SEATTLE -- He's a little shorter than you'd normally think of Santa Claus. He's not sporting a big, white beard -- or any beard at all -- and his belly certainly doesn't jiggle like a bowl full of jelly. But don't try telling the thousands of homeless and needy children
SEATTLE -- He's a little shorter than you'd normally think of Santa Claus. He's not sporting a big, white beard -- or any beard at all -- and his belly certainly doesn't jiggle like a bowl full of jelly. But don't try telling the thousands of homeless and needy children in the Seattle area that Rick Rizzs isn't some version of Good St. Nick.
For the 23rd consecutive year, the Mariners' broadcaster and his band of merry helpers raised funds -- cracking the half-million dollar mark for the first time in 2018 -- to spread the joy of giving by presenting gifts to children in hospitals, shelters and tough situations around the region through the Toys for Kids charity.
"It's a special feeling when you can feel like you're playing Santa Claus and make sure these kids get a toy at Christmas time," Rizzs said. "These are kids who wouldn't normally get anything. These are kids in need, and it feels good to put a little smile on their face. It's not just a toy. To me, it represents hope that somebody cares about them and their moms."
Rizzs' charity started in 1995 as a grassroots effort with former Mariners outfielder Dave Henderson that raised $18,000 from players on the team to purchase toys for about 400 homeless children at a couple shelters.
Fast-forward 23 years and now Rizzs holds an annual fundraising auction that raised a record $515,000 last November. His charity works with 30 different agencies and buys toys for more than 11,000 children.
While Henderson died three years ago, his spirit lives on in the Dave Henderson Scholarship Program, which this year awarded four $5,000 college scholarships to students who submitted essays on the topic, "How does getting an education make you smile every day?"
Shortly before Christmas, Rizzs will go to the Broadview Women's Shelter and give each homeless mother a $100 bill to spend on the holiday for their kids.
His own reward comes in the smiles he gets in return.
"They get so emotional; it's like we gave them a million dollars," Rizzs said. "It's really amazing the impact you can have in this community with just having an idea and finding the right people."
Rizzs himself still gets emotional talking about the memory of Henderson, who was with him at every charity event each year until he died at age 57 from a heart attack two days after Christmas in 2015.
"He's still with me every step of the way," Rizzs said. "I still have his baseball card in my wallet. He was such a great friend; I miss him like crazy. But he'd be so proud of what we've done and where we've taken this."
Other former players continue stepping up. Dan Wilson, Julio Cruz and others are still active participants. This year, former pitcher Ryan Rowland-Smith, now part of the broadcast team, jumped in for the first time and helped pass out toys at Ronald McDonald House and Harborview Medical Center holiday events.
For Rowland-Smith, who has a 3-year-old daughter and 2-week-old son, the whole experience has been an eye-opener.
"Rick has done so much for me, both as player and broadcaster. I owe him a lot," Rowland-Smith said. "So when he asked if I could hand out toys, I said, 'Absolutely.' It was a lot of fun. You don't honestly realize how big of a deal this stuff is until you have kids of your own. I put my hand up and said, 'Whatever you need, I owe you one. Or a thousand.'"
Rowland-Smith quickly discovered the depth of Rizzs' passion over the past year, attending the fundraising auction, seeing the behind-the-scenes efforts and numerous events as well as the sheer challenge of the purchase and distribution of so many toys.
Much like Santa Claus, it's not a one-day job.
"You think he just rolls in, says a few things at a dinner and calls it good, but for him, it's a 12-month process of work and creating relationships and fundraising," Rowland-Smith said. "He has such a positive impact on people when he just walks into a room. It's amazing what he does. He could be a recluse in the offseason and just take time off for himself, but he's so busy. He's on the front line with all this stuff."
Rizzs said the Seattle area is filled with people who want to help others, they just need to know where to give or how to contribute. It's also filled with an increasing number of people who need a helping hand, a reason for hope or just a chance to smile at Christmas time.
"We're all Santa Claus, and it makes us all feel good," Rizzs said. "We see the impact, and that's why everybody keeps striving to do more. As long as I'm living, we'll keep doing this."
Anyone who'd like to donate to Rizzs' efforts can do so at www.rickstoysforkids.org.
Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.