MLB Ace Cole Hamels' Star Power Stretches 9,000 Miles Away to Africa

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistSeptember 10, 2015

Former Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Cole Hamels  takes questions from the media after being traded to the Texas Rangers prior to the first inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Friday, July 31, 2015, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
Chris Szagola/Associated Press

You want to do something to make this big old world a better place. You look around. So many people need help. So many places. Where do you even start?

Your honeymoon? Yeah, sometimes that's as good of a place as any.

It was 2006 when Cole and Heidi Hamels married and honeymooned in South Africa. They saw all of the cool sights. Beautiful scenery. Breathtaking wildlife.

They also veered off of the well-traveled roads to make sure they saw other areas. Abject poverty. AIDS-stricken children living in deplorable conditions. Moments that would stop a conversation dead in its tracks while flipping through the pages of your traditional honeymoon photo album.

"We wanted to see the world, not just stay in touch with our hotels," Hamels told me the other day. "Going out and really trying to discover what the world has to offer. That's the best way to learn."

What you quickly learn is, what the world has to offer so often depends on whether you were born with a guardian angel looking over your shoulder and a lottery ticket in your hand. There is so much beauty. And so much heartbreak.

So they came home and resumed the big league life. Bright lights. Charter flights. Five-star hotels.

And they didn't forget.

Nine years later, through The Hamels Foundation, a school stands in Malawi, a tiny country in southern Africa, that some 640 orphaned children attend. There are firm plans for more buildings to accommodate some 2,000 children.

Credit: The Hamels Foundation

Closer to home, the foundation has donated more than $1 million to Philadelphia public schools. And on Christmas Eve 2012, Cole and Heidi adopted a baby girl from Ethiopia, named her Reeve Keneane and brought their worlds even closer together.

"Cole and Heidi, that's a dynamic duo right there," says agent John Boggs, who has represented Hamels since the Phillies made him their first-round pick in the 2002 draft out of Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego.

As the new school year begins, maybe now is a good time to step away, even for just a moment, from the "Common Core" educational initiative and No. 2 pencils to instead focus on something even more common among us: our basic humanity.

You surely know Hamels as a World Series-winning pitcher with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008. You probably were quite familiar with him as a walking trade rumor from last winter through July 30, when the Phillies finally dealt him to the Texas Rangers.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

But behind that '08 World Series MVP award and all of that subsequent trade talk is a man with an inquiring mind and a giving heart whose baseball star now stretches 9,000 miles across the globe to a tiny, landlocked country nicknamed "the Warm Heart of Africa." 

Cole and Heidi started the foundation in 2009. Their initial goal simply was to do things to help provide the necessary resources for children to receive an education and, in their own ways, thrive. From their trip to Africa, they became interested in which areas of the globe were the most desperate and how they could have a significant impact.

They saw the AIDS epidemic up close and how it affected cities and countries in Africa.

"We were looking at what's the best solution, and everything has to fall back on education," Hamels says. "If people don't have the right type of education and knowledge, then they make the same type of mistakes over and over and over.

"We looked into Malawi because, per capita, it suffers the most in that country."

So they partnered with a local medical charity that introduced them to the culture, areas in need and its tribal leaders.

"With that we were able to go in, because you don't just go in and disrupt peoples' lives," Hamels says. "You have to have their support. And there are a lot of organizations that promise things and then come in and don't deliver. We never want to be associated with that. So it takes a long time."

They finally broke ground on the school on Nov. 1, 2012. The building that opened last September is Phase 1.

Two years after breaking ground, the Hamels Foundation helped open a school in Malawi for more than 600 orphaned children to attend.
Two years after breaking ground, the Hamels Foundation helped open a school in Malawi for more than 600 orphaned children to attend.Credit: The Hamels Foundation

"We've got students in classes, teachers," Hamels says. "They had some flooding there, and our school was actually used for shelter, too, that a lot of people never would have had. So it's dual-purpose."

The plan now is for Phase 2 and Phase 3 to come next, in short order.

"We need more buildings," Hamels says. "You can't just stuff all of these kids into one building. We want to break it up into what schools are here. You have grade levels, and they each have a building. And you build teachers' quarters because, in order for the teachers to want to be there, they can't walk, and they don't have cars, so they have to be able to live there during the school year, and we have to provide them with the necessities.

"The students are the ones who can walk in, commute in. The [blueprints] are done."

Education always has been paramount for the Hamelses. Heidi is a former schoolteacher. Cole's mother, Amanda, is a schoolteacher. His father, Gary, was an assistant superintendent of schools until he retired in June.

"It's a natural fit with what both of our beliefs are," says Hamels, who signed a six-year, $144 million deal with the Phillies in July 2012. "When you're put in a position that we are put in, you want to be able to give back to your community. Being an outstanding citizen, that's kind of what you should do."

Of course, words are easy. It is actions that sometimes come slowly.

How many times have you heard someone talk big about their plans, and you silently think to yourself, "Yeah, right?"

"That's usually the response you have," Boggs says. "The original concept of what they wanted to do and then actually making it a reality, the fact that there is a standing building, a school, with education ongoing, that's amazing."

As Boggs says, Hamels at this point "could sit there under a tree, drinking a pina colada, and simply donate to charity."

Instead, he donates spikes and other equipment to the baseball program at his old high school. And during the winter, he attends the monthly board meetings of his foundation (his attendance is hit-and-miss during the summer, given the grinding baseball schedule).

Plans for the school in Malawi include an expansion to eventually accommodate 2,000 students.
Plans for the school in Malawi include an expansion to eventually accommodate 2,000 students.Credit: The Hamels Foundation

And understanding that lots of folks would rather keep their charitable donations in their own city, while the Malawi project was launching, the foundation worked toward raising money for public education in Philadelphia, too. They surpassed $1 million donated earlier this year and celebrated at a Philadelphia elementary school in May.

By July, the baseball world was in heavy-breathing mode over the Phillies potentially trading Hamels, and though he had a limited no-trade clause by which he could influence a deal to a desired location, you can see why trade talks are easy from the outside but extremely complicated for those involved.

Though the bottom line was that Hamels wanted to win—and it was clear he was no longer in a place equipped to do that in Philadelphia—there were still family and charity concerns.

The Malawi project, of course, continues unabated. Hamels has made it clear he wants to continue helping schools in Philadelphia. The way he figures it, for as long as he was there and as much as the city gave to him, it's the least he can do.

But there is now a new frontier in Texas, and the foundation continues supporting children in Heidi's native Missouri and in Cole's native San Diego.

Chris Szagola/Associated Press

Meantime, with Cole on the road with the Rangers, Heidi is busy at home with sons Caleb Michael (five-and-a-half years old) and Braxton Grady (three-and-a-half) and, of course, with daughter Reeve (three), who was abandoned at birth in Ethiopia.

"[Adopting] was something my wife, who has, really, the most endearing heart ever, wanted to be able to do," Hamels says. "I never even thought about it.

"As an athlete, you're only thinking about baseball, and you think it's going to last forever. Getting married and having kids, that conversation came up, and it probably was one of the most wonderful ideas in the world. We've been blessed. We aren't [only] helping out her; it's mutual. She's helping us out."

Cole and Heidi traveled to Ethiopia twice during the three-year adoption process before it finally became official that they had a new daughter on Christmas Eve 2012. Sportscaster Jeff Skversky of 6ABC, WPVI-TV, shared a Hamels family photo:

"We're never going to hide the fact that, obviously, she's adopted and how wonderful it is and how lucky we are," Hamels says. "It educates our family even more because it doesn't just affect us. My parents, her parents, uncles, aunts, brothers.

"It's been a great moment for all of us, for our family as a whole."

It is a big world out there, from the United States to Africa, from Philadelphia to Texas, and maybe if you play it right, like tossing a rock into a lake, a few good deeds will send ripple effects carrying outward.

Cole is dreaming now, looking into the future, beyond whatever the Rangers do over these final few weeks and into October. He sees those blueprints coming to fruition and finished grade-level buildings in Malawi.

More than a decade ago, Heidi was on the television show Survivor, and he sees one of her friends from that series, Ethan Zohn, taking his Grassroot soccer charity and building a soccer field for the kids. It is something they've talked about.

"That would be unbelievable," Hamels says. "To not only have the education part, but also a sport, to get what we're semi-getting here. It takes a lot."

He mentions Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw and the charitable outreach he does in Zambia, which, like Malawi, is another small, landlocked country in southern Africa. And he adds how great it would be if one day they could add a church to the Malawi school community along with that soccer field.

He's getting ahead of himself, he knows, and that much is evident when I run the idea by Kershaw a few days later, and Kershaw smiles warmly and says, "It sounds great, but I have no idea."

The two really do not know each other much. But, as Hamels says, "We play baseball for only so long, and we have a lot of time after that. I think it could be something we could do in our retirement, because we're still going to be in our 40s and 50s."

Who knows? Time is what you make of it, and right now, things are happening. I phoned Kelly Anderson, director of operations for The Hamels Foundation, to check on a couple of things Tuesday, but he was in Malawi.

As the quote from Gandhi reads on the home page of the foundation's website, "Be the change you wish to see in the world."

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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