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Community service remains Sean Casey's passion

| Sunday, May 8, 2011

In a dozen big league seasons, Sean Casey hit .302, made three All-Star teams and smacked a pair of World Series home runs. A nice career, but his legacy of fun, compassion and respect surpassed even that.

"I made a lot of friends," he said.

"You look at a person like this and think, 'No way on God's earth can this guy be so nice or sincere,' " said Hall of Fame broadcaster Marty Brennaman. "But he's everything he seems to be."

Casey retired after the 2008 season, settling down year-round in Upper St. Clair with his wife, Mandi, and their four kids. He joined MLB Network's endless gabfest, the perfect gig for his relentlessly sunny disposition and steel vocal cords. This year, he is broadcasting a handful of games for his old team, the Cincinnati Reds.

With a big hand from Mandi, Casey is maintaining the off-field work that became his signature in Cincinnati during eight seasons with the Reds and later with the Pirates, Detroit and Boston.

Their latest project is the Miracle League Field of South Hills in Upper St. Clair, where Casey grew up. The Caseys are raising $1 million for the facility's construction and maintenance. It will be a rubber-coated, wheelchair-friendly, T-ball-sized baseball field for children and adults with special needs. About $800,000 has been raised, including $50,000 donated by the Caseys. Groundbreaking is set for June.

The field and its programs will become part of the nationwide Miracle League, which began in 1998 with one field and now has about 150. It will be the second of its type in the area, joining a facility in Cranberry that former Pirate Freddy Sanchez helped start and is funded largely by the Pirates.

Mike Sherry, president of the Miracle League of Southwestern Pennsylvania, recruited Casey "to get the ball rolling," he said. "I felt the area deserved more than one Miracle Field. I couldn't have picked a better superstar in a better area."

Casey, 36, first worked with special-needs kids while attending the University of Richmond, assisting children with cerebral palsy. "A totally eye-opening experience," he called it. Mandi, whom Casey met in Akron as a Cleveland farmhand, taught behaviorally and emotionally handicapped children in Charlotte, N.C., for two years. Her sister, Genny, was born with disabilities.

"First and foremost, these kids are kids ," said Mandi, a former University of Akron volleyball player. "They love; they laugh. They need time to unwind, to have something to look forward to on Saturday and Sunday, just like my kids."

Their website, Casey's Clubhouse , is a useful fundraising tool, and Sean stands front and center. But Mandi "runs the ship," he said, handling the details — planning, scheduling, writing and answering e-mails and letters — as she did for all those years of trades, travel and an expanding family while Sean played ball.

"She brings so much to the table that I couldn't have brought," he said. "She couldn't be more perfect for the rigors of handling the baseball life. The moving, the bills, the kids, the schooling. She did so much for me and let me focus on baseball."

Casey took none of it for granted. He never forgot that, as a high school freshman, he wasn't that good. His parents, Joan and Jim, provided a strong support system but refused to stage pity parties.

"Instead of my dad going to the coach and being a parent, 'Why isn't my kid playing?' and all that stuff, he told me, 'You need to work harder. You need to get better,' " Casey said. " Make 'em play you."

Casey spent hours in the batting cage, pumping token after token into the machine, and willed himself to hit. He was schooled by hitting coach Frank Porco, who preached, "Learn the swing and go to work on it," and became a outstanding player. Offered a bare-bones, partial scholarship from Richmond, he gladly took it. The Indians drafted Casey, a first baseman, in the second round in 1995.

With a glut of talent back then, Cleveland traded Casey to the Reds in 1998. It was his big break. Meanwhile, in the Cape Cod summer league three years earlier, his enduring nickname, "The Mayor," was first applied. Casey, then as now, will shake every hand and talk to anyone, anywhere, about anything. In Kinston, N.C., teammates dubbed him "The Governor," but in Cincinnati he was again "The Mayor," and this time it stuck.

He was more than just chatter. With unbridled enthusiasm and a perpetual smile, he conducted lengthy autograph sessions, made countless public appearances, lent himself to various causes. On the field, he embodied the term, "professional hitter." Teammates loved him.

"He's certainly the finest player I've ever met in terms of his personality, his love of life, his willingness to help people out," said Brennaman, a Reds broadcaster since 1974. "God bless his mom and dad. You can understand why he's the way he is."

Even in the minors, there was charity and community work. Soon after Casey arrived in Cincinnati, he walked through the doors of the local Big Brothers, Big Sisters and asked to be paired with any kid who was being overlooked. He insisted no one know about it. Eventually, he was persuaded to go public to help raise money.

When the Reds traded Casey to the Pirates after the 2005 season, the city of Cincinnati collectively mourned. He went to Detroit at the trade deadline in 2006, helped the Tigers win the pennant and belted two World Series homers in a losing effort against St. Louis.

"It was like the air went out of a balloon," said Kathy List, president of the Cincinnati Big Brothers and Big Sisters, of Casey's departure. "Sean was the secret ingredient to that team. There were never lemons in his world, only lemonade. He made everybody feel connected."

Cincinnati broadcaster Lance McAlister named his son, Casey, after Sean. At 2 1/2, Casey McAlister was diagnosed with leukemia and needed a bone marrow transplant. One day, Sean dropped by the hospital en route to the ballpark, bringing a jersey and other goodies. The two ended up playing with a Mr. Potato Head on the floor. Casey McAlister today is a healthy 11-year-old.

"I've always been a Sean Casey fan," Lance McAlister said. "Not so much by his stats but how he carried himself and how good he was in the community."

While playing in Akron, Casey visited a young girl, Caroline Sutherland, who has a rare blood disorder, and developed a close relationship with her parents, Doug and Judie. Away from home, they became his second family.

"He came back every single day," Judie Sutherland said. "He seemed to get that we were a family like he has."

The Sutherlands and Caseys remain close. They even attended his retirement party.

"We knew him when he was just a kid and single," Judie Sutherland said. "He just loved every minute being able to play the game. That's was so refreshing about him.

"He doesn't see himself as a jock. He sees himself as a little kid being able to live his dream."

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