KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- With palm trees and shrubs lining the land behind them, the two dozen wide-eyed toddlers came streaming toward the truck that had just pulled up to their home.
Kyle McClellan was among a traveling party of 18, and within seconds, each one of them had Haitian children dangling from their arms, sitting on their laps or holding their hand. It was a yearning for affection, recalled McClellan, who was struck by how much these children wanted "to know that somebody cared about them and wanted to spend time with them."
The former Cardinals pitcher still describes the moment with the clarity offered by a photograph. He openly wishes that he had one, but then admits that a tangible snapshot isn't necessary. The image is forever permanent, and the impact has given him direction.
For the first time in 12 years, McClellan is not spending the final days of winter preparing to pitch. He has no contract, nor any assurance that his surgically-repaired shoulders -- yes, both of them -- will allow him to extend a pro career that began when the Cardinals made him their 25th-round Draft pick in 2002. He hopes to have his rehab work wrapped up in June and be on a Minor League mound by the end of July.
What McClellan does know, though, is that he will be running 13.1 miles around St. Louis on April 6. He signed up for the half-marathon race as a way to challenge himself to keep in shape while unable to throw. That was before he spent three days in Haiti, before he stepped out of the truck that January day to find himself swarmed by kids.
He now runs with them in mind.
McClellan's desire to participate in international mission work had never been strong enough to get him to sacrifice the little downtime that he had each winter. Baseball, McClellan said, had been his crutch, an excuse to put off such a trip until his post-playing days.
But with a series of injuries and surgeries last year, McClellan finally found himself with time, which is why his interest piqued when former teammate and friend Adam Wainwright started talking about his upcoming journey to Haiti. Having run a fantasy football fundraiser last year to raise money for Water Missions International, Wainwright wanted to travel somewhere to see the impact of the water purification system.
He was connected to Brad Henderson, president of the Pittsburgh Kids Foundation and chaplain for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who has made regular trips to Haiti to work with local orphanages for years. Wainwright and his wife, Jenny, decided to accompany Henderson to the Caribbean country in January.
McClellan, calling the decision a "no-brainer," asked if he could join.
As the trip approached, McClellan talked to Wainwright about the possibility of tying his two upcoming events -- the visit to Haiti and his first half-marathon -- together. By the end of McClellan's first day in Haiti, an idea had formed into a mission.
The 15-minute drive from the airport to the first of two orphanages gave the group their first glimpse into the daily life of the Haitian people. "The smell was the biggest thing," said McClellan, who likened the scene to a miles-long flea market. People filled the streets trying to sell goods and to get a look at the foreign visitors who were all standing in the back of a flatbed truck.
"You see how desperate of a situation it is, and how, literally, these people wake up and think, 'What do I have to do to survive today?'" McClellan said. "There are no jobs. There is nothing. There are no businesses. It was just so obvious that there was such a need. We just looked at each other and said, 'Man, we've got to help.'"
Pulling up at the EBAC orphanage, McClellan was also struck by hope.
"It was overwhelming to see how bad of a situation it is, but then we got to the orphanage and saw that the kids don't have to worry about that," McClellan said. "They know when they wake up that they have three meals a day that are going to be prepared for them. They know they have clothes, a school to go to. They were taken care of."
With three Major League pitchers -- Scott Linebrink being the other -- on the trip, it was only a matter of time before they started teaching the sport of baseball. They set up a makeshift diamond (first base was in the middle of sewage) and watched the kids slowly catch on as they each took turns with the Wiffle ball and bat.
That was after the kids had invited them to join in a two-hour game of soccer that the children played barefoot on a field dotted with rocks.
"They're just tough kids," Wainwright recalled.
The group then traveled down the road to a second orphanage, which had been established by six people who had once been orphans at EBAC. It took them 10 years to finish the building, which now houses 25 children under the age of 5. It was the purest form of giving back what had been given to them.
At the IDADEE orphanage, McClellan felt moved to help. He learned that for just under $200,000, another level could be built on the orphanage building. That would instantly make room for 40 more children.
It would become McClellan's reason to run.
"When we saw the way this was set up, it was a no-brainer that this is what we have to do," McClellan said. "If you look at the situation as a whole, it's overwhelming. How do we make that change in a country that you're so overwhelmed by poverty? It's through investing in the right people, and we really think this is the right way to do it."
McClellan had his longest training test yet last weekend, when he went out to run eight miles. He is staying true to his running schedule, but he's also fully invested in fundraising. Immediately after returning from Haiti, McClellan went to work finding sponsors and creating a website, www.braceforimpact46.com. He is asking for people to partner with him as he runs, pledging a donation that will go toward expanding the IDADEE orphanage.
McClellan and his wife, Bridget, have promised to match those donations up to $50,000. They are collecting the monies through Wainwright's already-established Waino's World nonprofit organization.
"Adam has had a huge influence on my life in a variety of ways, as far as being a teammate and a husband and a father and a man of faith," McClellan said. "I think it's really cool that he had an impact on me and then through this charity; we're coming back through his foundation to reach these kids in Haiti and have an impact on them. It's kind of giving back what's been given to me and to try to raise funds to get these kids off the street."
"I think that trip greatly impacted Kyle," Wainwright added. "Always talking about giving with Kyle before, Kyle always wanted to see where his money went. If he gave his money to something, he wanted to be on site and watch it work and know that it was going to a good thing. When he went over there to Haiti, he saw the impact those orphanages were having, and I feel like he really understands now what our giving can do in other countries."
McClellan's website features a video with images from his trip. He created that video not to elicit pity for the children he met, but rather to illustrate the hope that the orphanages provide them.
"These kids are perfectly fine with what they have," McClellan said. "These kids are full of energy and life, and they're loving life. They're loving life that, in our terms, is not easy to love. But we can improve their situation and help them be more successful when they get out of there and be able to reach more people through this orphanage."
McClellan realizes a time is soon coming when his attention will have to turn back to baseball. At 29 years old, he does believe that he has still has many more years left in his career, one in which he has already won a World Series ring and had the opportunity to play miles away from his childhood home.
This is just the jumping-off point of his charitable endeavors, though, and McClellan said he has promised himself that baseball and charity work won't be mutually exclusive again. The focus won't just be in Haiti, either, as McClellan said he envisions picking new projects in new places to "help as many people as we can."
Understand, too, that this has been a help for McClellan. It has given him purpose amid adversity and clarity in those moments when he begins to lament the injuries that have cost him most of the last two seasons. He needed that unselfish reason to run.
"This has really changed me and my wife's life, just in terms of the way we look at things and how we want to help people," McClellan said. "The injury made last year the worst year of my baseball career, but on the flip side of that, it was the best year for me as far as growing as a person and as a man of God. There have been a lot of really cool stuff that happened off the field, and you look back and think, 'I don't think this happens by mistake. I'm here for a reason.'
"Baseball has never been my identity. But baseball has given me a great platform to reach a lot of people, and hopefully impact a lot of people."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less