Former Mariners pitcher Jamie Moyer and wife Karen’s charitable work with The Moyer Foundation almost unparalleled by other sports figures. Here’s how it began, who it helps and why it still matters to them.
Tristana Leist remembers former Mariners pitcher Jamie Moyer less for his mound feats and more as the man who helped a grieving little girl feel normal again.
Back in 2004, Leist, age 7, and brother, Matt, 10, were reeling from the death of their mother, Victoria, the previous year to cancer. Their father, barely coping himself, registered them for a free weekend at Camp Erin, created by The Moyer Foundation to help children and teens dealing with the loss of a parent or sibling.
While there, Leist met Moyer and his wife, Karen, and gained insights into her grief. She says the camp taught her she “had the rest of her life to live” and would be all right. The Sammamish resident, now 18, remains friends with the Moyers and volunteered for their foundation and to work later this summer as a Camp Erin counselor.
“It kind of equalizes things for kids because when you’re there, you’re not the kid whose Mom died,’’ says Leist, who is preparing for her freshman year at Gonzaga University. “Everyone is in the same boat as you and that really helps.’’
Her father, Karl, remembers being “ground down to a pulp” as a widower and realized his kids had lost their childhood and needed Moyer’s camp to help them smile again.
“He’s a pitcher who’s helped save a lot more than baseball games,’’ Karl Leist says of Moyer. “He’s a guy who has saved lives — the lives of children who needed help.’’
And so when the Leists attend Saturday’s induction of Moyer, 52, into the Mariners Hall of Fame at Safeco Field, they’ll applaud him for his off-field exploits. For all his Mariners records during 11 seasons here, including a franchise-topping 145 wins, it’s the enduring community attachment formed by Moyer and his wife that remains largely unparalleled by other sports figures.
Moyer, who arrived Wednesday from his home in San Diego, looked harried Thursday morning as he and his wife stopped by the foundation’s Magnolia office. They were running late for a foundation board meeting downtown ahead of a Thursday night fundraiser at the Paramount Theater.
As they stood in the office lobby, a young deliveryman showed up with packages. “How are you today, Mr. Moyer?’’ he asked.
It was almost as if Moyer had never been away.
“Seattle was home and it still is home,’’ Moyer says. “We lived here all 11 years that I played here, but we also lived in Seattle for most of the years that I played. So that’s what’s closest to my heart.’’
The Moyer Foundation, founded in 2000, has raised more than $26 million and partners with hospices, bereavement organizations and accredited mental-health organizations to offer two flagship camps free of charge: Camp Erin and Camp Mariposa, formed in 2007 to help children ages 9-12 whose families are struggling with addiction. Camp Erin has 46 sites nationwide and in Canada — at least one in all 30 big league cities — and Camp Mariposa has eight locations.
Moyer moved the foundation’s head office to Philadelphia while playing for the Phillies from 2006 to 2010, but maintains the Magnolia office because of the non-profit’s Washington roots. And though his 25-year playing career ended in 2012, the foundation keeps expanding.
“We didn’t know where that was going to go and where that was going to grow,’’ Moyer says. “But this (Seattle) community really wrapped their arms around us and accepted us.’’
Moyer insists the growth would never have happened without his wife, the daughter of Digger Phelps, television analyst and former basketball coach.
“When we came to Seattle, we had no idea what we were getting into,’’ Karen Moyer says. “But it became such an integral part of our lives.’’
The couple did some camp charity work in the Midwest before arriving here from Boston in a 1996 trade. Once launching the foundation, the Moyers envisioned incorporating a camp within it.
They’d met Erin Metcalf, 15, a Woodinville girl with liver cancer, at spring training in 1999 through the Make-A-Wish foundation. They remained close until her death in 2000.
Having started The Moyer Foundation that year, they decided to honor Metcalf’s memory by naming a camp after her and using it to help grieving children. They’d seen firsthand the positive impact hospice workers could have on families.
Metcalf’s mother, Michelle, says she and her husband were “humbled” when the Moyers approached them with the idea and later launched Camp Erin in Everett in 2002.
“During our experience with our daughter being sick, we had the opportunity to see many, many other families going through this,’’ she says. “And many families trying to find meaning, or make sense out of the death of their child. For us, it felt like ‘Wow’. We were so fortunate to meet the Moyers and now we had this emerge as a result of that meeting.’’
Karen Moyer says her foundation work isn’t about one-off gestures. “It’s really hard for me to meet kids and not continually think of them,’’ she says. “Especially when they’re in distress.’’
A few years ago, the Moyers — who have eight children, including two daughters adopted from Guatemala — took in a niece whose mother was battling drug addiction. While trying to get the child court-mandated counseling, the Moyers came up with the idea for Camp Mariposa.
Karen Moyer chose the name — the Spanish word for butterfly — because the couple viewed children from drug-addicted families as needing a cocoon to help them blossom to full potential.
One local camper, Emily, 10, whose family asked that her last name not be published, says Camp Mariposa helped her cope after both parents and two older brothers became addicted to drugs. Emily says she most enjoys nature walks with counselors, but also befriending and talking with campers in similar situations.
“I used to think my parents’ addiction was my fault,’’ she says. “The camp taught me that they knew what they were doing and that it wasn’t my fault.’’
The Moyers can tick off some staggering national statistics: 8.3 million children live with a substance-abusing parent, and 1.5 million grieve a parent’s loss. Thus, the demand to expand Camp Mariposa keeps growing as they lobby Washington, D.C., politicians, corporations and private donors. Jamie Moyer says so many children needing help makes his foundation’s growth bittersweet.
“This isn’t about us,’’ he says. “This was never about us.’’
It’s a theme he’ll recite at his Hall of Fame luncheon Friday and the Saturday induction ceremony.
Moyer attributes his two 20-win seasons and postseason appearances with the Mariners in 1997, 2000 and 2001 to teamwork preached by manager Lou Piniella and teammates like Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner. Moyer says his foundation succeeds through identical teamwork exemplified by Karen, administrators, staffers, board members and volunteers.
And though it’s his on-field life being feted, the couple’s off-field work was always entwined with his playing career.
“Going to camps, meeting the kids and hearing their stories has really given us both a great deal more strength and perspective,’’ Moyer says. “I really believe it made me a better player. It allowed me to realize the importance of giving back and the reality of giving back and helping others.’’