By Gary Phillips, The Athletic
Dennis Bair was once on the fast track, a 6-foot-5 pitching prospect in the Chicago Cubs organization, armed with a sinking mid-90s fastball and a power curve. An eighth-round pick in 1995 out of the University of Louisiana at Monroe, he dominated the New York-Penn and Single-A Midwest Leagues. A 1.55 ERA in 93 innings earned him Baseball America’s Best Pro Debut distinction. He was promoted to High-A Daytona in 1996 and got the opening day start over Kerry Wood, the Cubs’ first-round pick from Bair’s draft class.
“If there was a guy that could throw a ball through a brick wall, Denny had the mentality to do so,” said Darold Brown, a teammate in the Cubs organization and now a scout for the Blue Jays.
Bair was slated to start the 1997 season at Double-A. With Wood also soaring through the ranks, the Cubs were hurrying the two prospects. Bair was told he could be in the majors by the All-Star break. Visions of a respectable MLB career took shape. Bair figured he would make millions, pitch until he was 40 and then have a second career as a broadcaster.
But Bair never made millions. He never made it to the big leagues. He never even made it to Double-A. Four shoulder surgeries between 1997 and 2003 derailed and then ended his career.
But it was after that first surgery that Bair found his calling.
Home at his mother’s house in Munhall, Pa., while rehabbing in 1998, he was flipping through the TV channels one day and landed on a documentary about a missing girl. Her mom and dad would hand out fliers, only for a passerby to take one, look at it and toss it in a garbage can down the street. As the days passed, the can was overflowing.
A short time later, Bair was cleaning out his childhood bedroom and came across a prized possession from his youth, a signed photo of Steelers legend Rocky Bleier. Bair’s dad gave him the photo in first grade.
“It was like two halves of my brain came together,” Bair says. “I had just watched the show of photos that had been thrown away and here’s a photo that I had that I would never throw away.”
It was then that Bair came up with the idea to include inset photos of missing children on team posters. He reasoned fans would get the posters signed and keep them — and even hang them on a wall — and by constantly seeing the image of a missing child they might recognize the person if they saw them.
It would be years later, but from that moment was born The BairFind Foundation, a non-profit with the goal of increasing public involvement in the search for missing children. An official charity since 2010 and a partner of Minor League Baseball for three years now, BairFind has placed signs with photos of missing children in more than 150 sporting venues across the country. It’s impossible to measure the exact number of eyeballs on each, but of the 2,873 children featured by BairFind, 1,840 have been safely located and brought home.
“I want to be the best at generating leads and tips in the search for missing kids. I want to be the best there is at getting views on profiles of missing children because that’s the one tried and true cure for this problem,” Bair explained. “The cure is the more eyes looking, the greater chance that someone’s going to see this profile, recognize the kid and make the call.”
One of the children featured in BairFind’s early posters was Gina DeJesus, who spent nine years imprisoned inside a two-story home in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood. She was the youngest of three women who were raped, beaten and tortured by Ariel Castro. All kidnapped between 2002 and 2004, it was not until May 6, 2013, that they were finally freed.
DeJesus’ family hung fliers and held community vigils for years. The family also got ABC News Cleveland to follow them around as Ruiz threw out first pitches at ballparks across Ohio and Pennsylvania. With them during some of those appearances was Bair, who helped arrange them.
Upon reuniting, DeJesus told her mom that she had seen the family at the ballparks on television during her internment. The broadcasts had given her a reason for optimism. She also wondered: Who was the “big guy” by her mother’s side at all those games?
A blue-collar kid from a family of Pittsburgh steelworkers, Bair grew up believing he was the strongest person he knew. He was the guy to get the job done, no matter the situation. There was nobody tougher — at least that’s what he thought. As the injuries piled up, however, Bair’s perception of himself changed. Friends and family asked if he was all right. Doctors and trainers encouraged him to take it slow. Bair felt coddled; he suddenly thought people saw him as weak. It wasn’t until the third surgery, in 2000, that Bair first realized the majors were not in his future. As he hung onto the game at the independent level, he came to understand he didn’t really know the true meaning of strength.
“I was on a subconscious quest to find people who can withstand the worst possible things,” Bair said when asked why, of the all causes out there, he took on the search for missing children. “I needed to find what real strength was.”
Bob Gower, Bair’s physical therapist, was the first to hear about the inset photo idea prior to the 2001 season. He immediately told Bair, “That’s a no-brainer. You have to do it, it will go nationwide.”
The Canton Crocodiles became the first team to incorporate Bair’s posters. Such posters followed him as he bounced around independent baseball before retiring in 2003. As Bair transitioned into life after the game, he spread the posters to affiliated Minor League Baseball and, when he could, he met with families.
Gina DeJesus’ family was one of them. It wasn’t Bair’s signs or the first pitches he arranged that led to DeJesus’ discovery; one of her fellow captives escaped and alerted police. Nonetheless, Bair was a friend to the family while she was missing, a source of energy that ranged from comforting to counseling.
“All you can really say is he’s an inspiration,” said Ricky DeJesus, Gina’s older brother. “We really are thankful for him because there’s not many people out there that would do that. What he has done is really amazing.”
Assisting in the search for missing children was just something Bair did for a while; he wasn’t operating under any official capacity. Bair didn’t even know what a non-profit was, so he enrolled in a couple of specialized management classes at the University of Pittsburgh. He also sought help from accountants and attorneys — his friends’ parents — who had coached him growing up in the area.
With a little bit of patience and help, The BairFind Foundation was officially founded in 2010.
“We’re in,” Pat O’Conner, the president and CEO of Minor League Baseball, told Bair at the 2015 Winter Meetings in Nashville. Just like that, BairFind became an official charity partner of Minor League Baseball with a special “Homegrown” designation, a nod to Bair’s playing career.
Bair had ditched inset photos on team posters for a grander plan. Starting with the 2014 season, he launched the Concourse Sign Project, an initiative that placed giant, wooden A-frame signs featuring local missing children in 40 stadiums across the Florida State, Southern, New York-Penn and South Atlantic leagues. Eventually, AMI Graphics, MiLB’s stadium signage supplier, offered to make BairFind’s signs at cost.
Able to establish proof of concept in a few select leagues, MiLB was ready for a full commitment.
“If we can’t help do something like this, we need to get out of the business,” O’Conner says. “This is something people can get invested in because it’s usually regionalized people in their area. These are their neighbors.”
Bair knows which stadiums he will have signs in before the start of every season — he has a map pinpointing each location. Partnered with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Bair uses their database to pick cases that best correspond with minor-league cities. More than 400,000 missing children cases were entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center in 2017. Bair can’t feature all of them, so he uses his best judgment based on the case descriptions.
Once the cases are selected, BairFind’s art director, Jay Triplett, designs the signs and sends them to AMI Graphics to be printed. Each sign features eight missing children profiles, including their photo, date of birth, race, last known measurables, hair and eye color, the town of their disappearance, the date they were last seen and the NCMEC’s hotline. For cases where the child has been missing for years, the NCMEC provides artist renderings of age progression.
When a child featured on Bair’s signs is safely located, the NCMEC emails him. Bair then tells the teams whose signs feature that child so a “FOUND” sticker can be slapped across their profile. It’s a way to keep fans at the ballpark updated and to remind everyone to look at the signs. Bair’s signs serve as a permanent fixture until no longer necessary, opposed to fliers and milk cartons that are thrown away or news outlets that rarely return to a case unless there’s something new to report.
BairFind now has signs in more than 150 sporting venues across the country, mostly minor-league parks. With MiLB now “the world’s largest disseminator of photos of missing kids,” more than half of the children featured by BairFind have been found.
The NCMEC declines to tell Bair if his signs have any impact on the outcome of a case. Rather, he gets a generic update. More often than not, families don’t even know who Bair is, let alone that a sign featuring their child exists. Bair can’t connect with everyone, as much as he would like to. He’s no sleuth, either. He doesn’t join search parties and he rarely collaborates with law enforcement. The way he sees it, he’s just a guy who makes signs because no one else was doing it.
“When I tell people what we do, I feel like I’m telling them that one plus one equals two,” Bair said. “It’s literally the simplest, most basic thing that you could possibly do.
“Growing up playing baseball, one of our rules was no one’s allowed to leave the dugout until all the garbage is picked up. We were always told if you see a piece of garbage under the bench and you think to yourself, ‘Somebody needs to pick that up,’ that somebody is you… These signs need to be here. Somebody needs to put those signs there. That somebody is me.”
Bair starts every day chasing that euphoric feeling, checking his email for updates from the NCMEC to see if a child has been found. Such news brings unparalleled joy; not even his college no-hitter nor the day he was drafted compares.
On the day DeJesus was found, Bair had just finished coaching a high school baseball game when he received the alert. Sensing the tears were starting to flow, he sprinted into the woods so his players wouldn’t see their tough-as-nails coach crying. They just thought he was in a hurry to pee.
Alone, he dialed Nancy Ruiz, DeJesus’ mother. The two went back and forth on the phone, laughing and sobbing. A seemingly never-ending search was over.
Not all cases end that way. One to four cases per year results in the child turning up dead, Bair says. He feels fortunate that has yet to happen to a family he knows personally. For many families, their story has no end, and they struggle to find a sense of normalcy.
“Life doesn’t stop. You still have to go to work, you still have to pay your mortgage, you’re raising your kids,” said Angie Campbell, the aunt of Mark Degner, who went missing in Jacksonville, Fla., in 2005. “It doesn’t stop, but your life isn’t complete either because part of you is missing.”
It was pure coincidence that Campbell met Bair in 2015. She was walking through a festival in Jacksonville and saw her nephew’s photo on a sign outside of BairFind’s tent. Campbell had never heard of the foundation. Without revealing her identity, she asked where they got the photo and what it was they were doing. When she deemed all the answers to be above board, she finally revealed who she was. She was quickly introduced to Bair.
They’ve remained close ever since. This season, Degner’s profile appears on signs in 10 stadiums across Florida.
“It is so encouraging for families like ours to have somebody come alongside us,” Campbell says. “Not only does he feel for us, but he almost carries the torch. It really does bring along a lot of hope and encouragement to us regularly that there are people out there like him that really care when they don’t have to.”
Campbell now serves on BairFind’s board of directors, which also includes Bair’s former teammates, Little League coaches and even Rocky Bleier.
For Campbell, it’s a way to pay Bair’s support forward.
“If we find Mark, that would be tremendous,” she said. “But on the other side, there have been over 1,300 children located. If I can be a part of that and reuniting other families so they don’t have to live in that state of wonder, why would you not?”
With MiLB checked off, BairFind is dipping its feet into professional basketball. The NBA’s Indiana Pacers and their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, have begun to use Bair’s signs, giving him hope that the rest of the basketball world will catch on. Professional hockey is also on the agenda, this way missing children profiles can be viewed year-round.
Bair’s big picture paints a country where his signs appear at every single sporting event. Lofty goals require funding, something BairFind is not exactly flush with. Bair is earning a salary from the organization this year (a first), but that doesn’t include benefits. A pitching coordinator for the Florida Baseball Academy on the side, Bair doesn’t live lavishly. Home is a spare room he rents in a friend’s house in Jacksonville. He drives an old pickup truck with more than 235,000 miles on it.
“I still live like I lived in A-ball,” he says.
Bair believes BairFind needs three or four full-time, salaried employees to really get going. That’s where sponsors could make a huge difference. A few local patrons have signed on in various cities, but Bair is still looking for backers with national reach.
“Who wants to step up to the plate and align themselves with our project? Who wants their logo on our sign?” Bair wonders. “It’s going to be seen by 40 million people every summer in conjunction with revolutionizing the search for missing kids.”
It’s quite the pitch from the former pitcher, one he prays will catch someone’s eye. In the meantime, BairFind has other ways to bring in money. Minor league teams have held fundraisers and donations can be made through BairFind’s website. The organization has received plenty of in-kind donations as well, including computer software and office space.
For those that want to help but can’t afford a donation, Bair says all you have to do is look at his signs.
“In baseball, you have guys out on base, your job is to step up to the plate and do whatever you got to do to bring them home. When a child goes missing, the object is the same. That child is missing. Now we have to step up to the plate and do whatever we have to do to get that child home.”
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