time. But Wilson weaves his past with his present goal, which is pretty simple: raising awareness and funds for a cause he and his wife believe can make a difference in the lives of people who need it.

"When Rich Amaral was playing here, he had this saying that today is the biggest game of the year," Wilson recalled. "During baseball season, when it's July 23 and you're playing your 100th game of the year, you have to think it's the biggest game of the year. Not yesterday, not tomorrow, but today.

"And when I think about what we're doing now in terms of the community, there are people where today is their biggest day of the year. Putting food on their table or having a place to stay is the biggest part of their life today. And if we can help with that, we need to do it."

Seattle Mariners