KANSAS CITY — In 2019, shortly after Nicky Lopez made his debut for the Royals, he was brainstorming ways he can use his platform to help others in the Kansas City community.
And by the time 2020 rolled around, Lopez had met people from two organizations he knew he wanted to use his time to help: Operation Breakthrough, which provides a safe environment for children in poverty, and YMCA Challenger, which gives local kids of all abilities the opportunity to play sports and stay active.
“It was all set up for that season, I wanted to host these kids at The K, play some baseball with them, all that,” Lopez said. “And then, you know, COVID.”
The coronavirus pandemic put a hold on many things that year. Lopez moved his “Day at The K” events to a series of Zoom calls with Kansas City area youth, wanting to still get face time with the kids despite not being able to see them in person. That continued into 2021, in hopes to grow to an in-person event once it was safe.
Finally this summer, Lopez got to host about a group of kids from YMCA Challenger and Operation Breakthrough at Kauffman Stadium. And three years after his debut, Lopez has expanded his ideas into his own community initiative called “Nicky’s #1’s,” a title that originated because of Lopez wearing the No. 1 but still works now that he wears No. 8.
“They’re still No. 1 to me,” Lopez said, smiling.
Lopez’s work in the community earned him the Royals’ 2022 Roberto Clemente Award nomination, the annual recognition by a Major League player who best represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions on and off the field.
“I’m humbled by it,” Lopez said. “To be nominated, it was special to me. There’s more to an athlete than the sport they play, and to be nominated for something that’s an off-the-field award, it’s an honor.”
Yesterday was so special. I was able to host my first “Day at the K”, accompanied by @KansasCityYMCA Challenger Program. These kids are amazing and put a smile on my face!! #NickysNumberOnes thanks @Royals and @royalscharities for helping me and @arosenthal23 make this happen. https://t.co/JdJdomtMjh
On July 12, about 15 kids came to Kauffman Stadium with their families and were greeted by Lopez in the lobby. He handed out T-shirts before escorting them down to the field to take pictures. Then, they went to the Little K to play Wiffle ball, eat lunch and talk with Lopez.
“He has a great personality and is open to receiving others and giving what he had to them as well, making people feel comfortable,” YMCA senior director of adaptive programs Raegan Schurr said. “He went around to every single family and just talked to each one, answered each question. Every single one had their special time with him. He really made a point to make sure everyone had a connection and personal touch with him. And he carried their bat bags, their equipment. It was so cool.”
For Lopez, just seeing the smiles that greeted him was enough to make the day worth it.
“Them coming up and hugging you and not letting go. Them saying, ‘You’re my favorite player, this is the best day of my life,’” Lopez said. “It’s just eye-opening to me — like, I’m just giving them my time. I love it, but it means so much for them. That’s where I’m like, ‘I got to keep doing this.’”
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The 27-year-old also partnered with BRGR Restaurants in Kansas City to create a new Chicago-inspired hot dog item called ‘The Nicky,’ with proceeds going to “Nicky’s #1’s,’ as well as with Kansas City Credit Union to start the “Catch Success” program, promoting and teaching financial literacy to Kansas City youth.
“He was really gracious with his time, he understands what each kid needed,” Schurr said. “I can’t say enough about him and how he’s stuck with this and others in the community. I think he found what he wanted to support, and he’s taken his time over the years to get to know us and other places and see how he can help. Who knows what’s next? Having that support back and forth, having it be local, is very meaningful to us and to him.”
And Lopez would like to see “Nicky’s #1’s” to grow in Kansas City and in his hometown of Naperville, Ill.
“I want to make a big impact off the field, just like I want to impact on the field by being a good teammate and person,” Lopez said. “I knew right from the start I wanted to do something to help the community, and it’s awesome that it’s now coming into what I had planned. It doesn’t stop here.”