Rays left-hander Ryan Yarbrough and his wife, Nicole, don’t seek out attention for their work in the community. What they’ve done to give back, especially last year, simply comes from a desire to help others.
But Yarbrough was recognized for his efforts on Tuesday, when he was named the Rays’ nominee for the annual Roberto Clemente Award. The Clemente Award, originally named the Commissioner’s Award before being renamed for Clemente in 1973 after his tragic death, is given annually to a Major League player who demonstrates the character and community involvement of the Pirates’ Hall of Fame right fielder and humanitarian.
Each club nominates one player for the award, with the winner announced during the World Series. Yarbrough and the 29 other nominees -- including Rays DH Nelson Cruz, the Twins’ nominee -- will be recognized on Wednesday, the 20th annual Roberto Clemente Day.
This year, all Clemente Award nominees and previous award winners will have the option to wear Clemente’s iconic No. 21 on their uniforms on Clemente Day. Yarbrough, Cruz and third-base coach Rodney Linares will wear “21” jerseys for Tampa Bay’s series finale in Toronto on Wednesday.
“I'm extremely honored,” Yarbrough said. “Honestly, it kind of caught me off-guard because I know, at least for the things that my wife and I do around the community, it just felt like something that we wanted to do just to be a part of the community and help out in any way possible, especially with all the things going on.
“It's not something that you're just looking for, this award, like [it's not] the reason you do these things, but it's definitely a privilege.”
Last year, Yarbrough and Nicole found ways to serve the local community and stay engaged with Rays fans throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. They donated a collection of school supplies, hygiene products, clothing and food to Campbell Park Elementary and partnered with Buddy Brew Coffee in Tampa to deliver coffee and pastries to the St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital critical care unit early on in the pandemic.
“It was more of just a gesture on our end, like, ‘Hey, thank you guys for all you're doing,’ because this was at the very beginning of pandemic,” Yarbrough said. “We were just going to drop it off, and the amount of people who kind of came out and said thank you and everything, just for that kind gesture, was pretty incredible. … It was just a really cool experience. The little things like that seem to go a long way, and I feel like that's overlooked.”
During the pandemic, Yarbrough also continued his work with the popular “Reading with the Rays” program, which promotes summer reading. In previous years, he made regular appearances to read at libraries and Boys & Girls Clubs. Still recognizing the need and importance to encourage kids to read, Yarbrough recorded videos from home and posted them online, urging participation in the program and 24 hours of summer reading. After seeing the success of those videos, Yarbrough recorded more this year and challenged kids to keep reading in exchange for tickets to a Rays game this season.
After the Rays’ run to the World Series last year, the left-hander held a 12-day holiday giveaway on Instagram, offering prizes (like jerseys and signed baseballs) to those who submitted the top response to the day’s question. Yarbrough came up with the idea while thinking of ways to engage with fans after a season without them in the stands.
Yarbrough and Nicole also participate in “Rays on the Runway,” an event that raises funds in support of children with life-threatening illnesses. Additionally, Yarbrough volunteers for a number of organizations that seek to serve the homeless and end youth homelessness. He helps provide meals, toiletries and haircuts with “We Serve St. Pete” and supports the nonprofit “Starting Right, Now” with apparel and toiletries.
Yarbrough has chosen the Boys & Girls Club of the Suncoast to receive MLB’s $7,500 donation and will match that with his own $7,500 donation to the Boys & Girls Club of Tampa Bay. He is also providing 50 backpacks, 25 for each Boys & Girls Club, with school supplies and Rays items in each one.
As a Tampa resident who grew up (as a Rays fan) in Lakeland, Fla., Yarbrough said he and Nicole “take a lot of pride in helping out any way possible and using the platform we have to do that.” It’s that spirit that makes Yarbrough a deserving first-time Clemente Award nominee.
“Both of our parents, I feel, instilled that in us to just help people in need,” he said. “We're going to try and do more and more as I'm able to keep playing."