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September 27, 2017

South Jersey native Sean Doolittle may be MLB's most socially active player

On the night Jim Thome hit his 400th home run at Citizens Bank Park, June 14, 2004, Sean Doolittle and his friends on the Burlington County team of the Phillies Carpenter Cup tournament were simply trying to pave a path to the beautiful, two-month-old South Philadelphia ballpark, where the semifinals and championship game of the annual tournament would be held.

Doolittle’s BurlCo team beat Todd Frazier’s Jersey Shore team 3-0 that afternoon at the University of Pennsylvania.

“We probably should have made that the goal, winning it, but we all just really wanted to get here,” Doolittle said with a laugh inside the visiting clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday afternoon.

Doolittle, a native of Tabernacle, N.J. and a graduate of Shawnee High School, pitched in the ballpark again on Monday night, the day before his 31st birthday, for the first time since that high school tournament 13 years ago. He retired all three Phillies hitters he faced to collect his 21st save in as many chances since joining the Washington Nationals two months ago after spending a decade in the Oakland Athletics organization.

Doolittle expected about a couple-dozen friends and family at Citizens Bank Park this week, including his parents, who still call the Philadelphia area home.

After establishing himself as a popular member of the A’s for such a long period, Doolittle’s baseball life has been less nomadic than his childhood. He was born in Rapid City, South Dakota, then the family moved to upstate New York where his brother was born, then to Northern California, where his sister was born, and finally to South Jersey, where he’d remain until enrolling at the University of Virginia a few months after the Carpenter Cup.

Doolittle’s father, Rory, was in the Air Force. And so Sean Doolittle and his siblings got to see both the West Coast and East Coast as kids, something that was fortunate for their eldest son’s interest in baseball.

“I grew up a Philly sports fan, with the exception of the Redskins,” Doolittle said. “My dad grew up in Annapolis, Maryland, so he tried to make us Orioles and Redskins fans, but only the Redskins part stuck. We came to a lot of the games at the Vet when I was a kid, seats in the 700 level, but we also would drive down to Camden Yards every once in a while since he was a big O’s fan. …

“All the pictures of me going to the (Oakland) Coliseum (were from before that). We had season tickets to the A’s and it was my first experience with baseball. I was barely old enough to remember. We moved into the house I grew up in Tabernacle in December of ’92. So the first year of baseball here, for me, was the ’93 Phillies. So I was spoiled with the A’s teams, the first baseball teams I followed were the Bash Brothers and the A’s going to three World Series and the ’93 Phillies out here. Pretty awesome.”

A childhood reared in a military family also helped form Doolittle’s keen interest in current events both locally and globally. The 6-foot-2, red-bearded left-hander is one of the more vocal and socially conscious baseball players on social media.

“We don’t live in a vacuum, you know? I don’t have a problem (with athletes) using their platform to start conversations or raise awareness. I think they can be voices for people that might not otherwise be heard.”

Just take a quick glance of his Twitter timeline (@whatwouldDOOdo) and you’ll see someone trying to raise money for those affected by recent hurricanes, his work with Operation Finally Home, an organization that builds housing for wounded veterans, and his support for his old college town of Charlottesville, which was besieged by white nationalists two months ago. Doolittle has also helped the LGBT community, hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for refugees, and yes, hasn’t been afraid to fire a pointed word or two relating to divisive comments by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Did the coloring of Doolittle’s worldview, like his nomadic life as a toddler, come from being raised in a military family?

“I think so,” Doolittle said. “Being from a military family, we were always aware of what was kind of going on in the world. I don’t want to make it sound like I grew up without a dad or with an absentee dad or anything, but why was he being deployed to Turkey or Germany or Oman when I was a kid, you know? And trying to figure out why and just kind of understanding what was going on in the world. So I think maybe that helped shape my worldview. But it’s always been something I’d been interested in and trying to keep up with.”

The “keeping up” part has been almost unavoidable in the last week, as the collision course sports and politics have been on for the last year, beginning with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit during the national anthem in August of 2016, came to a head when President Trump called for any “son of a bitch” player that failed to stand to be “fired.” Within the same 24-hour period, President Trump, through Twitter, withdrew an invitation to the White House to NBA superstar Steph Curry.

Given the events in Charlottesville, and the heightened racial tensions in the time since across the country, the president’s words were … rather strong. Thus Doolittle's aforementioned tweet about athletes often being told to “stick to sports” from fans who don’t want to hear about their opinions on society.

“We don’t live in a vacuum, you know?” Doolittle said. "And these guys, the athletes and some of the issues, I don’t have a problem using their platform to start conversations or raise awareness. I think they can be voices for people that might not otherwise be heard.”

The generation of athletes that preceded the Colin Kaepernicks, Steph Currys and Sean Doolittles were often criticized for not being as active in current events, whether it was Charles Barkley famously saying he wasn’t a role model or Michael Jordan’s comment (with some folks still questioning the veracity of it) that Republicans buy sneakers, too. The Doolittle generation, meanwhile, jumped into professional sports right around the same time social media exploded and changed the way people interact.

“There’s more transparency between athletes and the fans,” Doolittle said. “I think it started as a way where you could show a different part of yourself off the field, you could show people what you were like aside from the game or a postgame interview. You can shape your brand, so to speak. But I think guys started realizing that it was something they could actually use to have an impact. So I think that’s part of the climate we’re in right now.”

And as a professional athlete, players like Doolittle understand their careers don’t necessarily last as long as people in other professions; they’ll likely be retired before they turn 40, if not sooner. So while you have a captive audience, why not take advantage of it to help others?

“I think (whether) you choose to use it or not, I don’t think it’s necessarily a requirement, but I think guys know that if they choose to, whatever they say carries weight, and it’s going to have an impact,” Doolittle said. “So the guys that use it can really start conversations and do some good. … If you’re being true to yourself and there’s something you care deeply about and you’re educated on it, or maybe you’re speaking from experience, sports has the ability to be a unifier, has the ability to bring people from very different backgrounds together, to find some common ground.

“So if you have athletes that are willing to do that – (and) it’s tough because, you do get backlash, and you’re never going to make everybody happy – but if you can navigate that, that’s what it’s about, man, raising awareness and maybe getting people to think about things that they never thought about before.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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