In June 2020, Ian Desmond, then a Colorado Rockies ballplayer and former Washington Nationals star, wrote a long emotional post on Instagram that he would be taking the season off. Covid-19, the killing of George Floyd and his own need for racial reckoning as a biracial man gave him a deep need to come back to his pregnant wife Chelsea and four young kids in his hometown of Sarasota. But more than that, he wanted to make a difference in the lives of young people, primarily minorities, in underserved communities through baseball.
Immediately he met with his neighbor, Vince Northfield, a retired British-born corporate executive, who had led global billion-dollar companies in a variety of industries. Fact-based and data-driven, Northfield provided the business model for Desmond’s vision. It was a smart decision. Nonprofits created by athletes have a bad reputation. More than 75 percent are tax havens, or sources of income for family and friends with no intention of achieving their mission.
The two men, who live in the horse-friendly, country estate community of Panther Ridge, met for months in each other’s barns, brainstorming on a whiteboard, driven by the idea of creating something sustainable that other professional athletes could copy and take to their own communities. They visited local sports complexes and looked for successful youth sports programs around the country.
In six months, they launched Newtown Connection, partnering with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota and DeSoto counties, with the mantra of “bringing communities together.” Their nonprofit uses baseball to teach healthy living, leadership and inclusion. Desmond, 36, and Northfield, 58, self-funded the organization, found grants, trained staff and volunteers, met parents and restored a rundown storage shed for all the brand-new balls, bats and gloves they needed.
The first batch of kids ran out on the fields at Newtown Estates in April 2021, and programs have continued since. Desmond and Northfield are on the ground, watching—and sometimes running with—the kids around the fields. They’re in talks to start the next program in St. Petersburg.
Desmond, who forfeited $13.5 million when he opted out of the 2020 and 2021 seasons and had his contract bought out last fall by the Rockies, has transferred his competitive drive into Newtown Connection. “My three boys got to see me at the top in Major League Baseball, but my daughters [only 3 and 1] will never know me as a baseball player. My daughters are going to see me as a philanthropist,” he says.