Cover Story – Shane Victorino

By Joan Tupponce

Shane Victorino
Shane Victorino
Philadelphia Phillies World Series champion Shane Victorino snaps on his gloves as he prepares for batting practice on a steamy afternoon in the nation’s capital. In a few hours, the Phillies will take the field against the Washington Nationals.

It’s only 2:30 p.m. but it’s been a long day for the popular centerfielder. He arrived in Washington around 3 a.m. and immediately accepted an invitation to visit a soldier injured in Afghanistan – a Phillies fan – who was a patient at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. “I told them I would be honored to go over there,” says Victorino.

When he entered the hospital room around midday, the young soldier’s face broke into a huge smile. “It lifted his spirits,” says Victorino, who is grateful the community loves his team. “I love the community too.”

Since joining the Phillies organization in 2005, Victorino has made his mark not only on the hearts of the city and fans but also on the game of baseball. In 2010 he earned his third consecutive National League Rawlings Gold Glove Award, given for excellence in field performance. In 2011 he became the first two-time winner of the All-Star game’s “Final Vote” to earn the remaining spot on the 2011 National League All-Star team. He led all vote-getters in the “Final Vote” competition, with 9.2 million ballots cast in his favor. In 2009, he won the All-Star game’s “Final Vote” with more than 15 million votes to become the first Hawaiianborn position player to be named to the All-Star team.

In 2008, Victorino played a key role in helping the Phillies win their first World Series championship in 28 years. In the second game of the National League Division Series he hit his first Major League grand slam, marking also the first grand slam in Phillies postseason history.

While some may think of Victorino only in terms of his accomplishments on the baseball field, it’s his generosity, charitable efforts, family dedication and community mindedness that truly speak to his spirit. This year, the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association honored the 30-year-old baseball star as the Humanitarian of the Year. In 2010, he earned the Phillies’ Tug McGraw Good Guy Award and was selected as the Phillies nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award and the team’s Community Service Award. In 2008 he received the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award for best exemplifying the character and integrity, both on and off the field, of “The Iron Horse.”

And, if that wasn’t enough, in 2010, Victorino and his wife, Melissa, started the Shane Victorino Foundation, pledging nearly $1 million to Boys & Girls Clubs of Philadelphia to renovate its 105-year-old Nicetown facility, located in an impoverished area of the city. “When I got the call that Nicetown was the area [that needed help] I researched it and told them ‘I am in. I’ll do whatever I need to do for this program. I want to make it happen,'” Victorino says.

The seed for the foundation and for Victorino’s benevolent nature was planted during his childhood. “It goes back to my parents,” he says after slipping into the visitor dugout and grabbing a spot on the bench. “My dad was a city councilman back home and felt he wanted to make an impact [on the community.]” One of only a few Maui natives to play in the major leagues, Victorino credits the support he received from his parents, Mike and Joycelyn, as the guiding force behind his career. The two recently won the George and Barbara Bush Little League Parents of the Year Award for 2011, which is given to parents of a Major League Baseball player who were involved in their child’s Little League experience.

Growing up, Victorino’s life was “like that of any other kid,” he says. “There wasn’t any difference other than we have beautiful beaches.”

Victorino learned he had attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) when he was very young. His parents encouraged him to play sports as a release for his seemingly endless vitality. “My parents wanted to keep me occupied and active,” he says. “Because I was hyperactive I had a lot of energy. Mom always found that was the way to ease up some of the energy and keep me busy.”

In addition to sports – he played soccer and baseball and ran track during his early years – Victorino participated in Boy Scouts as a way to keep focused. “My therapist felt like it was a benefit,” he says. It was during his youth that he had his first brush with the Boys & Girls Clubs in Maui. Some of his friends and classmates went to the programs and he would often visit them at one of the clubs. “I wasn’t part of the program but they let me play there with my friends,” he says.

Sports were Victorino’s “life” at the time, he says. “I knew I wanted to be a professional athlete. That was my goal from day one.” Soccer was his first passion, then football. He had wanted to play football when he was young but his parents worried about the physical contact in the game. During his junior year at St. Anthony’s High School, he began playing organized football and was a four-sport star in football, soccer, track and baseball. “Football was my favorite sport then,” he says. “I wanted to be an NFL player.”

Victorino valued his father’s opinions and the two often had discussions about his future. “My dad asked me, ‘What do you want to do after high school?'” he recalls. “I told him I wanted to play football collegiately.” During their talks his father asked him to think about the longevity of a football career and consider his size (he’s 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighs 190 pounds). Victorino realized the points were valid and then considered a career in soccer, but nixed that idea because the sport had not gained the popularity it has today in the United States.

The one constant trait in all of the sports he played was his speed. Now dubbed the “Flyin’ Hawaiian,” Victorino wanted to utilize that ability. “I was blessed by God to have speed and I knew I wanted to run for a living,” he says. His dad asked him if he had ever contemplated a career in baseball. “He said I should look at the possibilities and I thought, ‘That’s a good point,'” he says. “‘Maybe baseball is something I should focus on.'”

Victorino, who up until this moment has been talking at a fast pace, takes a second to look up at the field where his teammates are still batting. He goes on to explain that he never thought when he and his dad were talking about baseball that he would be a Major League Baseball player or a World Series champion. “No way,” he says, with a grin. “My dad just started to guide me in the right direction.”

Victorino was still at St. Anthony’s when the Los Angeles Dodgers drafted him in the sixth round of the 1999 First Year Player Draft. In 2002, the San Diego Padres drafted him from the Dodgers as part of the Rule 5 Draft. He made his MLB debut in 2003 for the Padres, playing in 36 games. He joined the Phillies in 2004, again via the Rule 5 Draft, and started playing for their minor league club.

Moving up to the big leagues and then down again was frustrating for the eager player. “There were days I called home and said, ‘I want to quit,'” he recalls. “I was 22 years old when I got sent back down and I thought, ‘Will I ever get back there?’ It took hard work and dedication.”

He remembers calling his dad in 2004 and telling him he wasn’t having fun anymore. “I was done,” he says. “I asked if I could come home.” His dad told him he could, but assured him that if he came home he wasn’t going back to baseball. That dictum was a “rude awakening,” Victorino says. “The next day I had a decent game and I kept going.”

Having a career in baseball has its trials and tribulations, he adds. “There are a lot of ups and downs and you think [to yourself], ‘When am I going to get a shot?'”

It was during those highs and lows that Victorino met Melissa in Las Vegas. She had moved to the popular Nevada city from her hometown of Soldotna, Alaska, to attend college. The couple married in November 2009 and have three children, a daughter, Kali’a McKenna and two sons, Kingston Shane and Keenan.

Melissa was drawn to Victorino’s “positive energy.” “His personality is out in the open,” she says. “He has a very big heart and he’s an amazing father and family man.”

Victorino, a natural right-handed player, was 22 when he started switch-hitting as a way to challenge himself. He got frustrated during his second season in the minor leagues and gave up on that exercise. His coach, Gene Richards, suggested he try it again because of his speed and good hand-eye coordination. “I did drills every day,” Victorino says. “Today, I thank him every day because he persuaded me to be a switch hitter.”

When it comes to playing the game, the centerfielder says he’s just as proud of making a game-saving catch as he is hitting a home run. “I always take pride in defense,” he says. “It’s one of those things you should never slack up on. You can’t make an error.”

Like many kids who play baseball, Victorino used to fantasize about winning the World Series. Playing in the 2008 World Series was the culmination of that childhood dream. “That was that moment,” he says. He remembers the second he and his teammates realized they had clinched the title. “I felt like I ran a mile from centerfield,” he says. “I screamed and yelled. It’s one of those moments you will always remember.” The World Series was equally exciting for Victorino’s family. Melissa and the couple’s daughter, who was 18 months old at the time, attended every game. The victory parade in Philly was “like the eighth wonder of the world,” says Melissa. “I can’t even explain it. It was nothing like I’ve ever seen or will see again.”

There was another moment – this one very touching and private – that Victorino will never forget. His maternal grandmother passed away during the National League Division Series in 2008. He was given the news after finishing one of the games and wrote in his blog about his feelings and why he decided to stay and continue playing in the series. “Losing a loved one is hard but it’s something that happens to everyone. [My grandmother] would want me to be here and take care of what I need to on the field. We’ll leave it at that. I want to be here.”

Victorino was close to all of his grandparents, especially his maternal grandparents, who lived on the same island. “My dad was involved in the community and my mom worked two jobs so I spent a lot of time with my [maternal] grandparents,” he says. “I was also close to my grandpa (my dad’s father). We were best friends.”

Today, Philadelphia is home for the “Flyin’ Hawaiian” during baseball season. The fans in Philly love him and he loves the fans. “They are passionate about sports,” he says. “They let you know when you’re making a mistake because they know the game. That is what makes Philly fans the greatest.”

When he came to the team in 2005, he felt like a lot of fans expected the team to fail. “Now they expect us to win,” he says. “We try to live up to [those] high expectations. If we don’t succeed, there is a feeling of letting them down.”

Fans are loyal to Victorino, backing him during instances such as the player scuffle that erupted in August after he was hit by a pitch from San Francisco Giants pitcher Ramon Ramirez. The centerfielder received a two-day suspension after an appeal.

Phillies fans are hardworking blue-collar people, says Victorino. “If you don’t give that [hard work] in return, they don’t feel like they have that connection. If you work hard, they will love you.”

That sentiment also holds true for the thousands of children who love Victorino and his wife for helping to make their lives better through the projects of the Shane Victorino Foundation. The nonprofit provides education, wellness and recreational opportunities for underserved children in Victorino’s native Hawaii and the couple’s adopted community of Philadelphia.

During the past three years, the foundation has raised nearly a half-million dollars for various charities in Hawaii, including the Hawaii Children’s Cancer Foundation, Boys & Girls Clubs of Maui, Alzheimer’s Association Aloha Chapter, Waipio Little League and St. Anthony’s School.

The idea for the foundation started when Victorino made it to the big leagues. “When I signed my three-year extension, I said [to Melissa], ‘Let’s start a foundation and give back to the community,'” he says.

Melissa was of the same mindset. “Philly is like our second home now and Shane understands how children in Philly look up to him,” she says. “The community has given so much to us. We want to give back to the city.”

The couple didn’t go into their foundation blindly. They had started a celebrity golf tournament (now hosted by the foundation) in Maui a few years back to benefit charities and children on the island. “Every November we go to Hawaii for our golf event and spend Thanksgiving with the family,” she says. “We are trying to expand the golf tournament and do one in Oahu in January.”

They knew the foundation would require a lot of additional time and labor. “We are hard workers and we want to fulfill our goal,” she says. “We are extremely hands-on with the foundation.”

In August, the two spent the day painting walls at the Nicetown Boys & Girls Club, getting it ready for its Sept. 22 grand reopening when it was renamed the “Shane Victorino Nicetown Boys & Girls Club.” It is one of only two clubs named after an MLB player (the other club was named for Hall of Famer Willie Mays).

“It’s definitely an honor to have the building named after me and to be only the second baseball player [to be recognized] in regard to philanthropy,” Victorino says, adding that he believes when you put your name to something, you “go after it 100 percent. I want to be part of my foundation. I am going to be responsible. I like to be involved in the community and I like to help. My wife always says it’s therapy for me.”

When it comes to generating ideas, Melissa says it was Victorino’s idea to stage a fashion show as a fundraiser for the foundation. “Shane is the mastermind behind the events,” she says. “He gets on the phone and makes the calls. I work with the volunteers. I spend a few hours each day working with the foundation. We make sure we have the steering wheel.”

Jeffrey Waldron, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Philadelphia, is impressed with the couple’s willingness to pitch in. “It’s been a special relationship,” he says. “They are invested. They are totally involved and that makes it more special.”

The neighborhood club serves up to 1,000 children. It’s not the only Philadelphia Boys & Girls Club Victorino has visited. He popped into one of the organization’s clubs in King of Prussia last holiday season on his way to a card show in the area. “He called and said, ‘I want to spend some time with the boys and girls at the club,'” Waldron says. “He came to that club and spent the morning with the kids, answering their questions and talking with them. He brought a lot of Phillies stuff for them.”

The kids were wide-eyed when Victorino walked into the room. “They were awestruck,” Waldron says. “It’s not very often that you have a popular athlete come to your club.”

During visits Victorino listens to what the children have to say and responds to their questions. “Shane embraces kids,” Waldron says. “He gets on the same level with them.” Victorino visited another Philadelphia club with some of the Phillies coaches to stage a baseball clinic. “It was a great day,” Waldron says, noting that it’s not just the children that are in awe of the popular player. “You could see the same reaction from the workers in the Nicetown building. He’s very well-recognized in the city.”

The attraction stems from Victorino’s amiable personality. “He’s a nice guy,” Waldron says. “He’s a guy you would want to pal around with, go golfing or bowling. He’s down-to-earth and his wife is the same way. They are very caring. They truly want to help kids.”

If you ask Victorino what comes first in his life, he will tell you, “God and family.” “I love to spend time with family,” he says. “It’s all about them.” If he wasn’t playing baseball, he’s not sure what he would do but says it would involve his father or his family. “Maybe a joint venture.”

Victorino wants to finish his baseball career in Philly. He knows that in the world of baseball that might not be reality. “I don’t want to go anywhere else,” he says, adding that his contract runs through 2012.

Waldron wants him to stay, as well. “Hopefully he will be at centerfield for a while. He should be. He’s a tremendous player.”

Whatever happens, Victorino is proud of the legacy he will leave to his children and to the citizens of Philadelphia. “I think we forever have a landmark in Philly,” he says. “I think my name will always be remembered and that I cherish.”