Matt Stillwell knew he created a bond with a baseball legend before the song had ended.It was 2015 at the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation gala and Stillwell, a former college infielder/outfielder and now emerging independent country singer-songwriter, strummed his guitar and sang his heart-rending personal tribute song, "Hey Dad." A
Matt Stillwell knew he created a bond with a baseball legend before the song had ended.
It was 2015 at the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation gala and Stillwell, a former college infielder/outfielder and now emerging independent country singer-songwriter, strummed his guitar and sang his heart-rending personal tribute song, "Hey Dad." A video accompaniment of the late longtime coach and manager and famous baseball father played on a large screen behind him.
"I sang that song, and Cal [Jr.] was sitting there with his mom and those amazing blue eyes staring at me," Stillwell says. "It was kind of tough to do."
But the moment became so much more.
Soon enough, Stillwell was hearing from Cal Ripken Jr. about how much the song meant to the Hall of Famer, who lost his father in 1999. And soon enough, Stillwell was touring around the country not only playing music for a living but making peoples' lives better via the Ripken Foundation's "Badges For Baseball" program.
The Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, according to its mission statement, "helps to build character and teach critical life lessons to at-risk young people living in America's most distressed communities."
Since its inception in 2003, Badges For Baseball has taken that sentiment directly to those communities, with former Major League players, local police officers, and even a fun-loving country singer from the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina showing up at baseball fields and hosting hundreds of kids for a day of instruction and education.
The idea is for kids to have fun learning about a great game while also seeing that police officers are kind, understanding and easy to get along with and should not be feared. The results have been phenomenal.
In 2016, Badges for Baseball ran in 372 communities in 18 states, impacting over 28,837 at-risk youth with the help of 1,620 law enforcement officers and other professional youth mentors. This year it's been even better, with stops along Stillwell's tour at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Busch Stadium in St. Louis and Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.
This July, Stillwell and the Badges gang will be at Target Field in Minneapolis and tour stops will be added at the homes of the Colorado Rockies, Texas Rangers, Houston Astros and Kansas City Royals as this season goes on.
"Just explaining the program and its impact gives me chills," says Stillwell, who grew up in Sylva, N.C., and played baseball at Western Carolina University before deciding his guitar would get him farther than his bat.
"I knew kids would have a great time. The thing I didn't know was that the cops have a good time, too. It turns out it's as relaxing for them as it is for the kids. It works both ways."
"What I try to talk about is the dreaming aspect of this. As a kid I stayed awake and dreamed about baseball. I opened the Easton catalog, looking over cleats and bats, and I couldn't sleep at night. That passion translated to music. So I tell kids that you can dream, and if you're willing to work hard at it, you can do something."
Stillwell's dreams are paying off. His debut single, "Shine", hit Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart in 2008, and "Ignition" peaked at number 52 on the same chart in 2012. "Hey Dad" has taken off on video as well, and Stillwell has a sponsorship with Budweiser and friendships with NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick and celebrity chef Guy Fieri that are leading to even more opportunities.
Stillwell co-hosted an episode of Fieri's popular "Diners, Dives and Drive-Ins" TV show, for example, and debuted "I've Still Got Your Heart" on the program. That single should be part of an upcoming EP or album from a batch of new songs that Stillwell's excited about.
But as a husband to Lindsey and dad to 4-year-old Ruby and 5-year-old Carolina, life on the road always hits home for Stillwell.
When Badges For Baseball hit Los Angeles, Stillwell sang the National Anthem at Dodger Stadium on Corey Seager bobblehead night. Back at home, little Carolina Stillwell watched her dad and asked her mom, for the first time, "Does Daddy go around the world and sing his songs for people? Is that what Daddy does?"
That's when Stillwell had another epiphany in a summer seemingly filled with them.
"I felt a bit guilty because I wasn't home with my daughters, but I also felt pride in that moment that what we're doing with Badges, helping kids, is somehow tied into who I am as a daddy," Stillwell says. "It was a powerful moment."
Stillwell will keep playing music and playing baseball. He's a regular at Cardinals fantasy camp and has become friendly with St. Louis legends Ozzie Smith and Vince Coleman. Former Cardinals pitchers Dave LaPoint and Danny Cox and outfielder Bernard Gilkey are big Badges supporters, and the momentum is growing with each city stop.
"We're actually doing something about it," Stillwell says of how the Badges program bridges the gap between kids and cops. "We're not just talking about it.
"That makes me proud. You want to get something done, you just go do it."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB.