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Oakland A's Chad Pinder finds fulfillment off of the field in community service

Daily Press - 9/16/2018

Sept. 16--Oakland Athletics outfielder Chad Pinder fell in love with helping special-needs kids while playing baseball at Virginia Tech. Before that, like many teenagers, he hadn't thought much about those kids learning at a different pace in other classrooms.

His perspective changed when he volunteered to help at Special Olympics volleyball and bowling competitions as part of Tech's "19 Ways," a program that encouraged Hokies baseball players to perform community service at least 19 times per school year. It proved to be a joy and a revelation.

"I learned just how authentic they are as human beings," said Pinder, who helped Poquoson High win baseball state championships in 2009 and '10. "Every emotion is raw and every emotion is real.

"They say what's in their heart and what's on their mind. They are just genuine, amazing human beings, and I learned so much throughout college by watching them compete.

"They are some of the most fierce competitors I've ever been with. They want to win so bad, they love winning and they love competing.

"I think that's one of the biggest things that drew me in -- that they're just fun people to be around."

Community service faded to the background for Pinder when he was chosen by the A's in the second round of the 2013 Major League Baseball draft and he focused on getting to the big leagues. He succeeded, playing a 22-game stint for the A's in 2016 before catching on with the club full-time as a utility player in 2017, when he hit 15 home runs.

The opportunity to serve surfaced again for Pinder during the '17 season, when catcher Stephen Vogt was waived (eventually to land with the Milwaukee Brewers) and offered Pinder his spot volunteering at the School of Imagination in nearby Dublin, Calif.The School of Imagination is a preschool that empowers special-needs children to excel while learning alongside their peers who do not have special needs.

"You name it, they have it," Pinder said. "From reading to speaking to kids with Down syndrome, there are kids with all sorts of special needs. There are speech and occupational therapists and tutors for kids with learning disabilities.

"At this school, everyone is doing the same things. They're learning the same things. They're moving along with each other."

Pinder began volunteering at the school once a month. In addition to bringing Athletics paraphernalia, he'd play wiffle ball with the students or teach them to hit off of the tee.

That resurrected those feelings of joy he felt helping Special Olympians.

"Seeing how excited they are when they do hit it, and how focused they are on it, it's pretty awesome, pretty cool," Pinder said.

The camaraderie between the kids made the greatest impression on him.

"It's pretty cool to see how the different kids interact and how they lean on each other for things," he said. "It's normal. Everything is normal, just as it should be.

"That's the point of it, that there is no difference. They're learning together, they're helping each other grow and they're at such a young age, it's normalcy to them.

"That's the special part about it, which is one of the reasons I love the school so much, because there's no difference. They're all the same, which is perfect and how it should be."

Because of his work at the school, and with other team community service projects, Pinder has been nominated by the Athletics for the Roberto Clemente Award. The award, named after the late Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Famer who died in a plane crash in 1972 on a humanitarian relief effort, is given annually to the major-league player who best represents the game through "extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions" on and off the field.

One player from each of the MLB clubs is nominated. Team president Dave Kaval is happy with the A's nominee.

"His commitment to the children at the School of Imagination makes (Pinder) a true hero in our community," Kaval said in a team press release.

The nomination is another highlight in a memorable year for Pinder, most of the memories good. It has been a season during which he, Jake Cave (Minnesota Twins) and Kyle Crockett (Cincinnati Reds), all teammates from ages 10-12 with the Peninsula Pilots, played in the majors at the same time.

Pinder was batting .342 over a 14-game stretch when he had to go on the 10-day disabled list in late July because his elbow was lacerated in a car wreck. He's frustrated that he hasn't gained the same form since coming off of the DL, but he's not complaining.

The A's, the hottest team in baseball since the All-Star break, are still winning and are a virtual lock to make the playoffs as at least a wild card. That, Pinder says, is all that matters.

"It's a pretty special team and a pretty special time, and we've just got to enjoy it and keep pushing forward," he said. "I know people in the Bay area are pretty excited.

"Playoff baseball is what it's all about. That's why you strap it up from a young age. I'm most definitely going to be soaking every minute."

A few weeks later, Nov. 10, he'll marry his fiancée, Taylor Jackson, an elementary school teacher who has accompanied Pinder on a couple of visits to the School of Imagination. The newlyweds might soon have to make room in their home for the Clemente Award.

"You do things in the community because you enjoy doing them, but when they mention your name in the same sentence with Roberto Clemente, that's prestigious, another level," Pinder said. "I'm honored and blessed and very thankful to be in the position I'm in to be able to do those kinds of things that even warrant that kind of award."

Voting for the Clemente Award

A blue-ribbon panel that includes MLB commissioner Robert D. Manfred Jr. will select the Roberto Clemente Award winner, which goes to the player who best represents the game through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions on and off the field.

In addition, the winner of a fan vote will count as one vote among those cast by the panel. To vote for Pinder, or any of the other 29 nominees, go to: mlb.com/clemente21.

O'Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963 and on Twitter @MartyOBrienDP

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(c)2018 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)

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