NEW YORK -- The lights dimmed. The monitors ringing the grand ballroom of the Times Square hotel brightened with images of the 2005 season, to the soundtrack of baseball's newest upbeat anthem, Bon Jovi's "Have A Nice Day." The musical choice was an ironic overture for the 17th Annual Baseball Assistance Dinner. Because B.A.T. is all about former and current players who rarely have a nice day. The support organization, baseball's guardian angel, is moved to brighten the days of members of "the family." Most of its efforts occur under the cloak of privacy.
"We're a confidential organization," pointed out B.A.T. chairman Bobby Murcer, "but if you heard the stories of some of the players we've helped, you'd be brought to your knees crying, to know who has needed help." On one midwinter night every year, however, B.A.T. sounds a public fanfare, and it's a siren song to players and fans who gather at this dinner to give their emotional and financial support. Tuesday's edition appeared to break records on all levels. A crowd of 1,500-plus, described by Fred Wilpon, the Mets' owner and honorary dinner chairman, as "an extraordinary turnout," spent 75 minutes at a gala reception before a formal three-hour program. The fans rubbed elbows with approximately 125 Major Leaguers, including seven members of the Hall of Fame, and a blue-ribbon cast of MLB dignitaries during the long evening of nostalgia. And all of the handshakes, back-slaps, autographs and spontaneous bursts of applause came wrapped in fellowship. "It's a privilege and an honor to be here and lend a hand to a truly great organization," Commissioner Bud Selig said in his remarks to the gathering. "There is no higher calling than lending a hand to your own." All the dots were connected on this night. B.A.T. was founded in 1986 -- and has since granted $14 million in aid to 2,000 players -- and Tuesday night it honored the 1986 Mets on the 20th anniversary of the club's last World Series champion. Tom Glavine, left-handed ace of the current Mets who have high hopes of reclaiming that status, received one of the group's top honors, the Bart Giamatti Award for compassion. (Hall of Fame broadcaster Joe Garagiola Sr. was presented the other, the Frank Slocum Award for exemplary service to B.A.T.) And a member of those '86 Amazins, one of 17 to make the reunion, stepped forward as one of the rare B.A.T. beneficiaries to go public with the help he received. Barry Lyons, a rookie catcher that season behind Hall of Famer Gary Carter, is a Mississippi native whose devastation by Hurricane Katrina was eased by B.A.T. Lyons, grateful and humbled, put a face on the organization's mission. "When Katrina hit on August 29, it changed my world, changed the world of everyone who lives in that area," Lyons began. "Yes, my home is gone. My parents' home is gone; even a family member recently passed away. It's been very tough, but, a few days after the storm, some friends told me they'd contact B.A.T. and the ball's been rolling from that point on. "From Day One, Jim Martin has been there for me throughout this whole process," Lyons continued, citing B.A.T.'s executive director. "He's been someone to talk to, and he's been there financially. "This is a wonderful organization, and it's such a privilege to be here among so many wonderful baseball people. Any time you find yourself in trouble, you always turn to family for support and love. My immediate family has struggled, but the response of my family of baseball brothers is so moving to me." The applause elicited by Lyons' testimonial was only one of many showered on the '86 Mets. They lined up on stage, from manager Davey Johnson to George Foster to Sid Fernandez to Rafael Santana, Ron Darling and Carter. But the loudest ovation welcomed back Darryl Strawberry, who has traveled hard and far -- in both a baseball and a life sense -- since those halcyon days punctuated by a dribbler through Bill Buckner's bowed legs. "We stuck together," Strawberry recalled of that team. "The league hated us, and we loved it. We believed in each other, and we played as a group. "And," added Straw, who later played on two World Series champion Yankees teams, "those 1986 Mets were the best team I ever played on. That was an incredible team; a lot of times, people forget what that team was all about." This wasn't one of those times, because this was a night for remembering. Reflecting on teams and individuals, still among us or gone. While a long list of baseball personalities who passed away in 2005 -- from Monty Basgall to Frank Zupo -- scrolled on the monitors, Murcer paid particular homage to Earl Wilson, the former 20-game winner and past president of B.A.T., and Barry Halpern, the avid collector who had been a longtime supporter of the organization. Halpern, of course, never swung a bat or threw a ball, just acquired them after they'd been used by others. But he was one of the warmly recalled people on an evening that belonged more to the enablers than the performers. Oh, the Hall of Fame bows of Luis Aparicio, Orlando Cepeda, Bob Gibson, Ferguson Jenkins, Robin Roberts, Jim Palmer and Carter brought down the house. But so did Glavine, for acknowledging to "take seriously my responsibilities as an athlete. We affect people with our actions and with our words." "I like to be in a position of helping people," Glavine added. "I find it very humbling that, simply by playing baseball, I'm in position to help so many people. I never take that for granted." The final words on the affair actually were among the opening words, in Rev. William Shillady's invocation: "We are joined here by our common compassion for others. The baseball family is committed to helping the stranger, the forgotten, the poor." Click here to make a donation to B.A.T.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.