VerHagen reflects on bringing joy to kids in Honduras
Tigers pitcher threw Wiffle balls to children as part of five-day mission trip
Tigers pitchers will report to Spring Training in less than two months, each with a different story about his offseason workout routine and how it prepared him to compete for the season ahead. Many will have been long-tossing for weeks. Some will have thrown off a mound several times already. Drew VerHagen will have a little different story to tell.
For a few days in November, VerHagen threw Wiffle balls to kids in Honduras. It will make no difference in his effort to crack the Tigers' bullpen once and for all in 2016. It will have a profound effect on the rest of his life.
As he finished up his holiday shopping and prepared for Christmas with family and friends at home in Texas, it was still fresh in his mind.
"It was refreshing to see how happy the kids were and how much happiness playing a simple game brought to them," VerHagen said of his mission trip. "These days we would bring just a Wiffle ball and a bat and they'd be happy.
"None of the kids had video games or iPads or cell phones. A normal day for them would just be finding things to do outside. The thing that stuck with me the most was the look on the kids' faces when we would show up. We just played games all day, [we'd] hop on a bus and go from village to village and see different kids. We spent a lot of time with the kids, visiting with their families."
It was a five-day mission trip to the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula and nearby town of El Progreso, organized through VerHagen's agents at Icon Sports and sponsored by charitable non-profits Hearts 2 Honduras and Pastime Youth Academies. The 10-player group included Mets rookie Steven Matz, Angels hurler Andrew Heaney, Yankees prospect Ty Hensley and others.
The mission began last year with the construction of a learning center. VerHagen missed that trip due to a scheduling conflict, but he had a chance to see the results of the work this year with the finished facility welcoming students. They also brought gear -- Nike backpacks from Matz and Heaney, New Balance shoes from VerHagen -- to a country where reportedly 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
VerHagen knew nothing about Honduras other than reading about last year's trip. What he found once he arrived was a simple life -- dirt roads leading to small homes, some without electricity, let alone Internet access. Crime was a major concern.
"The restaurants we would go to were open-air. The walls usually weren't closed," VerHagen said. "[There were] a lot of people on bikes. A lot of people walking. The cars were obviously really old and run down.
"It was definitely a different experience, unlike anything I'd seen. But it was gorgeous. The landscape was really, really pretty."
Their bus took them to a different locale each day -- some that had been part of last year's trip, some that had not. VerHagen could guess which by the way the kids reacted to a bat and ball.
"There were some that, at least from their expressions, had never seen a bat or a ball," he said. "Other ones would pick up the bat and had the purest swings you'd ever seen. I think in one of the villages in particular, the guys from last year taught them the basics. There were still a lot of kids there it was completely new to. It was fun to watch them pick it up and get better and better."
All of the kids wanted to swing the bat. None, VerHagen said, wanted to learn how to pitch. After a while, he had to throw underhand to not tax his arm. They didn't speak much English, but they appreciated players trying to speak scattered words of Spanish that they picked up.
"There were definitely certain kids who just gravitated," VerHagen said. "They wanted to hug you right away. They were so accepting of you coming into their village. To see the innocence in their eyes, they were genuinely happy you were there."
The group made it to a beach on the Caribbean coast, one of the most picturesque beaches VerHagen said he has ever seen. But it's the look on the faces that will stick with him.
"It was hard to leave the kids. They were crying the last day," he said. "But leaving them with bats and balls and some shoes, even if they lose them six months from now, if they can have fun with their friends the next few weeks, it makes it easier. And honestly, it gives you a lot of perspective, coming from the huge stadiums we play in and seeing these kids happy to just play Wiffle ball."