The best athlete charity in Seattle wasn't started by its best athlete. Jamie Moyer stood all of 6 feet, with a fastball slow enough to...
The best athlete charity in Seattle wasn’t started by its best athlete.
Jamie Moyer stood all of 6 feet, with a fastball slow enough to be timed by a wristwatch. The Mariners were the sixth team in his vagabond baseball career when he arrived in 1996. He played alongside Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez and Alex Rodriguez.
And on this team that included future Hall of Famers, in a city no stranger to superstars, it was the everyman pitcher from Pennsylvania who built a local institution.
The Moyer Foundation sits in an alley in Magnolia, with a full staff and a multi-million-dollar budget and a bulletin board filled with photographs of children it has helped. It is the gold standard of Seattle sports philanthropy, a national award winner. And it’s the reason the journeyman, who now pitches for the Philadelphia Phillies, found a home here.
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“That’s what they remember you for in the end,” says Karen Moyer, Jamie’s spouse and the foundation’s cornerstone. “They’re not going to remember the 21-win season, [or] when they won 116 nothing found. Maybe they will, but a decade from now they’re not.
“They’re going to remember how you tried to make it a better world.”
Gregory Chaya: The inspiration for it all
Gregory Chaya was about the same age as Jamie Moyer’s 2-year-old son. Chaya grew up in Pennsylvania, just like Jamie. They met in Baltimore in 1993 through a mutual friend. Chaya was a leukemia patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Moyer a struggling pitcher for the Orioles.
“That was the first time in my life I was at a loss for words,” Moyer says. “I kind of fumbled my way through the visit.”
Chaya needed a bone-marrow transplant. It didn’t work. Doctors told his parents there was no hope left. They sought treatment in Seattle anyway, at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and this time, the transplant took.
Moyer needed to find hope again. He spent 1992 in the minor leagues. At 29, in his first season with the Orioles, he was pitching to preserve his career.
Hard to tell who inspired the other more. Fourteen years later, Moyer is still pitching. Chaya wants to get his driver’s license. He’s considered cured.
“The two of them are living blessed lives right now,” Karen Moyer says. “And they fed off of each other. Gregory fighting for life is clearly a lot bigger than fighting for your life in baseball. But something special was going on there.”
Their paths didn’t just cross, they merged. Chaya came to Seattle for treatment and became a Mariners fan after the transplant. He stayed in touch with Moyer, and years later told his parents, “Wouldn’t it be great if Jamie came over to Seattle?”
Soon enough, Moyer was traded — to the Mariners in 1996.
“I do not believe in coincidences,” says Chaya, 17. “I believe that was fate.”
Moyer calls Chaya a miracle, and in 2000, he drew on that first inspiration and formed The Moyer Foundation. The mission: to help children in distress.
The Moyers started small — one employee, one event. Even the gold standard suffered growing pains. Karen mentions staff and legal issues but doesn’t go into specifics.
As the charity expanded, board members pushed the Moyers to pick one cause, to give all their money to a handful of organizations. The Moyers never backed down. They give grants to dozens of organizations each year.
Two things — mission and passion — didn’t change. That’s how their foundation became the model sports nonprofit in Seattle.
Karen Moyer’s reminded of those struggles whenever an athlete asks for advice. She always offers a disclaimer.
“I usually discourage people,” Karen Moyer says. “Sometimes, it’s easier to write a check. We’re so different because we’re a strong couple, gifted with balance.”
They felt like politicians in the beginning. If you had a microphone, they found the time. Rotary clubs, Elks lodges, schools — the couple averaged about 40 public appearances the first two years, raising both money and their profile.
The executive director came in one morning, and saw Karen Moyer shaking, near tears. He worried something happened to one of her kids. She gestured toward a check.
“You’ve got to look at this.”
Pay to the order of: The Moyer Foundation.
Best they could figure, an anonymous donor liked one of those early speeches. Another year, another $100,000 check. Following year, same thing.
Karen Moyer: The hands-on heartbeat
Karen Moyer woke up at 5:45 a.m. earlier this summer. The spin class she teaches at her fitness studio started at 6:15. After that, six kids to send off to school, breakfast to inhale, and that small matter of the foundation to run. She even managed to sneak into church that morning.
“It’s green tea, too,” she says, gesturing toward her mug, “not a special concoction.”
Karen used to miss her husband when he left on road trips. He’s mostly gone now, pitching for Philadelphia. She jokes she’s too tired to care.
Most know Karen Moyer as the wife of a big-league pitcher. Some know she’s also the daughter of Digger Phelps, the former Notre Dame basketball coach and television commentator. But those who come in contact with her find a tornado of activity, a tour de force that spins and cooks and prays and still finds time to sign every check The Moyer Foundation ever wrote.
On a recent night, she scribbled out checks for two hours straight. Her accountants tell her someone else could do it, but Karen Moyer never leaves anything to chance that she can do herself. When a relative became addicted to drugs, Karen took custody of her 9-year-old niece. When the Mariners’ wives assembled a cookbook, Karen took charge.
“I don’t think she sleeps,” says Harold Reynolds, Jamie’s former teammate.
Karen somehow balances raising six of her own kids with helping thousands of children in distress. She bridges the gap by bringing together the kids she raised and the kids she helps.
The Moyers take their children to bereavement camps. They tell them about kids their age in other countries. Kids making carpets, kids with arthritis and AIDS, kids who suffer abuse.
They talk about children who come to the Moyers’ office, folded dollar bills in hand, quarters in a jar, passing on proceeds from lemonade stands. Or kids who donate all their birthday presents.
“I don’t think they ever feel sacrificed,” Karen says of her own children. “There’s no greater lesson to teach our children than to give back.”
Karen even imagines one of her children — “Daughter No. 2, Child No. 4,” she says — taking over the foundation.
And sometimes, when the business side of running a foundation gets to Karen, she looks at the bulletin board hanging inside her cubicle. The one covered with pictures of children helped by the foundation.
“It’s amazing,” Reynolds says. “And the thing about them that’s unique is it’s a family deal. It’s Jamie and Karen. Karen has drawn that out of Jamie’s personality. She’s transformed him through the foundation.”
But first, it was the foundation that needed a transformation.
Providing a compass
Gary Pollock worked one week as executive director of The Moyer Foundation before coming face to face with grassroots reality: garbage, or more specifically, where to put it. He had recently left a larger organization, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Seattle, after 22 years, and now Pollock found himself in a small office with a full trash can.
“Where do you guys take the garbage?” he asked.
“Just leave it up front,” came the reply. “Jamie picks it up.”
Pollock arrived in 2002. The foundation had a bowling tournament, one other employee and a vague idea of where it wanted to go. The Moyers were bent on lending more than just their name. But they needed someone to provide direction.
Someone like Gary Pollock.
Someone with the experience to guide their energy. Someone who could almost triple the foundation’s revenue in his first two years. Someone who bristled whenever Karen referred to “our little foundation,” who took that personally, like a challenge.
“You never, ever, ever, ever hear those words come out of her mouth now,” Pollock says. “Because it’s not.”
Then: two employees, $530,414 in revenue, one event. Now: five employees, $4.2 million in revenue (including in-kind donations), multiple events.
Of that, about $1.1 million comes from in-kind donations. Two donors pay the $22,000 annual rent at the Magnolia office building. Hewlett-Packard donated the computers. UPS provides technical support. And most other services — printing, legal fees, accounting, etc. — are also gratis.
It took only seven years for their “little foundation” to become nationally known, recently winning the Steve Patterson Award, given by the Sports Philanthropy Project to the best athlete foundation in the country last year.
Hard to believe the Moyers almost stopped after a single bowling tournament. Or that Garth Brooks put on a concert in their living room to benefit a local hospice. Or that the concert — combined with meeting Erin Metcalf through Make-A-Wish in 1997 — led to the foundation’s nationwide rollout of bereavement camps this spring.
Metcalf suffered from a rare form of liver cancer. She spent her last days at a hospice in Snohomish County, and before she died at 15, she told the Moyers her final wish: to help children in similar situations.
That became the goal of Camp Erin, which grew into the largest network of bereavement camps in the United States. The Moyers plan to open one in every major-league city in the next three years and 50 total during the next five years at the cost of $10 million to the charity.
The first time Jamie Moyer visited that bereavement camp in Snohomish County, he met a boy who lost four family members and a teacher in one year. Moyer didn’t know what to say.
“Imagine that,” he says, “a 10-year-old.”
The foundation has grown larger than even the Moyers imagined. It has multi-year commitments to Fred Hutchinson ($1.5 million), Children’s Hospital ($1.25 million) and Swedish Hospital ($250,000). The charity has given nearly $6.5 million to more than 120 nonprofits, mostly local.
The Moyers run their foundation like a business. Pollock retains CEO responsibilities and earns a CEO salary — $140,144 in 2005.
No one said nonprofit work requires a vow of poverty, and charities aren’t immune from the laws of economics. Pollock’s salary is approved by the board.
“I get accused of not tooting my horn enough,” Pollock says. “Whatever my compensation is, I more than deserve it.”
Jamie Moyer: Pitching
charity, not changeups
Jamie Moyer’s uniform: teal bowling shirt, blue jeans, hair parted, no hat. He’s working on a recent Sunday, just not from the mound. He’s pitching charity instead of changeups, shaking hands instead of shaking off signs. The man usually known for pinpoint control moves around his charity bowling event like a pinball.
This is a glimpse of what Mariners outfielder Raul Ibanez calls the Moyers’ “obsessive drive to give back.” It’s what propelled the foundation from its first bowling tournament to the gold standard of Seattle sports philanthropy.
It took Moyer leaving Seattle to show how deep the roots of his foundation run. After his trade to the Phillies in 2006, calls flooded into the office building tucked into an alley in Magnolia. What now? For his family? His foundation?
“We’re not going anywhere,” Karen Moyer says. “When we started this foundation, it wasn’t home. And it’s a lot of the reason we made it home.”
Imagine that. The journeyman pitcher settled down six stops into his major-league career because of the foundation he created. And that foundation endured because it’s about so much more than Jamie Moyer.
It’s about Gregory Chaya, who’s starting an aquarium-cleaning business in Pennsylvania. It’s about Karen Moyer, who might sleep (occasionally). It’s about Gary Pollock, who won’t have to hear “our little foundation” ever again. And it’s about Jamie Moyer, who says he will retire here, with his family and his foundation and the legacy of longevity both created.
“It was never a sports foundation,” Pollock says. “It was a foundation established by a sports figure.”
Established by Jamie Moyer: pitcher, philanthropist, garbage specialist.
“The Foundation,” Moyer says, “has become who we are.”
Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Danny O’Neil: 206-464-2364 or email@example.com