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Giving spirit runs strong through Rays organization

Players, coaches get heads shaved to help raise awareness for pediatric cancer @RichardJustice

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Sometimes, it's about way more than baseball, and so on a sun-splashed Sunday morning, there was Rays manager Joe Maddon sitting cross-legged on a deck beyond the left-field fence as two 5-year-old cancer patients, Ava and Charlie, gave him a dandy buzz cut.

Seeing the look of delight on those little faces and hearing their parents thanking HIM for the experience moved Tampa Bay's manager. Amid the fun was a reminder that plenty of good can come from just a little bit of effort.

"It really smacks you," Maddon said later. "It really hits home. Any little thing we can do as an organization to help, we're very happy to do something."

Maddon was one of about 70 Rays executives, players, staffers and coaches who had their hair cut off as part of the club's third annual fundraising effort for pediatric cancer. Owner Stuart Sternberg eventually got his turn in one of the chairs, and so did team president Matt Silverman, general manager Andrew Friedman, third baseman Evan Longoria, second baseman Ben Zobrist and a long list of others.

Along the way, they all laughed some and teased one another some. When they were done, they hung around to greet cancer patients, sign autographs and have one of those mornings they'll probably remember forever.

Events like this one reflect what the Rays attempt to stand for. Since Sternberg became the team's principal owner in 2005, the Rays arguably have been baseball's smartest, most efficiently run team. But they also have a mantra beyond winning games.

"One of the things that truly attracted me to Major League Baseball is that we can do some good and lift everybody's boats a little bit," Sternberg said.

Tampa Bay is one of baseball's model organizations in this regard, too. Every team does a mountain of charity work, with Commissioner Bud Selig's frequent declaration that the sport is a "social institution."

Here are some of the ways the Rays attempt to fulfill that mandate:

• Employees are given a paid day off each month to do charitable work. In 2013, they logged over 4,000 volunteer hours in support of nonprofits in the Tampa Bay community.

• Players signing long-term contracts are asked to make a commitment to the Rays Baseball Foundation, which has contributed $3 million to various community events, primarily in education programs, the last six years.

• Employee charitable contributions are matched and multiplied by the franchise.

• Sternberg has funded the building of playgrounds and refurbishing of fields every year of his ownership.

• Pitchers David Price and Matt Moore and center fielder Desmond Jennings each adopted two to three recreation centers to support.

There are countless other efforts of all shapes and sizes. For instance, Maddon recently did a Skype interview with a group of Tampa high school journalism students.

Maddon said such works matter on several levels. One is that he believes his club is more relaxed and plays better when there's an actual relationship between players and fans. Another is that it's the right thing to do.

As Longoria said, "Well, the community gives back to us. They give us really the most important thing a baseball franchise can have. That's their support. Their fanfare and attendance. Everything that a baseball team needs to survive. When we have the opportunity to give back, it seems very small in comparison. When you have those opportunities to give back, whether one guy thinks it's important or the whole group, we all get on board."

Sternberg said a charitable attitude was part of his upbringing in corporate America.

"The partnership I was part of for many years on Wall Street, it was ingrained in me," he said. "We used to give five percent of our earnings to charity each year. It had to hit the streets. We had to distribute it to charity. We had time allotted to go out into the community and work each year. I learned this in my 20s. It was part of who I am and how I was brought up in the business world. What was told to me is the more you give, the better you feel. That's been the same here."

All the work seems to have created a closer relationship between team and community. Although Tampa Bay has struggled to draw fans at Tropicana Field and the club is hoping to construct a state-of-the-art ballpark in a more central location, there has been a benefit.

As the Rays have become consistent winners, their television ratings have climbed into the Top 10 in the entire sport. Some of that comes with winning and having baseball's most recognizable manager in Maddon and two superstars in Longoria and Price.

But part of it surely is the club being a constant presence in the community and a symbol for attempting to do good.

"I do think baseball lends itself to community involvement," Sternberg said. "You see the players' faces on a daily basis. It's a long season, and baseball is a much more personal game. I think our players get what we're trying to do, and they enjoy it."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

Tampa Bay Rays