On Jan. 10, the Saint Leo baseball team will have its first practice of the year.
Players will run drills, hit, catch and field the ball in anticipation of a new season.
They’ll also shave their heads. Just like last season.
It’s not a fashion statement.
It’s a celebration of their off-season project, which is raising money for the Vs. Cancer Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises funds to fight cancers that impact children.
Saint Leo is one of many college and high school baseball programs, as well as other sports teams from around the country, that donate to the cause.
The players solicit donations on social media, collecting money for several weeks before the start of their season.
Saint Leo coach Sean O’ Connor was contacted before last season by foundation CEO Chase Jones, a former college baseball player who was diagnosed with stage IV brain cancer at 18 years old.
Now cancer free, Jones founded the Vs. Cancer Foundation and reaches out to sports teams to help raise money for the cause.
O’ Connor was impressed with the story and wanted to help.
“I thought it was something we should do, and it was something we should be a part of,” he said.
But, he didn’t make it mandatory. If a player wanted to help, he was welcome to do so, but it wouldn’t be forced on anyone. And, he didn’t want them simply donating the money themselves, or hitting up their families for large contributions. Instead, they would reach out through their social media profiles and get the community to help.
While it wasn’t a team requirement, it became a popular cause. Around 90 percent of the team participated last year, raising $3,200 for the foundation. The success didn’t surprise O’ Connor, who played baseball at Saint Leo when he was a student athlete. Charitable giving and community support isn’t just a characteristic of O’ Connor or the baseball team. It’s part of the university culture.
“I think it’s a Saint Leo thing, to tell you the truth. I think a lot of our teams do the same thing,” he said. “I think it’s something we do here, and we do it pretty well.”
So well in fact, that the baseball team has upped its goal for the current campaign. It is looking at raising $5,000 this time around, and it is off to a good start. In the first week of fundraising, the team collected around $700. That puts the overall goal well within reach before Jan. 10.
This season, the team will take a trip to visit a children’s hospital in St. Petersburg that benefits from the funds, and it is starting it fundraising efforts earlier than last year.
While raising money to fight cancer doesn’t log any runs or pitch any strikes, O’ Connor believes it’s good for the team as a whole. And, since the team won 36 games last season (their third straight season with at least 30 victories) it’s a positive for morale as well.
“I think the kids feel good about themselves. I think it’s certainly something that they come together and do,” he said. “It gives them a sense of purpose.”
It will also give them new haircuts at the first practice. Lesa Walley and the Regency Beauty Institute in Carrollwood donate their time to come out and perform the cuts, which also aren’t mandatory on the team.
Still, the vast majority of players participate, even if a shaved head isn’t their normal style.
The coach participates, too.
“I was freaked out last year about shaving my head,” O’ Connor admits.
That’s because he had never done it before.
But, he joined the athletes, and in addition to finding a cause the baseball team can get behind, he found a new style as well.
“I’ve shaved it numerous times since last year,” O’Connor said. “Now, I really like it.”
For more information or to make a donation, visit Team.Vs-Cancer.org/SaintLeo.
Published December 23, 2015