PHOENIX – As soon as students at William T. Machan Elementary filed out of their classrooms and headed toward a giant furry friend, their weary faces from a long school day immediately sported smiles.
Baxter, the Arizona Diamondbacks mascot, greeted kids Thursday with extended embraces, high-fives and photo opportunities. Students at Machan, which features a student population that is 98% Hispanic, joyfully chanted ‘Baila!’ to each other in front of Baxter and danced in the sweltering heat as they waited to hop on the Diamondbacks’ Delivering Dreams Bus operated by Assistance League Phoenix.
Diamondbacks starting pitcher Zac Gallen and reliever Scott McGough attended the event but perhaps played second fiddle to their fuzzy companion. The two hurlers on arguably the MLB’s hottest team took value in a day away from the game, even if it was just for an hour at a small elementary school.
“It kind of gives me chills to see the kids come in and they’re crying,” Gallen said. “They’re just so happy. Just to show them that even if you have success, it’s always good to make time and if you can do anything to brighten somebody’s day for just a quick second, whatever it is, just have the kids know they can chase their dreams – it’s not improbable.”
The Delivering Dreams Bus is a mobile dressing center that travels across 130 schools in the Greater Phoenix area for four days a week, providing students in particularly low-income communities with school uniform clothing, shoes and hygiene supply kits.
After trying on their clothes in makeshift fitting rooms, the Machan students headed to the back of the bus, where Gallen or McGough helped them find the right shoes and talked about school. Gallen, with his laid-back persona, has appreciated the time since COVID-19 to attend these outreach events, where he hopes to “show these kids that I’m around town. I’m just a regular old guy.”
The two teammates then walked into classrooms and signed autographs on items ranging from notebooks to stuffed animals while passing out copies of a cartoon book featuring Gallen and Baxter.
“Is this a dream?” one student asked jokingly before a classmate pinched him.
The day was particularly personal for McGough, who has also participated in events at Phoenix Children’s Hospital in his first year with the Diamondbacks. The 33-year-old has two kids and sees these programs as an opportunity to share inspiring messages. He also falls back on his childhood in Pittsburgh and recognizes how special an opportunity this is for kids.
“We would go to games and I would sit there in (batting practice) and they would toss up balls, and I know that feeling asking for autographs – (Pittsburgh) Steelers and Pirates guys that would come into my school,” McGough said. “So I have that same feeling now. So in (batting practice), I’m throwing balls up, you’re trying to sign autographs, you’re trying to get into the classroom and meet the kids. Because it’s special for me and I remember that feeling as a kid and how special it was. So I just try to give that back.”
The players’ enthusiasm Thursday matched the team’s recent liveliness on the field. With a five-game winning streak and victories in 10 of their last 12 games, the Diamondbacks have surged back into the third and final wild-card spot. Following a 3-2 win over Cincinnati later that day, Arizona edged ahead of the Reds for the position.
In the same 12-game winning stretch, 10 of those games have been decided by three runs or less. Gallen has joked with closer Paul Sewald that the recent late-game stressful situations will soon turn his hair gray, but he and the Diamondbacks knew early on that they would have to embrace the battles.
“Ideally we wouldn’t have close games,” Gallen said. “We would win games by a good margin … but I knew going into the season we were going to be a team that was – I think as (manager) Torey (Lovullo) characterized it – death by 1,000 cuts.
“So we’re not going to be a team that comes out here and slugs five, six homers a night. We’re going to be a team that pitches, plays good defense and has situational baseball. So it’s just kind of where we’ve been at. I think guys knew that coming in so it’s not really a shock. I think we’re just sticking to our identity.”
But regardless of how it has looked, Arizona has turned it around in August. After falling out of first place in the National League West and a playoff spot entirely with an 8-16 record in July, the club is back in the thick of a six-team race for the three National League wild-card spots with 34 games still to play.
Arizona will continue its pivotal four-game series with Cincinnati Friday at 6:40 p.m.