California Strong: Athletes gather to uplift areas hit hard by recent tragedies

Tim BrownMLB columnist
Yahoo Sports
Cleveland Browns quarterback <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/30971/" data-ylk="slk:Baker Mayfield">Baker Mayfield</a> joined the celebrity softball game hosted by co-founder <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/players/9320/" data-ylk="slk:Christian Yelich">Christian Yelich</a> (right) in Malibu on Sunday. (California Strong/Instagram)
Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield joined the celebrity softball game hosted by co-founder Christian Yelich (right) in Malibu on Sunday. (California Strong/Instagram)

MALIBU, Calif. – The red-orange glow appeared in the west, from across the Santa Monica Bay, when the drama on television showed itself in my bedroom window. I imagined the people below the flames – the little boys and girls herded to the cars, the shivering animals, then the men and women steering trucks not away from the blaze but into it. I wondered how bad it would get, how many people might perish, how many lives would be changed, how much would be gone by morning.

Who’s to say, then, why, in significant times, insignificant things come to mind.

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There’s a Little League field on a bluff across from Pepperdine University. From Pacific Coast Highway, it looks like a beefy kid could hit a ball into the ocean, easy. The field is wrapped in chain-link. The foul poles are yellow. There’s a blue building, probably a snack bar. That’s all that is obvious from the highway. The rest is an idea, that there are kids who grow up playing on that field, positioning themselves with sounds of the palm trees, muscling fly balls into those breezes, lowering their helmet brims against the setting sun.

I hoped that little, beautiful field would be OK, too. The people, the animals, the homes, tomorrow, that they’d all be OK. And that little field I’d never stepped foot on, too.

So much of it, of course, wasn’t.

Not in Malibu. Not in Thousand Oaks, a town that had just endured a mass shooting. Not in Oak Park. Not in Agoura Hills. Not in Westlake. Those were the Woolsey and Hill fires. Not up north, in Paradise, in the Camp Fire.

Which is why I was in Malibu on Sunday morning, for the California Strong Celebrity Softball Game, an event hosted by Christian Yelich, Ryan Braun and Mike Moustakas. Already the organization – California Strong – had, with the local YMCA, raised a half-million dollars for those affected. An afternoon at Pepperdine, with fellow professional athletes, actors, models, singers and media personalities, overflowed with hearty people and difficult memories in the small ballpark.

To see former big leaguer Derrek Lee, evacuated from his Malibu home on Nov. 9. It will be another two months, at least, until the house is livable again. To see former NBA player Don McLean, evacuated from his home in Westlake at 1 o’clock one morning. Braun was evacuated from his house in Malibu, as well. To see, hell, Charlie Sheen or Adam Sandler or Baker Mayfield or Reggie Miller or Justin Turner or Brad Paisley, to wear their Brewers jerseys, their Dodgers jerseys, their Rams jerseys.

They did not organize or attend a softball game so they could tell their stories, but to raise money and awareness for the victims of the fires and shooting, to deliver checks, to promise more for those who need it today, who might need it tomorrow. They came to comfort and assist the folks who escaped. To remember those who didn’t. Maybe to remind themselves there’s a world out there that needs them. That needs good people. They came to stand in their communities.

The homes, the lives, the memories, they all look the same at the end of a push broom. Mourned, swept into a heap, released to tomorrow’s wind. Life starts again, if you’re lucky, at least the parts about warmth and security. Once, their hair smelled of smoke and their feet were stained by ash, the ambulance lights colored their faces, the terrible news did not yield. The President threatened to choke off government assistance, while gone were the neighborhoods of Paradise and mobile home parks of Malibu, the stores and parks and rehab facilities and the places where they went to sit and forget about everything for a while. Gone were mothers and fathers and friends, a generation missing from an entire town, the presumed innocence swept from suburbia, and what’s left is a friendly hand up, a memory of those who deserved better, a lot of sympathy, some empathy.

Braun and Lee drove together through the police lines, first to Lee’s house and then to Braun’s.

“It was emotional,” Braun said. “It was heartbreaking. A really difficult experience. Seeing what it had left, and what was left for friends and family members, their lives would be impacted forever.”

Lee stood Sunday with his son, Dylan. The family – Derrek also has three daughters – awoke one morning to news they might have to evacuate, because of the coming fire. Ten minutes later, the evacuation was mandatory. They packed for the weekend.

“I took my World Series ring,” Derrek said with a grin.

Derrek’s wife gathered some photos of the wedding and of the kids.

“It doesn’t happen, right?” Derrek said. “It happens on the news.”

The Lees will be fine. They’ll be in their house again. They’ll pay their bills. Not everyone will.

“Like, where do you start if it’s all gone?” he said.

McLean’s mother lived about a block from the bar shooting. Twenty-four hours later, McLean and his family were chased away by the flames.

“The images will never leave my mind,” he said. “You can’t believe it’s happening. But it does, and what are you going to do? To get hit back-to-back like that, that’s the part that shocked everybody. Shootings don’t happen in Thousand Oaks. And the next day the town is burning down.”

So, a few of them, then dozens of them, came together. For people they don’t know, but understand. For communities they perhaps have never seen, but feel for. For the next person, the next community, the next crisis.

“We didn’t know how to help or what to do,” Yelich said. “But we thought we could help in any way they need it, big or small.”

Sheen raised his eyebrows and said, “Hey, when you get the call personally from Christian Yelich and from Ryan Braun, and then when they explain what it’s all about … ”

You drive to Malibu on a Sunday.

And on the way home on PCH, maybe you make that turn into that driveway, the one you never had the time to investigate before. Never took the time to investigate. At the end of the drive, on a chilly and gray day, wrapped in gray fence, a lovely green baseball field. Yellow foul poles. A blue snack bar. A breeze from left field. That’d have to be a big fella to get it all the way to the ocean.

But, it was OK. It’s perfect. And I guess that’s something.

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