Jeremy Flug founded an organization called Baseball Fantasy Camp for Kids out in Denver in 2008 with the idea of bringing the adult baseball fantasy camp experience to children with special needs. Six years later, he works with nine different major league teams on such camps, but the Pittsburgh Pirates hold a special place in his heart for a few reasons.
First of all, Flug is tight with Clint Hurdle. The two men met when Flug participated in a Colorado Rockies fantasy camp several years ago during Hurdle's stint as the team's hitting coach, and they've been friends ever since. The current Pirates skipper, who is upbeat and positive with everyone he meets, encouraged Flug to move forward with his idea.
"One day I said to Clint, 'Wouldn't it be neat if we could do this for special needs kids?'" Flug recalled. "'These kids are often land locked and don't have that opportunity, but now they could be out there hitting and fielding with their major league heroes and having a blast.' And Clint said, 'Yeah, it sounds like a great idea.'"
A few years later, when Baseball Fantasy Camp for Kids became a reality, Hurdle played a key role in the Rockies becoming the first team to sign up for the program.
"My pitch was that I wanted 50 kids from the Miracle League or Special Olympics," Flug said. "I wanted to get them on the field, I wanted real Majestic jerseys with their names stitched on the back, I wanted big league ballplayers, I wanted balloons, I wanted the mascot -- everything. I wanted to have a working clinic where these kids were hitting off a tee, taking grounders and pitching, catching, having lunch, getting autographs. I wanted a very special experience for these kids who would normally not have this opportunity.
"Clint and the Rockies basically said, 'Okay.' That was six years ago. But Clint Hurdle has been a huge cheerleader. He's been in my corner since day one, and he still is."
After that, Flug phoned the community relations departments of the other 29 major league clubs to let them know about his concept and invite them to participate. The first return call he got was from Pittsburgh, who became the second team to climb on board.
For four straight years now, the Pirates have worked with Flug on a Baseball Fantasy Camp for Kids. The most recent one took place at the Bill Mazeroski Miracle League Field in Murrysville on June 29. A total of 41 youngsters from three Miracle League programs in the region -- Murrysville, South Hills and Wheeling -- participated. Hurdle and Pirates players Jared Hughes, Bryan Morris and Tony Watson served as the instructors. Pirates Chairman Bob Nutting and Frank Coonelly, the team president, were also on hand.
"Pittsburgh has really been a pioneer with this too," Flug said. "Teams like the Pirates do an awful lot in the community and they serve a lot of people. And it's sincere, it's not just PR. Baseball does a great job with that sort of thing and I'm happy to have a small role."
There's something else Pirates related that played a role in Baseball Fantasy Camp for Kids becoming a reality. The story involves Dave Parker, who won batting titles and a National League MVP Award plus was a World Series champion with Pittsburgh in the late 1970s.
Flug was attending an interleague game between the Rockies and the Anaheim Angels at Coors Field in 1997 when he noticed a boy with special needs standing near the visiting dugout desperately trying to get someone in uniform to toss him a souvenir baseball. Wanting to help, Flug yelled to Parker -- who was the Angels' first base coach at the time -- between innings: "Hey Cobra, how about a baseball for my young friend here?"
Shortly afterwards, Parker winked at Flug and rolled two baseballs across the dugout roof and into the hands of the kid, who was of course thrilled.
"I can't tell you what a profound impact that moment had on me," Flug said. "It sounds so simple, but it made me realize what kind of power there exists between major league baseball players and children -- especially kids who are dealing with some major challenges. I left that game thinking, 'How do I build on this?' I wanted to try and bottle it."
Years later, Flug was able to do that with Baseball Fantasy Camp for Kids.
"All you have to do is go to one of these camps and you're hooked," he said. "Some of the parents of these kids say to me, 'You have no idea what you've done.' But I do, and the Pirates do too."