Jeff Swick, shortly after accepting the Fran Delaney Challenge and Respect Award at the ALS-Therapy Development Institute’s Leadership Summit in Boston on Nov. 16. (Photo submitted)
Jeff Swick, shortly after accepting the Fran Delaney Challenge and Respect Award at the ALS-Therapy Development Institute’s Leadership Summit in Boston on Nov. 16. (Photo submitted)
FORT JENNINGS — “April 5, 2012, we had our initial game,” says Fort Jennings resident Jeff Swick. “And, the rest of that spring, a lot of the coaches in the area, Putnam County coaches, they all reached out. They said, ‘It’s amazing what you’ve done. If you do this again, we’d love to be part of it.’ ”

“It” being a fundraiser that successfully raised $10,000 in support of two families in Putnam County, both struggling to meet the demands of an ALS diagnosis. This one game provided the initial spark for Playing Hardball Against ALS (PHAALS), a non-profit organization founded soon thereafter by Swick.

“So then, in January of that next year, as a member of the Ohio High School Baseball Coaches Association, I again had a few friends who were on the board of directors,” he continues. “It was odd. I’m at the annual conference and I get a phone call.

“I’m up in my hotel room, and I get asked, ‘Can you be down here in 5 minutes?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And I was told, ‘They want you to present your idea to the entire state.’ ”

Swick’s idea, one that has since grown to include baseball teams in multiple states, was to use the entire spring baseball season as a single event to raise funds for ALS families and research. The benefit of this approach being that each participating team can choose the best game, the most ideal date for holding their particular fundraiser.

And, as an important component of Swick’s idea, participating communities can also earmark where the funds they raised will be spent. If they want the money to go towards scholarships, it goes towards scholarships. If they choose research, it goes to research. If a local family needs support, the money goes to the family. In addition to Ohio, baseball teams in Michigan, Florida, and California now participate annually.

“So, I walk in to the entire board of directors of our coaches association,” Swick continues. “Basically, I talked from my heart. It was fairly fresh, and I was given a chance to speak to it.”

“While I was there, they immediately started voting. I wasn’t really sure what was going on. They voted to partner with the foundation. Mind you, the foundation basically had become official in November, just a couple of months prior.”

“So it ends, and I talk to a friend of mine that’s on the board, and he says, ‘Jeff, I want you to know, that’s never happened. Usually it goes, they receive a presentation and they talk about it. And then, weeks and months go by before they make a decision. We’ve never unanimously made a choice of something of this magnitude at that moment.’ “

“That was the major spark in my head that said, ‘This has got some substance.’ This idea I had to help two of our local gentleman, and that’s what it was. I never had a vision that this would be where it is today.”

On the Friday before Thanksgiving, Swick was in Boston accepting an honor on behalf of PHAALS for the work the organization has accomplished in just a few short years. He accepted the Fran Delaney Challenge and Respect Award at the ALS-Therapy Development Institute’s Leadership Summit.

“Yeah, I stood out in front of that [ceremony] this weekend, and represented,” Swick says of the recognition. “But, we have so many people, especially in our county. Our board of directors. We have such a diverse board of directors that have connections with so many people and in so many ways. All of our committees that we have now, which help oversee the different avenues, they’re giving their time. Our doctors, lawyers, other medical staff that just give their time because they believe in something. That’s what’s humbling.”

“The PHAALS Foundation took a grassroots approach from day one,” Swick says earlier, when speaking on how the organization is structured. “Seeing the need from the ground level, seeing the need from the patients, and hearing them - those dollars didn’t necessarily come in bunches hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time. It was $5,000 and $1,000 and $100 at small events.”

“So in that January when that hit,” Swick says, concluding the story of how PHAALS began, “I came home with my wife and said, ‘Darci, there’s a decision that has to be made. You know me. It’s going to be impossible for me to coach and lead this foundation in the direction I truly believe it can go.’

“It was a challenge. I spent - through high school and playing ball in college and coaching from the time I was 21 - I spent all my life on a ballfield. To walk away from that was probably the scariest thing that I have ever done. But yet, that door was opened.”

In total, PHAALS has raised over a half a million dollars for ALS in just six years. While helping to run the organization, Swick has also managed to return to the ballfield. He is back at Fort Jennings serving as the pitching coach and assistant head coach.

More than 5,600 people are diagnosed with ALS each year and there are currently no known causes or cures.