05 Feb Searching for missing kids, park by park
Former Minor League pitcher remains near game for a good cause
By Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com
Ever since a succession of shoulder injuries derailed his pitching career, Dennis Bair has dedicated his life to a more weighty cause. There are parallels ballplayers can understand.”Searching for a missing child is a numbers game,” he said. “Any Minor Leaguer has heard that term before, including myself.”Bair, 41, is the founder of BairFind, an organization dedicated to locating missing children, and he believes Minor League Baseball is the “perfect vehicle” for his mission.
“By working with Minor League Baseball, we win the numbers game, because of the simple fact that they can get these profiles in front of tens of millions of people every summer,” he said. “If this is about finding a needle in a haystack, then every person that does not recognize the child has taken one piece of hay off of the haystack. That is the tried and true method for finding missing kids.”
Thus, Bair’s goal is to place a “BairFind” sign in the concourse of all 159 Minor League ballparks. Working in connection with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, each sign would feature a child specific to that team’s region. BairFind has made great strides toward this goal in recent years. In 2015, signs were featured on the concourses of all Southern, Florida State and New York-Penn League clubs. The signs are produced by AMI Graphics, the official signage supplier of Minor League Baseball, which makes them for cost.
“Our ability to roll out signs increased dramatically once AMI got on board. That was thanks to an amazing encounter with [AMI general manager] Ed Miles at the [2014 Baseball] Winter Meetings,” Bair said. “Ed has been working since then to increase the distribution of our signs.”
The momentum continued at this year’s Winter Meetings in Nashville, as New York-Penn League president Ben Hayes and South Atlantic League president Eric Krupa put Bair in touch with Minor League Baseball executives so he could pitch the idea of making BairFind an industry-wide initiative.
“It has been a long journey and took many years to get to this point, but I never gave up because I always knew that it would be successful,” Bair said. “Once I started talking to league presidents I knew that I was on the right track, because now I was speaking to people who were in a position to see how it could work on a bigger scale.
“It might sound corny, but it kind of feels like somebody who’s in Minor League Baseball for a lot of years and finally gets their callup.”
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Bair’s ongoing journey toward the realization of his dreams has been long and improbable. He said he first had the idea for BairFind some two decades ago, while flipping channels one offseason evening.
“I happened to watch a documentary about parents whose daughter was missing,” he said. “It showed the struggle they went through — spending all their money on flyers, being on the street passing out flyers, and then there was a shot of a nearby garbage can overflowing with flyers. I was a pitcher and in the stadium every night, and I just figured that if the daughter’s profile was in the stadium, they wouldn’t have to spend all that money getting thousands of people to see it. It would come at no cost to them. It was just an idea that came into my brain.”
The first BairFind promotion occurred in 2001 when Bair was pitching for the independent Frontier League’s Canton Crocodiles. He retired two years later, went back to school and became a high school teacher in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Despite having little money and no knowledge regarding how to establish a nonprofit foundation, he continued to stage BairFind promotions on a team-by-team basis. As detailed in a 2009 MiLB.com article, his strategy at that time was to feature a picture of a missing child on team photos.
“The poster giveaways were great, but they only put us in the stadium one game of the year,” Bair said. “We switched to the wooden concourse signs, which gave missing kids a presence every night of the year.”
Bair is now based in Jacksonville, Florida, where he trains young baseball players along with childhood friend (and former Major Leaguer) Scott Seabol. So far, the organization has featured 278 missing children at Minor League ballparks, 65 of whom have been safely located. When that happens, a “Found” decal is placed over the child’s profile until a new picture is applied to the sign.
How many, if any, of these 65 success stories can be attributed to BairFind?
“We do not know that because of privacy laws. On each profile we have the hotline number for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children,” Bair said. “Those calls come in confidentially, so we never have access to that info. So we go by the obvious — that the more eyes are looking, the greater the chance that someone recognizes the kid and makes the anonymous tip.”
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“It takes a village,” Bair said, regarding his organization’s growth. Though BairFind has no salaried employees, a small cadre of experienced individuals has been added to the organization in recent years. Ellen Sullivan, a healthcare executive with experiencing navigating the nonprofit world, serves as CEO. She has helped Bair with important initiatives such as getting BairFind listed on nonprofit database GuideStar so potential donors can see the level of transparency with which the organization operates. (BairFind has a gold star rating, the highest one attainable.) Jay Triplett and Nate Fincher, high school teachers in Port Orange, Florida, handle graphic design responsibilities; Jonathan Wayne, a Pittsburgh-based web designer, designed the organization’s website. Social media efforts will be expanded for the 2016 season to allow teams to publicize the missing child featured in their ballpark and provide updates on the situation.
BairFind’s support system also extends to the families of missing children. Gina DeJesus, who spent 10 years in captivity before escaping from her abductor, was one of the first children to be featured on a BairFind poster.
“Nancy [DeJesus, Gina’s mother] found out, got my number, called me and said thank you,” said Bair. “She seemed like a super person on the phone.”
Bair arranged for the DeJesus family to attend games in Williamsport, Pennsylvania (where he once pitched) and Akron, Ohio, with Nancy throwing out the first pitch.
“Every time they did a first pitch at a Minor League park, the local news did a story. It gave the DeJesus family a chance to say, ‘We’re not giving up,'” said Bair, who has also befriended the family of missing Jacksonville boy Mark Degner. “Gina saw us on the news. It gave her the strength and will to say, ‘I’m gonna survive and see my family again, because they’re out searching for me. I’m not going to give up.'”
Bair is now part of a network of families who are bonded by the trauma of having had a child gone missing. But this begs the question: Having not had such an experience himself, why has he been so motivated by this cause? Why has he devoted his life to it?
“I’m Jewish and I do a lot of reading, trying to figure that out,” he said. “Thousands upon thousands [of players] have gone through Minor League Baseball over the last 100 years, so why was I the one to come up with this idea? I read an article by one rabbi who said that when you’re doing a good deed, you’re acting as a proxy. That described what I’m doing, acting as a proxy for any parent that has a missing child. I will take steps to find that child.
“These are our kids. We’re Americans and these are our kids.”
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben’s Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
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