07/16/10 1:45 PM ET
Baseball wives tour Gulf Coast
Group raising awareness of those affected by oil spill
By Brian McTaggart / MLB.com
They came because they cared. And they left with heavy hearts, along with countless stories of how the lives of the hard-working people have been altered as much as the Louisiana coastline itself. The way of life in these parts may never be quite the same.
The images of oil-slickened waters and the concerned looks from the faces of those residents who depend on the wetlands, fisheries and beaches to support their families made an unforgettable impact on a group of current and former Major League Baseball players' wives who toured the area last week. A new cap installed Thursday appears to have stopped the flow of oil for the first time in months.
Elizabeth Condrey, who grew up near the Texas coastline and is the wife of Minnesota Twins pitcher Clay Condrey, was among a handful of wives who got a firsthand look at the devastation caused by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill on behalf of the Baseball Wives Charitable Foundation, a non-profit group founded in 2006 by wives of MLB players. The group also toured the area after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005.
The wives were invited back by representatives of the city of New Orleans, Grand Isle in Jefferson Parish and Plaquemines Parish, all in Louisiana.
"They asked us to come down and take our experiences and stories back to our hometowns and cities," said Jill Borkowski, wife of former Major League pitcher and current Minor League pitching coach Dave Borkowski. "It's really wonderful to come down here and see it firsthand and be able to bring that back to family and friends, teams and hometowns."
Residents and businesses along the coast have been dealing with oil washing up on their beaches and marshlands since shortly after an oil rig exploded in April, killing 11 platform workers, and began spilling millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
The spill has damaged the area's fishing and tourism industries and is considered one of the largest environmental disasters in the country's history. It has already had a huge impact on marine animals and wildlife in the area.
"It's almost overwhelming to come down here and hear the stories," Borkowski said.
Other wives who participated were: Megan Thomas (former slugger Frank Thomas), Jamie Buehrle (While Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle), Cass Relaford (former player Desi Relaford), Erin Romero (Phillies pitcher J.C. Romero), Julianne Gamel (Brewers third baseman Mat Gamel), Jessica Maholm (Pirates pitcher Paul Maholm), Crystal Durbin (Phillies pitcher Chad Durbin) and Anne Ogea (former pitcher Chad Ogea).
The three-day trip began when the wives arrived in New Orleans on July 4. They took a boat ride to Grand Isle the following day to meet with the mayor, residents and business owners, and to hear their stories. The beach was full of pop-up tents housing the cleanup workers, and the water was full of booms serving as a barrier between the oil and the beach.
When they returned to New Orleans, the wives were presented with a proclamation for their volunteer work by New Orleans councilmember Arnie Fielkow, former president of the Southern League.
"It was a wonderful opportunity for them to see firsthand the effects of the oil spill on the region and talk to some of the small business owners and citizens who have been affected directly by this manmade tragedy," Fielkow said. "From our standpoint, it was an honor to be able to welcome them. We spent an hour in my office talking about recovery efforts, and I asked them to go back to their respective communities and talk to their husbands and Major League Baseball in general and serve as ambassadors in our region."
On July 6, the wives threw out the first pitch at a Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs game to promote their Text 2 Give campaign, and later toured an animal shelter in Plaquemines Parish to hear how the oil disaster is affecting the wildlife. The wives returned to their homes, eager to spread the word about what they saw.
"Most people think as soon as the well is capped, everything is going to go back to normal, but in reality no one knows what kind of effect it's going to have," Condrey said.
Borkowski said residents and small business owners in Grand Isle were frustrated by how long it was taking to stop the oil leak, and they felt the story was slowly becoming a backburner issue in the nation's consciousness, even though the oil was continuing to wash ashore.
"They really feel like people in other parts of the country are over it, losing interest in it," Borkowski said. "They feel like people do not care about what's going on in the Gulf."
Michelle Chouinard, 53, and her 60-year-old husband, Lanny, sold the family sporting goods business in Chicago and invested their life savings to buy Island House RV Park on Grand Isle in 2008. They saw it as a way to enjoy their retirement along the sandy beach, all the while keeping busy before they were ready to fully retire.
The typical scene at the RV park this time of year would have families with children going in all directions, spraying each other with water and riding golf carts around the grounds.
"Happy people doing happy things," Chouinard said. "How is it now? I have a campground full of folks that are here because of the oil."
The Chouinards are making money this summer from the workers who are in the area to help clean up the oil, but it's a one-shot deal. The vacationers are gone, and Chouinard wonders if the tourists will ever come back. She wonders what happens when the well gets capped and the money and attention stop flowing in. She wonders if Grand Isle will survive.
"You come here for a reason and you stay for a reason, and now there's nothing," she said. "We bought this campground thinking we could live our life here and use the income to sustain us because Social Security isn't enough. Here we are with our investment and the love of our life, and now it's gone.
"We're totally at wit's end and totally desperate. It's an absolutely horrible thing for people who just want to do things the right way. The water is fouled for how long? We don't know. We came here to live on the beach, fish, relax, to be hosts and hostesses for folks that visit the island. Now there's none of that, and will be none of that. We're just a bunch of real good people trying to get through life."
Grand Isle, which has two gas stations, one grocery store and recently got its first chain restaurant when a Subway sandwich shop opened, is a long way from the hustle and bustle of the city. That's what the residents love about it, but now Chouinard said they can't step outside without smelling the toxic air or feel burning in their eyes.
"It's hard for me to wrap my head around a community that's so small and tight-knit and having to understand their way of life has been changed in a blink of an eye," Borkowski said. "People are walking outside their houses and their lungs burn and eyes water. Residents are getting sick. We walked away going, 'Wow.' There's so much to absorb. And where do we start and what's the best way to help them?"
Chouinard was touched the wives were willing to take the 1 1/2-hour boat ride to Grand Isle and listen to the heartbreaking stories of the locals. She hopes they spread the word of the despair that's taking place along the coastline.
"Those ladies, because of who they are, they know people," she said. "They have 15 husbands and fathers, and each of them have a few people they know. Maybe they can get the word out to the people that are highly placed, who maybe have something they can do, or didn't do something they should have done."
And that was the reason for the trip, to raise awareness and make sure those living in Ohio and California and New York don't forget about what's going on along the Gulf Coast -- to make sure the people of Louisiana are not forgotten.
"Our country has a short attention span and the news cycles turns by the minute," Fielkow said. "Our challenge is to make sure people understand, just like they did with Katrina, [that] we'll be dealing with this oil spill and the aftermath for years. We would like to keep this a top-of-the-mind issue, and we need the federal government to continue to be supportive to help us get through the claims that will be coming down over the next several years. The baseball wives provided a tremendous voice as ambassadors for the region."
So how you can you help? By texting the word RESTORE to 50555 between now and July 31, $10 will be added to your cell phone bill and will help aid the region. Half of the proceeds raised will go to the National Audubon Society, which has been helping clean oil-soaked birds, and 50 percent will be distributed to a variety of charities in the area, with the wives recommending how it should be spent.
"This is something that's affected us all," Borkowski said, "and the Gulf Coast region needs our support and donations."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.