In 2013, Adam Wainwright learned what could happen when he combined his love of fantasy football with his desire to help people.
The longtime Cardinals pitcher had just completed his first Fantasy Football for Charity for his foundation, Big League Impact, founded that year with his brother, Trey. Wainwright saw what more than $110,000, split between two organizations, had done: With Operation Food Search, it filled thousands of backpacks with food for St. Louis-area students to take home on the weekends. With Water Mission, it built a clean water project in Honduras for an entire community.
• All-time Roberto Clemente Award winners
“That one year from one fantasy draft with four tables of 12 people,” Wainwright said. “I just thought, ‘Wow, what a tremendous thing that was.’ It was powerful. If I played all 15 years just for the backpacks or just for the one water project there, that would have been worth it.”
Except Wainwright was just getting started.
What began as fantasy football for charity has developed into impact around the world, and that impact led Wainwright to Monday, when he was announced as the 2020 Roberto Clemente Award winner. The award is considered to be the most prestigious individual player award presented by Major League Baseball. It annually recognizes one player who best represents the sport through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions.
When Wainwright got the phone call that he was the recipient this year, he was driving and “almost ran into an oak tree.”
He needed a moment to collect himself.
“This is the greatest honor of my entire career,” Wainwright said. “Just adds more fuel to the fire. It doesn’t have me stopping anything now.”
Wainwright has been nominated for the award five times and joins five other Cardinals -- Lou Brock (1975), Ozzie Smith (1995), Albert Pujols (2008), Carlos Beltran (2013) and Yadier Molina (2018) -- who have won the award.
“To be mentioned with those guys and guys like [2012 winner] Clayton Kershaw and people who are going out into the world and really on an everyday basis trying to make the world a better place, that’s a very special thing for me, just among my contemporaries, not even including the great legacy that Roberto Clemente left behind,” Wainwright said from his home in Georgia on Monday.
“More than anything, almost more than the great player he was, what you remember about Roberto Clemente was his legacy off the field. As a human being, that means a lot to me, to be associated with a name that was a Hall of Fame, 3,000-hit-type player, but off the field, was even greater than that. I just don’t even think words can describe how big this award is and how important it is.”
Since 2013, Big League Impact and its community have raised over $5.8 million for charitable causes. It constructed Haiti’s Ferrier Village Secondary School and partnered with Water Mission to build a clean water system for the community. The clinic that Wainwright and his wife, Jenny, built in Haiti serves around 200 people daily and is a project that Wainwright calls one of “our coolest crowning achievements.”
“Congratulations to Adam for this well-deserved recognition of his long and meritorious philanthropic efforts in St. Louis, across the United States and around the world,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “The personal and dedicated attention he has given to addressing issues that affect those in greatest need is a wonderful demonstration of Roberto’s humanitarian legacy. He is most deserving to be counted among the recipients of this prestigious honor.”
In Ethiopia, Wainwright’s mission trip led to the purchase of an 11-acre plant that is now the site of a clinic and a dairy and crop farm. Also in Africa, BLI partnered with Crisis Aid International to feed children and to provide aid to help victims of sex trafficking.
The relationship with Crisis Aid also provides weekly meals for 3,000 families in the greatest need, including a local campaign that helps feed 200 families per year in South St. Louis.
A partnership with country musician Garth Brooks and his foundation, Teammates for Kids, came about via Twitter in 2019, and their Home Plate Project has addressed food insecurity around the country. Players from all 30 MLB teams worked with local organizations in each city to distribute food and non-perishables to children in need. It was a huge success, and the project was scheduled for its second launch this fall.
The timetable was accelerated after the coronavirus pandemic hit. Wainwright and Rangers pitcher Kyle Gibson began spreading word in late March to players around the league. At least one player from every team responded, and within two weeks, they had nearly $1 million to distribute, helping to provide more than 4 million meals to kids in need. In St. Louis, $122,250 was distributed to Operation Food Search, Crisis Aid and the St. Louis Area Foodbank, resulting in over 200,000 meals.
“The money is important because that allows us to carry out the work, but beyond the money, it’s really just about his spirit and his willingness to do anything,” said Lucinda Perry Jones, Operation Food Search’s director of strategic initiatives. “He’s pulled in so many different directions, but we’ve found that we can always count on Adam to help when we need it.
“I know that he inspires others that he plays baseball with, he inspires our other donors we have at Operation Food Search, and his enthusiasm for the issue is real and genuine, and that is just what makes him such a joy to work with.”
Fantasy Football for Charity has become an annual event, when fans sign up to play in a league against Wainwright and another Cardinals player. It’s also expanded to several other MLB teams. This year, Wainwright also commissioned a players-only fantasy football league that benefits charity. Thirty-two MLB players played for the charity of their choice, with each round resulting in more money for the winning player’s charity. High point totals and a second-chance bracket provided extra ways to earn.
This is another part of Wainwright’s legacy: his passion for helping other players bring their charitable ideas to life. It started when Wainwright saw the impact of his first clean-water facility.
“When we saw the chocolate water turned into crystal clean water that we can drink, when we realized how powerful that was for us, that made me think, ‘Well gosh, there’s so many baseball players out there who don’t know what that passion is for them,’” Wainwright said. “How can we, at Big League Impact, empower players to experience that same high that I have? That same euphoria of knowing that what I’m doing has meaning. It is the thing that I feel like I play baseball for is to be able to help people like this.
“This is why I feel like I’ve been given this platform; this is why I feel like God made me a baseball player in the first place. So how do I help the next player?”
Cardinals utility player Tommy Edman approached Wainwright early in Spring Training to ask for help getting started in charity work. It was going to be Edman’s second year in the Majors and first as a full-time starter. He and his wife, Kristen, wanted to get involved in the St. Louis community but needed help starting.
“Waino is the man with that,” Edman said.
Wainwright put Edman in touch with Big League Impact, which got Edman signed up for the fantasy football league and helped him with other philanthropic work. The Edmans’ partnership with St. Louis Public Schools was announced in August.
“I didn’t know what charities or where money should be going to, and Adam and I were just kind of talking through a little bit about what our passions were and things that we’re interested in,” Edman said. “You want to get involved with something that you care about. Waino, who has 15 years of experience in that field, is someone who’s perfect for guiding me in the right direction, showing me how I can use my various outlets to raise money in order to get the word out about these charities. Having him there, able to help me out with starting that process, was extremely important. I feel very lucky to be on the same team as him.”
Wainwright is not done with his philanthropic work around the world now that he’s won the Roberto Clemente Award and the trophy that will now find a spot next to his bed, he said Monday. The 39-year-old free agent isn’t done playing baseball, either.
He feels like he’s still just getting started -- on both fronts.
“Part of maturing as a man and a human in this world, and also maturing in my faith, is that understanding as you get going, it’s more about other people than it is about yourself,” Wainwright said. “There’s probably a time you look back and go, ‘Man, I wanted that big contract so I could buy this, this and this.' Now, I’m wanting that next contract so I can help this, this and this. It becomes less about what can I do for me and more about what I can do for others.”
Anne Rogers covers the Royals for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @anne__rogers and on Facebook.