Helping Underserved Baseball Players Slide Into Home Plate

By Carly Grimaudo
Special to 

In our society today, education is the key to achievement and success, but one's access to this crucial necessity is often limited by economic factors including rising tuitions and a demise in opportunities for scholarships and loans. Such economic effects on higher education greatly hinder the possibilities for young adults of low-income families to enroll in the college of their dreams and reap the same benefits of those who are not disadvantaged by this institutional inequality.

While athletic talent and involvement stands as a gateway to college scholarships, a shift in the college recruitment system, towards a focus on club sports versus high school sports, limits the pool of potential scholarship recipients to only those who can afford the high cost of team memberships and showcase fees. As a result, low-income athletes, who are unable to foot the pricey bill of club team fees and tournaments, fall off the map and miss out on pivotal opportunities to present their skills and attract the attention of college recruiters.

Holy Cross graduate and baseball alum, Mike Schell (Class of 2005), combined his passion for baseball with the Jesuit philosophy of being "men and women for others" to create The Cannonball Foundation in efforts to eliminate the social disadvantage created between club baseball and collegiate athletics. The foundation, which was co-founded by Worcester native Mike Ginns, was originally founded as an organization to promote the largely unknown history of Will "Cannonball" Jackman and the significant contributions of the New England Negro Leagues to the region's sports history. The foundation is now aimed toward incorporating Jackman's baseball story as a platform to develop baseball and softball scholar athletes from low-income communities and aid them in creating a path to their college careers.

Jackman is considered by baseball historians as one the best pitchers of all-time, but never received the acclaim or the opportunities he deserved. Like Will "Cannonball" Jackman, prior to entrance into the Cannonball Foundation, a young low-income athlete, "Is a symbol of someone who was not given the shot he deserved," said Schell. Schell is determined to curb this trend through the rise of his foundation.

After four years as a shortstop on the baseball field and a student in the classroom, Schell's experiences at Holy Cross led him to develop a tremendous sense of pride and gratitude for the chance he was given to attend an elite college and play the sport he loved at the same time. "Sports are a major vehicle for learning character and leadership, in addition to gaining a valuable method for becoming a college student. I was fortunate to play four years at Holy Cross with some great teammates," said Schell.

As someone who has been very involved in player development since graduation and who recognizes the diminishing opportunities for players and families from underserved areas, Schell created The Cannonball Foundation to assure that the low income baseball youth of the New England region would not miss these opportunities for academics, athletics and personal growth. With the influence of a four-year Holy Cross education, where both students and professors commit themselves to giving back and bettering the community, Schell established an outstanding foundation that "does the most good, for the most people."

The Cannonball Foundation, which was established in 2010, provides high school student-athletes from New England's underserved communities with opportunities for competitive play, individualized assistance in the college admissions process, and a range of supports to promote personal, athletic and educational growth. At the same time, it gives members the chance to work with organizations committed to serving those challenged with physical, emotional and mental disabilities. The foundation is comprised of two key programs that incorporate the foundation's platforms of "From Pay-to-Play to Pay-It-Forward-to-Play" and "Learning to Lead: On the Field, In the Classroom, In the Community."

Through The Cannonball Prospects program, young athletes who are hungry to learn, and willing to take ownership of their lives are placed into a competitive summer schedule that consists of many of the Northeast's and nation's top showcase tournaments. Such tournaments are widely attended by college scouts searching for top quality student-athletes for their programs. The same players the program trains in baseball are prepared for other aspects of college recruitment like the college admissions process and test prep skills and information.

"The carefully selected prospect team is comprised of those in financial need who possess the skill, will and academic commitment essential to collegiate success," reveals Schell. With the help of committed counselors and coaches, like Schell, and the full funding for expensive recruitment tournaments from donation money, aspiring athletes are able to thrive in The Cannonball Prospects' environment and pave their own paths towards successful futures.  

Likewise, the Cannonball Foundation's "Leaders in the Lineup" program was designed by Schell and his partners to give prospects in the program the opportunity to grow as a leader in the community, not just as a player on the field. In this program, the Cannonball prospects "pay it forward" through donating their time and actively working with teams and organizations that support the mentally, physically and emotionally challenged community.

By joining forces with organizations like Special Olympics, The Miracle League and Hugs for Heroes, the Cannonball Foundation's prospects engage in ways to improve the lives of those with disabilities. Whether it be pushing a child in a wheelchair across home plate, or mentoring a child in need of one-on-one attention, the Cannonball Prospects in the "Leaders in the Lineup" program pay it forward to play, and have a great time doing it. With this program, Schell and his team created a method of "doing the most good for the most people," through America's greatest pastime.

Overall, the foundation and its two fundamental programs use baseball to teach valuable traits needed to be successful on the field and beyond. "We address how baseball is so important for teaching life lessons of dealing with failure, success, supporting others, overcoming trying times, always preparing for the next opportunity and staying positive and persistent," declared Schell.

Across the course of the foundation's existence, the Holy Cross community, and more specifically the baseball team, have put forth a tremendous effort to assist Schell and his team in meeting the levels of achievement they have today. Schell notes how the incredible help from the coaching staff and alumni makes their program a success and betters the lives of the prospects and those they work with. "Coaches Greg DiCenzo, Jeff Kane and Ron Rakowski are real leaders for us. From coaching at area clinics, to speaking at gatherings, they have always been there to move the mission forward." Some alumni Schell considers important sources of support include Rick DeAngelis, Eric Oxford, Nate Koneski and Dan Powers along with countless others who have aided the foundation in one way or another.

Since it is clear the Cannonball Foundation has a strong sense of backing from those familiar with its efforts, Schell seeks to use the foundation's expanding support to accomplish several of his future goals. While Schell has an array of various ideas for the upcoming years, there are three key ones that he strives to transform into a reality for the foundation and its programs. First, he and his team are in the process of locating the greatest areas of need throughout the country, where he can add other Cannonball Prospect teams. Next, Schell wants to continue strengthening the college prep program by adding top-notch educators and partnering with schools and programs who serve their target population. Lastly, Schell aims to provide Cannonball student-athletes with the most meaningful service opportunities.

When Schell and his team reach these three primary goals, there is no telling what successes will come to the foundation next, but through the passionate efforts of founder Mike Schell and the help of his team and the Holy Cross community, there is no limit on how many lives the Cannonball Foundation will impact or how many young athletes will acquire the opportunity to accomplish their dreams of playing college baseball.