Since boyhood, he’s dug deep. Dirt then. Dirt now. Holes and hills at home and abroad — all of it connected by baseball.
Not long ago, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright stepped atop some of his favorite soil. It’s now just a mud patch in his former Georgia backyard. But it’s where so much began.
There, decades ago, two brothers hacked below the grass, beneath the gray dust, way down to the good, brown stuff. They couldn’t afford clay. So they pulled up the dark dirt, using it to build a pitching mound. Nearby, they hung a netted backstop and a rope to mark the strike zone. Trey Wainwright was the older brother by seven years, and a father figure to Adam. Their homemade bullpen became a field of lessons.
“He taught me how to play baseball. He taught me everything,” said Adam Wainwright, who grew up without a dad at home.
The net still hangs. Weather washed the old mound into a nostalgic footprint. But since 2006, Wainwright has dominated dozens of Major League mounds. And on Wednesday, near the mound at Seattle’s Safeco Field, he received the 51st annual Hutch Award.
The honor is presented annually to the big-league player who best exemplifies the fighting spirit and competitive desire of the late pitcher and manger, Fred Hutchinson, whose name and game inspired a cancer science hub. Over the past 16 years, the Hutch Award Luncheon has raised gross proceeds of more than $4.8 million to support Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
“I have some very good friends who have won this award,” said Wainwright, 34. “Dave Dravecky (the 1989 recipient) and I are very close. Dave’s story is as inspiring as anybody’s I’ve ever heard. He was telling me how cool this award is. I did some research and was totally flattered by this.
“I couldn’t believe it, actually.”
In the years after Trey originally taught him the art of the pitch, Wainwright has twice led the National League in wins and innings. His 1,326 career strikeouts through the 2015 season are second only to Bob Gibson in Cardinals franchise history.
Off the field, the brothers still team up, now for often deeper reasons. In 2013, Adam and Trey, a corporate lawyer in Atlanta, founded Big League Impact, Inc. The nonprofit raises money to buy and supply food, clean water, medical care, and shelter to communities in need.
By arranging fantasy football leagues that pair everyday fans around the country with ballplayers like Wainwright, Max Scherzer, and Clayton Kershaw, plus retired football stars Marshall Faulk and Kurt Warner, Big League Impact has generated more than $1 million for charity in three years.
Some of that money has paid for the installation of three water systems in Honduras to help about 15,000 people drink and bathe safely for the first time in their lives, Wainwright said.
For this, Wainwright got his hands dirty again.
“Last year, we were able to put a water system into Coyoles Aldea, Honduras. It’s a community of 1,500 people on the side of this hill. We put this big water project on top of this hill and then put 21 caps all throughout the community down the hill, so it flowed down through,” Wainwright said.
In other Central American villages without modern supplies, drinking water is often pulled from rivers where people wash and animals defecate.
“That water looks like chocolate milk with animal feces in it, floating with cholera. We’ll take that gross water and turn it into crystal-clean water,” said Wainwright, who partners in that work with the nonprofit Water Mission.
“I went to Honduras last year for four days to visit and I drank that water for four days nonstop,” Wainwright said. “We’ve donated to three communities there. We’ve essentially eliminated waterborne illnesses in those communities.”
A second foundation that Wainwright launched with his wife, Jenny, is called 25:35, based on the Bible verse from Matthew that teaches of providing food, drink, clothing, shelter, and medicine to the poor and of visits to the incarcerated. His humanitarian sweat is getting noticed by other ballplayers.
“I love hearing about players who give back,” said Carlton Fisk, a baseball Hall of Famer who keynoted the Hutch Award Luncheon. “He is doing great work, but I am sure he does it not because he wants to receive awards but because of the way one feels inside when you help others.”
The retired catcher knows the thrill. Since his playing days with the Chicago White Sox in the early 1990s, Fisk has volunteered for the Cancer Support Center in Illinois. He was inspired to join after losing a friend to stomach cancer. Since then, Fisk has survived prostate and skin cancers, he said.
“You know, you sort of go on living your life not thinking it could someday happen to you,” Fisk said. “But cancer doesn’t discriminate. … It made me realize how important the time that everyone gives to cause really is.”
Some Hutch Award winners have survived cancer, including Jon Lester (2008) and Dravecky, who had his pitching arm amputated due to a cancerous mass.
One recipient excelled in the game after enduring an unimaginable loss of another kind. In 1977, the wife and daughter of Cleveland Indians slugger Andre Thornton were killed in a car accident. Thornton relied on his faith, he said, to persevere personally and professionally, later blasting more than 30 homeruns in 1978, 1982, and 1984.
“God has a way of restoring us and healing us,” said Thornton, who received the Hutch Award in 1982. Now remarried, he planned to attend the luncheon with his wife, Gail.
Thornton, who heads a supply-chain solutions company in Ohio, is one of many former honorees who vote to pick the latest Hutch Award winners.
“To see a young man like Adam be able to give back, to share, to understand he is in a very unique position to do some very unique things, to me, this speaks volumes about him,” Thornton said.
For Wainwright, there is urgency to deliver more aid to the needy — like the mosquito netting he’s helped supply to people in Africa to stop the spread of malaria, or the meals he’s helped distribute to nearly 29,000 people in St. Louis through Operation Food Search.
“The life we spend on this Earth is so finite. The time is precious and we shouldn’t waste it,” Wainwright said.
“To be blessed with the funds that we’re blessed with for playing baseball is absurd, but once you start giving, you can’t stop. There’s a certain joy that comes with that you can’t replicate anywhere else.”
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Bill Briggs is a former Fred Hutch News Service staff writer. Follow him at @writerdude. Previously, he was a contributing writer for NBCNews.com and TODAY.com, covering breaking news, health and the military. Prior, he was a staff writer for The Denver Post, part of the newspaper's team that earned the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Columbine High School massacre. He has authored two books, including "The Third Miracle: an Ordinary Man, a medical Mystery, and a Trial of Faith."