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Baseball icons go to bat for state flood aid

Benefit for state Farm Disaster Relief Fund draws attention to Vermont

An online “superauction” will continue through Nov. 19. To place a bid, or to make a donation, visit the effort’s website.

In a state that’s a well-established member of Red Sox Nation, New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman might not be the most popular man in Vermont.

But the architect of five championship teams really loves Vermont, and after seeing the scenes of devastation after Tropical Storm Irene struck Vermont on Aug. 28, he wanted to do something.

Buster Olney may be best known as a baseball reporter for ESPN, but he is also an adopted Vermonter. He moved to Randolph Center when he was 9 and grew up on a dairy farm. When he heard from his stepbrother, Sam Lincoln, about how many farms in Vermont were damaged by Irene, he wanted to do something.

Olney and Cashman know each other well, going back to the days when the reporter was the Yankees’ beat writer for The New York Times.

“I was calling him for a baseball story,” Olney said. “He said, ‘Man, I saw those, pictures — you’ve got to do something up there.’”

The “something” turned into a flood relief benefit organized by Olney and Lincoln that took place at Vermont Technical College on Saturday night.

More than 700 people came out for “Going to Bat for Vermont Farmers,” which assembled three major league baseball executives — Cashman, Theo Epstein of the Chicago Cubs, and Neal Huntington of the Pittsburgh Pirates — to raise money for the Vermont Farm Disaster Relief Fund.

Epstein, who built two championship teams for the Red Sox, resigned from his job in Boston last month and is now in Chicago. As team president, he has the task of ending the Cubs’ long championship drought, which stretches back to 1906.

Despite the personal upheaval in his life, he honored his commitment to Olney and Lincoln.

“I had been looking for a way to help, and this is a good way to do it,” Epstein said.

Huntington, who grew up on a dairy farm in Newbury, N.H., doesn’t have any titles yet. He says he’ll settle for ending the longest losing streak in Major League Baseball history. The Pirates have not had a winning season since 1992.

“When Buster sent out the email and asked for help, it became a no-brainer,” Huntington said. “Fortunately, our farm wasn’t affected by the storm, but people they know have [been].”

The current Red Sox general manager, Ben Cherrington, couldn’t make it. In his stead was Galen Carr, a member of the team’s scouting department who grew up in Walpole, N.H. and now lives in Burlington.

Cashman, who brought along the Yankees’ World Series trophy from 2000, said he spends as much time as he can in the Mad River Valley during the offseason. He loves to ski at Sugarbush in Warren, and his favorite restaurant in Vermont is American Flatbread in Waitsfield.

“This is a state I’ve had the opportunity to really enjoy, and I felt compelled that if there was something I could do, I’d do it,” he said.

“[Irene] seemed to go a little more under the radar nationally,” he added. “Seeing the images, I didn’t think [the damage in Vermont] was resonating with the rest of the country as [much as] it should’ve been.”

“It was just shocking, tragic stuff, and I know people are still feeling the effects of it today,” Cashman said.

Filling a need

According to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), as of the end of last week, 460 Vermont farms reported losses. Damage estimates range between $10 million and $15 million.

Lincoln’s dairy farm was spared, but other nearby farms weren’t as lucky.

“They got it from every angle,” he said. “I know farmers that had their stored crops ruined, their crops in the field flooded, their barns and every bit of their farms flooded.”

But federal aid is moving slowly, and many farmers are still facing tens of thousands of dollars of repair costs.

That’s where the farm disaster fund comes in.

The Vermont Community Foundation (VCF) has been administering the fund. According to VCF president and CEO Stuart Comstock-Gay, farms need to have at least $20,000 of losses to apply.

“Most farms have losses greater than that,” said Comstock-Gay.

By partnering with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Comstock-Gay said, the VCF has been able to fill some of the funding gap to get money into the hands of farmers quicker than the USDA.

In all, he said, approximately $1.7 million has been pledged to the farm disaster fund, and approximately $600,000 has been distributed as of the end of October.

He added that raising money for Vermont farms has been easy.

“People love the idea of local farms, and Vermont ag products are everywhere,” Comstock-Gay said. “When we go around the country and tell the story of what happened to Vermont’s [farms] after Irene, the first thing people say is, ‘What can I do to help?’”

The event in Randolph came together quickly. Even though neither Olney nor Lincoln had any experience putting together fundraisers, they were driven by the need to help their fellow farmers.

Olney said that donations of sports memorabilia, game tickets, and other items came pouring in from around Major League Baseball, and from donors connected to other sports.

“It’s been overwhelming to see the response,” he said. “I just sent out an email to media relations directors saying that if you want to do something, send something along.

“I thought we’d get 10 or 15 things,” he said. “We’re going to end up with close to 160 items in the auction.”

“This process is new to Buster, and I think he is a little pleased and surprised by how much people do care and how many people he can rely on to help out,” Cashman said.

Lincoln handled the local donations, and ended up with a meal for guests that was all-Vermont made and grown.

“As soon as I put out the word to my farm friends, people said, ‘Hey, I got cheese’ or ‘Hey, I got tenderloin and prime rib,’ or ‘Hey, my buddies and I have a band,’” he said.

“That was a great feeling,” Lincoln said.

“Vermont has always been a place where if somebody needs something,” he added. “Vermonters step up and help out any way they can.”

In the end, Olney and Lincoln ended up with a night of baseball talk that had raised $120,000 before the doors even opened. By the time the online auction ends on Nov. 19, they hope to have more than $200,000 for Vermont’s farmers.

“I grew up in this town,” said Olney, who now lives with his family in New York’s Westchester County. “To think we have 10 percent of baseball’s brain trust here tonight, and the Yankees’ championship trophy, and everything else, the idea we could put something on like this in my hometown is pretty cool.”

“Buster and I feel a great sense of pride being able to do this for our fellow Vermonters,” Lincoln said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #127 (Wednesday, November 16, 2011).

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