Vance Albitz has never been daunted before by large, or improbable, tasks.
Listed at only 5-foot-7 (he cops to 5-6), the Cardinals farmhand has been looking to come up big by giving troops overseas a taste of home and offering them a simple game of catch. The diminutive infielder is doing so by collecting a number of gloves and balls to send to troops — a process that already has begun and that he hopes will be aided by donations at this weekend’s Cardinals Winter Warm-Up.
“I always wanted to do something, specifically, with the military,” said Albitz. “It wasn’t long ago, in November, when I was reading an article on-line and a soldier was asked what he would like people to send to him. He said a glove and a baseball. He wanted to play catch with another soldier.”
Albitz said he deemed this a perfect opportunity for him to be able to help the troops abroad, and he began hoarding some gloves. He had a few of his own, minor league teammates such as highly regarded lefthander John Gast send him some, and soon other people in baseball and fans alike were responding after Albitz’s goal to help the troops was reported online in an mlb.com story and by local radio personality Randy Karraker.
The number of gloves had swelled to 228 at last count and his shipping of gloves and balls has begun, notably to Afghanistan, which Albitz determined was the military theater where the troops most could use a break.
Albitz wasn’t even a drafted player, but about a year after he signed with the Cardinals, the righthanded-hitting infielder found himself at Class AAA Memphis in 2012 paired at the keystone for a couple of weeks with Pete Kozma.
A product of the University of California-San Diego, Albitz is coming up on 25 years old this month and while the three-position glove man has progressed quickly through the system after being signed out of independent ball at Lincoln, Neb., in August 2011, he probably doesn’t project as a big league player. Inspired by the likes of mighty mites David Eckstein, Dustin Pedroia and Jose Altuve, however, Albitz, a .233 batsman at three organizational levels last season, isn’t about to give up on the dream. He will be on the Class AA Springfield roster this spring.
And, in the meantime, he is fulfilling an ambition he long has held and where his glove(s) can come in handy.
“I know when I was growing up, I always was running around trying to get people to play catch,” said Albitz. “If I was in (the troops’) situation, that’s exactly what I would want to do — have a glove and ball so I could play catch.”
This weekend, the process is likely to take an upsurge at the Hyatt Regency St. Louis at the Arch as the Cardinals, through Cardinals Care and with the help of Rawlings Sporting Goods, will be staffing collection bins as fans attend the 17th annual Winter Warm-Up from Saturday through Monday. Fans are encouraged to donate “gently used gloves and balls,” although Rawlings, earlier in Albitz’s “Gloves 4 Troops” campaign, donated 28 brand-new gloves.
Albitz said he had asked neither the Cardinals nor Rawlings for their help but had been impressed by their cooperation.
“I would say the Cardinals have given me an opportunity that a lot of teams wouldn’t have,” said Albitz, via telephone from California. “They are that kind of organization.”
Albitz’ stated goal is 1,000 gloves, and Michael Hall, vice president of community relations and executive director of Cardinals Care, said he was hopeful several hundred could be accumulated this weekend.
“It just seemed like a good cause,” said Hall. “We want to do what we can to help support the troops.”
Feedback from the military for Albitz has become almost immediate. One email came from Kyle Kent, a soldier who said he had grown up about an hour from St. Louis.
Kent wrote Albitz, “I am a soldier currently deployed in Afghanistan and a diehard St. Louis Cardinals fan. I wanted to say thank you for your efforts to send such things to us troops over here in this home away from home. Coming back from a mission outside the wire and having the ability to wind down and play catch is a huge stress reliever.”
William Hill, a sailor aboard the aircraft carrier Stennis, wrote: “We received a box today with four baseball gloves and four baseballs because of your generosity. I cannot thank you enough for the small items that help make our time pass while deployed to the Persian Gulf. These small items help us enjoy some of the small things we like to do when home. The sailors aboard this ship have been deployed for more than 16 of the last 24 months, and now need to find ways to relieve stress due to deployments.
“We all thank you.”
Said Albitz, “I’ve received tons of mail. It just makes this whole thing worthwhile.”
For more information about the “Gloves 4 Troops” campaign or to make a donation, go to the website www.gloves4troops.com
The Winter Warm-Up takes place Saturday through Monday at the Hyatt. Event times are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Monday. On Sunday night at the Millennium Hotel, the St. Louis Baseball Writers’ Association chapter will hold its 55th annual dinner featuring many players from last year’s playoff team and also Mark Whiten, who became the only Cardinal to hit four homers in a game 20 years ago.
Tickets are priced at $125 for the 6:30 p.m. dinner and tables for 10 at $1,250. Information on how to purchase tickets can be obtained by calling 229-3040.