When Max Scherzer threw a MLB record-tying 20 strikeouts in a game earlier this season, it couldn't have come at a better time -- at least for the Polaris Project.
While the pitcher's historic performance is a highlight of Washington's early dominance in the NL East -- the Nationals are currently leading the division by three games -- his strikeout totals are benefiting the nonprofit organization through an innovative fundraising tool. This year, Polaris Project is running a campaign in which fans can pledge a small, recurring donation for every strikeout Scherzer throws in the regular season.
Suppose a fan pledges a dollar per strikeout. That 20-strikeout game triggers a $20 donation, with the proceeds being used to combat human trafficking and modern-day slavery in the United States.
It's an inventive promotion, especially for fans of the pitcher. But while the campaign has set a $25,000 fundraising goal for this season, an equally important goal of the promotion is to raise awareness of an often-overlooked social epidemic.
"[Human trafficking is] an underlying problem in our country. It affects more of our country than you realize," Scherzer says. "Once you realize that we obviously need to pay attention to this, the more voices you can lend to try to raise awareness, so that it's not just on the back burner -- it's on the forefront."
Scherzer's involvement with Polaris Project can be credited to his wife's role as an activist combating modern-day slavery and other issues of social justice. Erica May-Scherzer has worked as an activist and community worker for a number of organizations, ranging from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife to social justice organizations in Arizona, Michigan and Washington, D.C.
As a graduate student, May-Scherzer conducted case studies of safe-harbor laws designed to protect young human trafficking victims across the country. After her husband signed a seven-year, $210-million contract with the Washington Nationals in 2015, she became connected with the Polaris Project and partnered with the organization as an official ambassador.
Through witnessing his wife's activism and advocacy work, Scherzer says he became interested in making his own contributions. Going back to his days with the Detroit Tigers, the Scherzers used strategic partnerships to leverage his celebrity and spotlight for advocacy work.
In Washington, D.C., those efforts have been expanded. The Strike Out for Modern Slavery promotion, which triggers automatic donations for every strikeout Scherzer throws this season, has already received pledges totaling more than $32 per strikeout. So far this season, his 128 strikeouts have earned more than $4,100 dollars in donations for the Polaris Project.
New pledges can be applied to past strikeouts from earlier this season, so pledges received today can be backdated to account for every strikeout Scherzer throws in 2016. The Scherzers will make the total donations received up to $25,000, with the funds going to support the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which provides assistance and support to victims and survivors, while also fielding tips on possible trafficking and offering other services.
According to Polaris Project, the hotline has helped Polaris respond to 25,000 cases of human trafficking in the United States, and more than 6,500 leads have been passed on to law enforcement.
Many times, the assumption is that slavery and trafficking are threats faced in other countries. But May-Scherzer points out that the problem plagues our own society, in part because of our consumer habits and exploitative labor practices.
"One of the other issues is just the demand for cheap products," May-Scherzer says. "You're going to need cheap labor. Here in America, there are so many stigmas on prostitution. People think the majority of sex workers are making decisions on their own, when in reality they're engaged in a form of human trafficking.
"We forget about the labor component, which covers everything from nail salons and massage parlors, to agriculture."
Along with the strikeout pledge promotion, Max Scherzer is also participating in a program called Autographs and Athletes, which allows fans to send in items to be signed by the MLB star in exchange for a charitable donation.
Fans can choose to get an autographed picture for $35, a baseball card or ticket stub for $25, or a signed baseball for $50. Those proceeds will also benefit Polaris.
On top of these nonprofit efforts, Scherzer is also planning a fantasy football fundraiser called the Scherzer Showdown, in which a handful of Nationals players will participate in a fantasy football league that will raise money to support the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy.
As May-Scherzer points out, the academy provides a valuable developmental service to young athletes that goes far beyond baseball, using the sport as a tool for inspiring education and involvement in a range of valuable activities and life skills, including gardening, proper nutrition, science, and math.
With the active role the Scherzer's play in advocating for these issues in the nation's capital, both admit that May-Scherzer's opportunities in D.C.
"I hate to say this, but it really didn't [affect my decision]," Scherzer says. "And she's OK with that because she supports me. ... It's a coincidence that being in D.C. allows us to choose our passions. My major goal is to win at the major league level. [Both of our interests] just get answered here in D.C. extremely well."
Says May-Scherzer: "I'm totally fine with that. No matter where he was playing, I could still be just as involved. It's just that being here in the Capitol might give [my issues] more attention than they've gotten in the past."
So while May-Scherzer continues to fight for better attention from America's political machine, her husband can jog out to the mound and do what he does best -- and hopefully raise some awareness in his own way.
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