A home run
In about two months, the first cries of "Play Ball" will fill the air at Coca Cola Park, the aroma of grilled hotdogs, burgers and fries will beckon the hungry and a chilled beverage will refresh the thirsty when the gates open April 10 for the 2013 Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs season.
Yes, it's the time of year when fans' thoughts begin to turn toward America's favorite pastime.
It was all about the Phillies, the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs and, more specifically, Iron Pigs Charities on a recent sub-freezing night.
A sold-out crowd of 1,100, including fans, corporate partners and guests, soldiered through arctic-like temperatures Jan. 24 to celebrate the hometown team's charitable foundation at the fifth annual Phillies Winter Banquet at the Sands Bethlehem Events Center.
The gala event, now in its fifth year, is the unofficial prelude to baseball's spring training season for area baseball fans. It provides an opportunity to hear guest speakers from the Phillies organization discuss the upcoming season. It is also a celebration of the continued work Iron Pigs Charities does throughout the year to better lives in the local region.
After being held in previous years at the Holiday Inn Fogelsville and, more recently, DeSales University Billera Hall, the event was moved to the Sands Bethlehem Event Center to accommodate a larger crowd. The move proved successful as the maximum capacity was increased from 875 to 1,100. This year's event was presented by The Air Products Foundation, Coca-Cola and the Lehigh Valley Health Network.
"It's a fantastic venue we're very fortunate to come to the Sands Event Center. We've been growing each year and to come here now with 1,100 people, the energy in the room is absolutely tremendous," said Kurt Landes, Iron Pigs General Manager and Board President of Iron Pigs Charities.
"It's a great lineup with Charlie [Manuel] and Ruben [Amaro, Jr.], plus two former Iron Pigs players who had just amazing years last year with the Phillies. I think everyone's just excited and anxious for baseball.
"The best part about tonight, personally, will be later when we hand out checks, just over $85,000 to 20 different organizations that we raise money year-round for through Iron Pigs Charities. That's the fruits of our labor," Landes said.
Planning for the event begins each year in May, according to Sarah Marten, Director of Community Relations for the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs. Marten's full-time position involves community outreach, planning events and fundraising activities and along with the board of directors of Iron Pigs Charities, determining grant recipients.
The track record of Iron Pigs Charities keep high profile guests like Charlie Manuel, the Philadelphia Phillies Manager, and Ruben Amaro, Jr., GM and Vice President of the Phillies, returning year after year.
"I think it's great that they do these things to help out people in need," said Steve Noworyta, Phillies Assistant Director of Player Involvement. "Whatever it takes for anybody, they [Iron Pigs Charities] always seem to be there for them.
"We [Phillies organization] enjoy our relationship with the Lehigh Valley. The money they raise and what they do for the charity, I think it's great. It's nice to see Charlie Manuel and some of the former [Iron Pigs] players come out and the young kids getting a chance to see the Phanatic and all that. It's a wonderful evening," Noworyta said.
Proceeds from the $80 a plate banquet went to Iron Pigs Charities as did money raised during the silent auctions at the benefit. This year, bidding for the silent auction of 120 items included online bidding for those not attending.
Since its inception in 2007, Iron Pigs Charities has raised more than $550,000 for Lehigh Valley nonprofits. In addition to the Winter Banquet, the Iron Pigs raise funds through memorabilia auctions and raffles during the regular season and other events, such as last year's first 5k run at Coca Cola Park.
The Iron Pigs front office staff and players also volunteer hours of their time year-round. This past summer, Iron Pigs Charities logged 547 volunteer hours and received the 2012 Spirit of Volunteerism award from the Volunteer Center of the Lehigh Valley.
Also, through a ticket donation program, season-ticket holders can designate their unused seats for distribution to non-profits. This program enables children who might otherwise be unable to attend an Iron Pigs game an opportunity to do so.
"I love getting involved in the community," said incoming Iron Pigs Manager Dave Brundage. "I think it's very important. I've been in this game [baseball] 27 years and certainly you want to make sure that you give something back. If we are able to affect a child's life and help out, it's everything in the world."
Said infielder Kevin Frandsen, who played for the Iron Pigs in 2011 and 2012 before being called up to the Phillies, "The people in Lehigh [Valley], the fans coming out, everyone supports the Iron Pig charity.
"I've been on many minor league teams and no minor league team does it like this as far as reaching out to the community and doing stuff where it's not forced upon, but where it's presented [in a way] where you want to do it and it's awesome.
"So many guys and so many players get involved; I think that speaks loud enough. Players want to do it here because there's so many good things that accompany it and that come about with it," Frandsen said.
"The Iron Pigs obviously have a huge following," added Phillies catcher and former Iron Pig Erik Kratz. "To build on top of that the support of the community to the charity, I think it just shows what the Iron Pigs have really done in this community in what I think is a short amount of time.
"The charities have been very well-funded through anything from jersey sales to autographed items, to this event. To have this many people come out [and] to have this event sold out, I think it shows what kind of community this is, how the community wants to support the team and to support the charity the team is involved in," said Kratz.
"Obviously, it's [Iron Pigs Charities] a very, very important part of what we [the Philadelphia Phillies organization] are trying to do," said Ruben Amaro, Jr. "We started a program last year to try to get these young men [the players] more involved in charities.
"At the big league level we have a great group of players who really take it [charitable work] to heart. It's very important for us to have not just good players, but good people and hopefully we can continue to contribute and to be a part of Lehigh Valley's Iron Pigs Charities," Amaro said.