With each sly grin and cloud of dust that came from his head-first dives back into third base, one young ballplayer began to establish a legacy that would eventually lead to something bigger than he, his coach or family could have ever dreamt.
Slade Russo was a 13-year-old all-American boy that enjoyed this nation’s pastime almost as much as his parents, Steve and Beverly Russo, loved watching or coach Mike Davis relished yelling for Slade to get back on the bag.
After an ATV accident took the life of the young teen May 17, 2015, the family and Davis established the I Play for Slade Foundation to change the lives of those who cannot run, play or experience the game “Slade’s way" — one donation, raffle ticket and pitch at a time.
“Slade had a personality that was unbelievable and the saying that I use all the time is ‘just dust off and smile Slade’s way.’ Whenever I was coaching third [base], he would dive back in or almost get thrown out, stand up, dust off and just kind of grin,” recalled Davis ahead of the three-day Baylor Scott and White 2017 I Play for Slade Memorial Classic planned for Friday through Sunday, May 19-21 in Waxahachie.
In its inaugural year, the memorial tournament drew roughly 30-select baseball teams to Waxahachie and was able to raise just over $20,000 that was donated to Campfire Creek, a local therapeutic riding center. Davis said, this year though, the foundation hopes to double the total from 2016 in support of Scott Dorsett, the longtime Daily Light Photojournalist who was severely injured after being struck by a car while jogging near his home Aug. 24, 2016.
“We have a pretty lofty goal this year for Scott, and I don’t know if we are going to hit it or not. We would be pleased with $30,000, but our original goal was $40,000. I don’t know if we will quite get there, but we are going to shoot for it,” Davis explained. “[…] Scott was a fabric of the community. He also took the pictures at the memorial for Slade. He was really moved by that whole situation and Steve was really moved by Scott. The support has been great, but their financial need is still just so huge. We felt like it was something that was a really good fit.”
According to Davis and the Russos, the foundation plans to choose a new benefactor for the proceeds each year. The recipient will be a local person or organization — not already supported by a larger entity — which cannot or aids those who cannot “run and play like Slade got to do,” Davis said.
“Whether that is young kids or old kids or someone that doesn’t get a chance to play baseball or somebody who, like Scott, is trying to learn and live another day, we are going to try to make it somebody local and try to make it somebody who isn’t already getting the big, heavy corporate sponsorship kind of stuff,” he added. “We are trying to find someone who really needs it and know the money is going to a good cause.”
The second annual I Play for Slade Memorial Classic will see 80 select baseball teams descend on the Optimist Fields, Waxahachie Sports Complex and Paul Richards Park.
Baylor Scott and White Medical Center — Waxahachie stepped up to the plate to serve as the title sponsor of the USSSA sanctioned tournament, which consists of 6U to 14U teams. Davis said the foundation is “really appreciative" of the generosity shown by the school district, Johnson Baseball Group LLC, volunteers, other sponsors and, especially, Baylor Scott and White.
“When we started this tournament, we made it known and were transparent that we give everything back and don’t keep anything,” Davis explained. “Ellis County really stepped up when Slade had the accident and really got the family through a tough time. Because of that, the family just really felt like they needed to give back."
In addition to the sponsorships and entry fees, items ranging from sports memorabilia and tickets to arts and crafts have been donated for a silent auction, live auction or raffle. The silent auction begins at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 20 and closes promptly at 2:22 — as 22 was Slade’s number. The live auction and raffle will begin at approximately 2:45 p.m. There are also options to make a straight donation by contacting Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org or by utilizing the PayPal option on the foundation’s website sladerussothelegend.com.
Although the tournament itself begins Saturday morning, the festivities start Friday evening with a Miracle League baseball game at the Optimist Fields where Dorsett will throw out the first pitch. New this year, a “Sing for Slade” acoustic concert featuring local musicians will take place following the Miracle League players receiving their “I Play for Slade” medals.
The gates open at 4:30 p.m. Friday, May 19 with opening ceremonies beginning at 5:15 p.m., ceremonial first pitch scheduled for 5:30 p.m. and the hour-and-a-half concert starting at 7 p.m. Tournament play begins at 8 a.m. both days. In the case of inclement weather, the tournament and activities will follow the same schedule next Friday, Saturday and Sunday, May 26-28.
“We want the community to just be a part of the weekend,” Davis added. “[…] I am excited and it is a great cause. Slade was such an amazing person — not only did he touch the people who knew him but he has also touched people who knew of him and he is still touching people today. That is kind of what it is about. I am passionate about it because the family is just so special. You can’t turn it into a positive but we can sure try to do something good out of it, somehow.”
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith