There is a crisis among America’s youth, a clear and present threat menacing our most precious hearts and minds, and the men of the BASE Foundation are determined to stop it, even if they’re not entirely clear on what it is.
“I’m concerned, quite frankly, about the culture of youth sports in America,” said Rick Sems, a local bank executive and the foundation’s new president, last week. He was speaking to a small crowd of donors at Ballpark Village, at a fundraising event emceed by Cardinals broadcaster Mike Claiborne.
If you’ve never heard of the BASE Foundation, don’t worry—you’re far from alone. It’s a small St. Louis-based nonprofit that offers a program, Baseball and Softball Education (or BASE) Training, designed to teach young ballplayers good sportsmanship; by its own account, a few dozen kids per year have completed the training since the organization was founded in 2006. But the BASE Foundation has plans to get much, much bigger, and soon.
“We’re talking about young lives,” said the next speaker, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, who is involved with the foundation’s new project in a visible but publicly unspecified role. “We’re talking about changing the culture that we live in through sports.”
“As we create something that helps these kids, we’re changing the world that we live in.”
That “something,” it turns out, is the POWERplex, a $55 million youth sports facility in suburban St. Louis’ Chesterfield Valley, a few hundred yards from the levee that once broke to submerge the valley under 20 feet of water and a mile down the road from the property Matheny once went bankrupt on. Plans for the POWERplex include a permanent 225,000-square-foot sports dome, a smaller temporary dome to be raised every winter, and a 2,500-seat outdoor stadium—in addition to a hotel, restaurants, office and retail space, an urgent care center, a 300-seat auditorium, and other amenities. If all that doesn’t sound quite ambitious enough, don’t worry—it’s just phase one, with an as-yet-undetailed second phase scheduled to follow soon after.
The POWERplex is a joint venture of the BASE Foundation, the Buck Innovation Group, and Big Sports Properties, which is to say it’s the brainchild of broadcaster-turned-nonprofit-executive-turned-consultant Dan Buck, the man behind all three entities.
“What the BASE Foundation is going to achieve in the next three years,” said Buck at last week’s fundraiser, “is going to be truly one of the most remarkable things we’re going to ever see in American sports.”
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To hear Buck tell it to the Ladue News in 2015, it was an on-air rant about the evils of Section 8 housing vouchers—“this multibillion dollar program…that just holds people down and disincentivizes work,” he says of the rental assistance that keeps millions of low-income families in their homes—that led the president of one of St. Louis’ most well-known charities to ask him to ditch his broadcasting career for nonprofit work. One way or another, Buck left his KTRS hosting gig in 2003 and went on to spend eight years as CEO of the St. Patrick Center, a Catholic organization that provides services to the city’s homeless.
Buck later joined SSM Health Care as vice president of philanthropy, before leaving in 2015 to start his own consultancy, the Buck Innovation Group, or BIG. The group’s mission, according to its website, is “to improve your business results and organizational performance through improved process, bold innovation and new idea development.” It’s unclear whether any businesses ever took BIG up on the offer; its only known project to date was The Manly Man Show, a product-showcase infomercial that ran for five episodes on Fox Sports Midwest last year.
Buck filed articles of incorporation for the BASE Foundation in Missouri in 2006, and has been pitching BASE Training to local youth teams ever since. By all appearances, it consists principally of material that teaches kids such lessons as how to “Honor the R.O.O.T.S. — Rules, Officials, Opponents, Teammates, and Self.” It’s difficult, however, to find much public record of the organization’s activities before last year; Buck only registered the domain for its website in December 2015. The IRS granted 501(c)(3) status to a separate “Base Foundation,” a Delaware nonprofit registered under the NTEE code for “Amateur Sports,” in July 2016.
Since plans for the then-unnamed POWERplex—and yes, the name is indeed an acronym for “Performance, Opportunity, Winning, Education, and Recreation”—were announced last October, the BASE Foundation has undergone some dramatic changes; its board has expanded to sixteen members, including Sems as president and local sports-development Sisyphus Dave Peacock as chairman. Buck no longer appears to be involved with the foundation in an official capacity; his name has been scrubbed from its website.
It’s unclear when Buck and Matheny’s paths first crossed, but there’s no doubt that it was a match made in heaven. Matheny, of course, had made the leap up to big-league managing after a post-retirement stint coaching Little League, during which time he’d authored a long, fastidious neighborhood listserv post that later became known as The Matheny Manifesto. Buck told the Riverfront Times last year that the book-length version of the Manifesto, published in 2015, “will be brought to life through a curriculum-based classroom program that will take place at this facility.”
If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading it, rest assured that the Manifesto is the perfect holy text for the BASE “curriculum”: headstrong, urgently written, and almost entirely devoid of substance. Mike Matheny has a message, and you may not like the message, but you need to hear the message, and the message is…players should hustle, and parents should be good parents, and Wouldn’t It Be Tight If Everyone Was Chill to Each Other.
A similar fervid, overdetermined vagueness permeates what little information about the BASE Foundation’s philosophy is offered on its website. For one short introductory paragraph it is relatively straightforward in describing the crisis it sees in youth baseball: a “great game…being disrespected on multiple levels,” from “angry parents” to kids’ “lack of respect” to “a glaring problem with ballplayers unable to control their negative emotions.” But if you’d like virtually any other details regarding the organization that wants to raise $55 million to open one of the largest indoor youth-sports facilities in the country—testimonials, perhaps, or sample materials, or evidence for its claim that sports psychologists helped develop its program—you’re out of luck.
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The question that hangs over all of this is so obvious that not even Matheny can ignore it: “People ask me, why would you be involved in this? Why is there a need?”
“And the why is,” he said, gesturing beyond the donors gathered at Ballpark Village, “as you look out those windows and you see that stadium, the truth of the matter is, this is the greatest baseball city in the world. And when you have the greatest baseball city in the world, you should have some of the greatest baseball facilities in the world.”
This is an admirable sentiment; it would be terrific if young ballplayers in St. Louis had access to great facilities. It would be terrific, for example, if Ozzie Smith Field, near Vashon High School, had proper grading and drainage so that a little rain didn’t turn its infield into a swamp. It would be terrific if many of the other such fields in North St. Louis, built with funds from Cardinals Care and opened with feel-good ribbon-cutting ceremonies, didn’t soon similarly fall into disrepair due to a lack of resources.
There is a theoretical version of the BASE Foundation that, rather than waging a nebulous war on a supposed crisis of poor sportsmanship, is engaged in a battle actually worth fighting: reaching underserved kids in impoverished, predominantly black neighborhoods in North St. Louis and North County, providing resources and stability to communities that often lack them, helping reverse the decline in African-American participation in baseball in a city where the sport is a lingua franca, a civic religion.
That’s not the version the city is going to get, and as is often the case in St. Louis, the proof is in the geography. Chesterfield is about as far west as the suburban sprawl of West St. Louis County goes, less than four percent black in a metro area that’s nearly 20 percent black overall, and reachable by public transit from communities like Ferguson or Florissant only through an hours-long odyssey. Building the POWERplex within city limits, or even in a more central County location, could have sent a strong message about the degree of inclusivity and civic unity it aims to achieve; its planned address sends an equally strong message in the other direction.
Don’t assume, though, that this was simply the invisible hand of the market guiding Buck and his associates to the most efficient possible location. The most conspicuous speaker at last week’s fundraiser was Mark Harder, the St. Louis County Council Member representing District 7, which includes Chesterfield and other similarly lily-white suburbs like Ballwin and Wildwood.
“I know what you want to hear tonight,” Harder told the crowd. “All I can say at this point is that I’ve been working with [County] Executive Steve Stenger and the County staff on a multimillion dollar package to upgrade the infrastructure to this property.”
He’s referring to water and sewer service, which currently don’t extend to the area of the floodplain where the POWERplex is planned; according to journalist John Hoffmann, Buck had initially told the Chesterfield City Council it would take $4 million to cover these infrastructure costs, then revised the estimate to $13 million. Harder’s comments would seem to contradict Buck’s repeated assurances that no public funds would be directed towards the project—as well as his public confidence that POWERplex is a done deal.
Obtaining County funds isn’t the only hurdle the POWERplex has left to overcome, either. The Army Corps of Engineers must conduct testing on the floodplain before approving the construction plans. And in order for Chesterfield to move forward with a plan to purchase the land and lease it to the BASE Foundation, Buck must secure an initial round of $23 million in binding financial commitments.
While it’s light on details regarding exactly what the program, you know, does, the BASE Foundation’s website is positively overflowing with information on how you can help them reach that $23 million goal. For the price of $200,000, up to nine “Field Founders” will get one of the facility’s turfed fields named after them. “POWERplex Heroes” will receive a place on the “Heroes Wall” in exchange for a $100,000 commitment, and the “Champions Walkway” will feature both large bricks (honoring $30,000 commitments) and small ones ($5,000). A mere $1,500 gets you on the “All Star Wall of Gratitude,” while $100 is only good enough for the “MVP Video Monitor.”
It’s important to emphasize that these are not investments that the BASE Foundation is asking for, but charitable donations. Dan Buck would like very much for some very rich people to give him enormous sums of money, please—not to provide adequate facilities and equipment to young athletes in low-income areas, not to help bridge the tragic divide between kids growing up in North St. Louis and those in West County, but precisely to exacerbate it. He’d like to devote his life to reciting banalities about sportsmanship to bored 12-year-olds, and he’d like to do it at a lavish suburban sports complex with a zip line and a climbing wall—for which his for-profit LLC, Big Sports Properties, will serve as property manager.
Cardinals Care has chipped in with a $500,000 contribution, but the largest donors to date have been the Sinquefield family, who have become notorious figures in Missouri politics over the last decade by spending heavily to promote right-wing economic causes. Matheny is a close friend of Rex Sinquefield, having lent his support to another of Sinquefield’s pet causes, the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. In honor of the family’s $6 million donation to the POWERplex, young athletes who play at the facility will be taught at the “Sinquefield Center for Human Development.”
If his views on Section 8 housing weren’t enough of a clue, Buck’s political leanings came across quite clearly in a call-in appearance on a local radio show in late 2015, as flagged by the Riverfront Times last year. In voicing his opposition to allowing Syrian refugees to enter the country, Buck called the Koran “frightening” and Islam “an entire religious doctrine that promotes jihad against the founding religion of our nation.”
And as the donors at Ballpark Village bid on big-ticket items in a charity auction—“The IRS always believes a thousand dollars,” Buck cajoled the crowd—there was little doubt what kind of room the speakers were playing to.
“In the words of our president, this is going to be huge,” said Harder—one of the County Council’s two Republican members—as he wrapped up his remarks, prompting laughter and applause. “Let’s go POWERplex!”
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I don’t have kids and have never coached youth sports; my only prolonged exposure to that world came as a young player, years ago. So maybe I’m wrong to doubt that the “culture of youth sports in America” is in crisis. Maybe I’m wrong to think that kids are still kids, and parents are still parents; that people love their kids, and sports are a competitive environment, and sometimes that can lead to friction and drama and angst; that the way to deal with this is for adults to be adults, and to communicate with each other, and to try to be good parents to their kids; and that slideshows full of ham-fisted acronyms and trite platitudes about sportsmanship are neither necessary to address this nor capable of making much difference.
Maybe I’m wrong, also, to see the BASE Foundation’s worldview as not merely ancillary to but thoroughly the product of the reactionary politics of its backers. Maybe I’m wrong to think that J.D. Vance-style moralizing about “culture” and “character” isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on; that the best way to make a positive impact on young people’s lives is to provide material aid to the kids most in need of it; that if you want to “change the world,” you should do that; and that if you want to build and run a fancy sports complex in an affluent white suburb, you should just say so.
The clock is running on the POWERplex, with proof of the initial $23 million in donations due to the city of Chesterfield by June 1st. There’s the matter of the County infrastructure funding, and the Army Corps of Engineers study, and then, if all goes well, the hard work of turning big promises and glitzy architectural renderings into reality. But I don’t doubt Dan Buck can pull it off, if for no other reason than that in the world we live in, those who are in a position to ask favors of men like Rex Sinquefield and Mike Matheny and Dave Peacock rarely fail. One way or another, I think, Buck will get a chance to prove me wrong on all of this. Then again, maybe I’m wrong about that, too.