With plenty of healing left to do, California Strong athletes gather for another game

·MLB columnist
MALIBU, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 13:   Christian Yelich and Ryan Braun attend a charity softball game to benefit "California Strong" at Pepperdine University on January 13, 2019 in Malibu, California. (Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for California Strong)
Milwaukee Brewers teammates Christian Yelich and Ryan Braun are among a group of pro athletes who organized the California Strong Charity Softball Game in 2019. The game was played for the second time Sunday. (Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for California Strong)

MALIBU, Calif. — A year later, the hills and canyons are green again. There will be spring. The Borderline Bar & Grill is being rebuilt and will reopen. There will be dancing.

This is not to say life, anything, has resumed as normal, only that it may look the same from a distance. Between breaths. Between memories.

People everywhere still carry hard and cruel (and often imaginary) grudges. The earth itself seems pissed off. Yesterday’s fires, yesterday’s shootings, yesterday’s horrors, they grow over and they grow quieter and they grow distant. The ashes stay.

In a big world with enough big problems, they played a Sunday afternoon ballgame here on a small green patch in the hills over the Pacific Ocean. They raised some money for people who need it, or might one day. They don’t know all of their names yet, but they’re out there. They always are. Over a few hours, they waved away some of those ashes in the air.

Christian Yelich, Ryan Braun, Mike Moustakas and Jared Goff call themselves California Strong. They rallied once against wildfires and a mass shooting, when nature and illness and tragedy conspired against their communities across a few dark hours near the end of 2018. They found that cleaning up after the world could not be a job only for other people, that it was more than a check from a bottomless account, more than thoughts or prayers or both, that somebody would have to show up and give a crap and cry a little and help the hills to green and the people to dance, to start over.

It’s not easy work and it’s not putting out those fires or mopping up after them either, and it’s not having to say goodbye forever and meaning it. They instead lend a broad shoulder and as much empathy as they’re allowed from the folks who’d mopped up after their own homes and said goodbye to their own sons and daughters and husbands and wives, some of which could be rebuilt and most of which could not be, not ever.

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A year later, they drove up the coast or down it or they came over the canyons from the east, up the narrow and curly roads and then down the other side. They were on their way to play in that ballgame, the California Strong Celebrity Softball Game, to let their shirt tails flap and turn their caps around and honor the calling heard by their buddies, who’d stood among the fires and shooting and chose to help. On those drives, they’d all had the same view.

“It was beautiful and green,” said Max Fried, the Atlanta Braves lefty who’d come over the pass with his mom.

He said it with a grin, like he almost couldn’t believe it, like these are the wins you have to take.

“You see how much progress was made,” he said. “Not only nature restoring itself, but the community too.”

So, on an otherwise football Sunday, California Strong opened its doors and in walked Fried. In walked Cody Bellinger and Giancarlo Stanton and Charlie Sheen and Robert Horry. Fried got some throwing in with St. Louis Cardinals star Jack Flaherty, who later talked ball with Dave Winfield. Bellinger ran post patterns for Goff, the Los Angeles Rams quarterback. Rob Lowe brought a son or two.

Carli Skaggs threw out the first pitch. She did that left-handed. The last time some of these folks saw Tyler, her husband, had been here, on this field, the first time they played this game. He died five months later. The moment of silence Sunday afternoon was for Tyler and for the people who suffer under what is now California Strong’s watch. It has raised something like $3 million in a little more than a year and helped hundreds of families suddenly with nowhere to live or nothing to eat or no one to count on. Who are wrung out. Who maybe have heard of a Christian Yelich or a Jared Goff, who maybe care who was the National League MVP (or who wasn’t), who maybe follow silly games played to distract us a little.

Mostly, probably, they’d need some luck, didn’t matter from where. They’d need some love, didn’t matter from whom. Maybe a little green on the mountains. Maybe some music. Start there.

“Unfortunately,” Moustakas said, “something’s always going to happen. As hard as that is, and there’s no way to prepare for everything, we will have a better chance of helping more families.”

Yelich sighed and granted there’s hardly any stopping the bad stuff.

“Other things are going to happen in our state,” he said.

They showed up a year ago and made sure a few more children had some childhood left. They helped the rebuilds. They caught the ceremonial first pitches. They let the hugs linger. They promised to stay in touch and then they did.

They did their part. With some help, they also made the world a little greener.

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