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Column: Ryan Braun, Christian Yelich and Mike Moustakas headline California Strong effort

Ryan Braun (8) and Christian Yelich (22), who grew up in Southern California, stand in the dugout prior to a game against the Braves on May 18 at SunTrust Park.
Ryan Braun (8) and Christian Yelich (22), who grew up in Southern California, stand in the dugout prior to a game against the Braves on May 18 at SunTrust Park.
(Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)

Four months after suffering a season-ending fractured right kneecap, Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich was running around the Proactive Sports Performance Lab in Westlake Village with a smile on his face as he inches closer to returning to the baseball field next month.

“I’m good to go,” Yelich said. “I’ll be fine for the start of spring training. It’s been a long process but I’m finally toward the end of it now.”

As Yelich went through his workout, Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun and Cincinnati Reds infielder Mike Moustakas, who had been with the Brewers the previous two seasons, were planning the second California Strong Celebrity Softball Game, taking place Sunday at Pepperdine. The trio, along with Rams quarterback Jared Goff, put on the inaugural event last year as a fundraiser for California Strong, a non-profit foundation they started with the help of the Southeast Ventura County YMCA to raise money and awareness to support those affected by the Borderline shooting and California wildfires in November 2018.

Braun was born in Mission Hills and attended Granada Hills High School, Moustakas was born in Los Angeles and went to Chatsworth High and Yelich was born in Thousand Oaks and went to Westlake High. Yelich was back home the night 13 people were shot and killed at the Borderline Bar and Grill, not far from where he grew up in Thousand Oaks.

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“I was out here when it happened and I’d been to that bar before,” Yelich said. “It definitely hits home more than seeing a bar you’d never been to before on the news. I knew where it was. I had been there. I knew I needed to do something.”

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Before Yelich could think of ways to help his community, the Woolsey Fire ignited the next day and burned 96,949 acres, destroyed 1,643 structures, killed three people and forced more than 295,000 people to evacuate their homes. Yelich, who owns a home near Braun and Moustakas in Malibu, immediately reached out to his teammates.

“It’s rare that you live so close to your teammates and you grew up in the same area,” Yelich said. “It was the reason we were able to do something like this with everybody living in such close proximity to each other. We’re basically available to have meetings and get everything organized.”

The trio have taken a hands-on approach to organizing the event, which attracted celebrities and athletes such as Jamie Foxx, Adam Sandler, Brad Paisley, Charlie Sheen, Mira Sorvino, Robin Thicke, Rainn Wilson, Matt Leinart, Dennis Rodman, Baker Mayfield and Justin Turner last year, with many scheduled to return Sunday. As Braun texted to confirm participants, he thought back to where he and his teammates were a little over a year ago.

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“We went to Game 7 of the NLCS against the Dodgers and all three of us had been back home for a week or 10 days, just getting settled, when we heard about the Borderline shooting,” Braun said. “All of us had been to that bar at one point or another. It was shocking and devastating and then the next day, the wildfires started. It was an incredibly traumatic time for so many people and we just wanted to help out in any way we could.”

Before they could do that, they first had to evacuate their families from their homes in Malibu. The fires were visible from their driveways.

“I was already packing when [Braun] texted me to see how I was doing,” Moustakas said. “I left with my wife and kids and stayed with my in-laws in the Valley. I just didn’t want to risk it with two kids, and he decided to do the same thing.

“I remember when I was driving out, just seeing the orange glow on the hills. It was incredible. I had never seen anything like it. We were very fortunate to get out of there.”

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Shortly afterward, with the help of others including Mike Attanasio, who is part of the Brewers’ ownership group, the players decided to start California Strong and organize a celebrity softball game.

“We were on a group text and the concept of a softball game came up pretty early,” Braun said. “It just felt like something we’d be familiar with that we could put together. We didn’t anticipate getting such incredible support from athletes, celebrities, businesses and the community. Handing the checks out before the game last year was incredibly emotional. To get to meet the families affected by the fires and shooting and hear their stories and to see we were having a positive impact on their lives is something I’ll never forget.”

Since California Strong was founded, it has raised more than $2.3 million and distributed more than 675 grants to families affected by the tragedies.

If spring training began Sunday, Yelich said he would be on the field, but he will take on more of a managerial role at Pepperdine’s Eddy D. Field Stadium when Team Yelich takes on Team Braun.

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“I’m not going to play Sunday,” Yelich said. “I’m just going to be out there organizing the team. I didn’t think it would be great for my first baseball action to be in a celebrity softball game, but I’m ready to go.”


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