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Las Vegas Candlelighters fundraiser celebrates 30 years

When Mark Grenier fielded a phone call in the offices of the Las Vegas Stars in 1989, he had no idea that it would change his life and the lives of hundreds of Southern Nevadans.

The call motivated Grenier to create an annual fundraiser for Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation of Nevada. On Sept. 14, the 30th edition of what’s now called the Candlelighters Superhero 5K will be held at Exploration Peak Park at Mountain’s Edge.

Since its beginnings in 1990, the event has raised close to $3 million for Candlelighters, which provides services and support to children and families affected by childhood cancer in the Las Vegas area. For Grenier, it’s a fortunate result of being by the right phone at the right time.

Grenier, 62, moved to Las Vegas from Santa Cruz, California, in 1986 to take a job with the Las Vegas Stars, the predecessor of the current Aviators (and, before that, the 51s). He worked with the team until 2000, eventually becoming assistant general manager.

One game day, he was manning the phones when a call came in from a woman who asked if a few Stars players could visit a local Little League game. The woman, a team mom, explained that one of her 9-year-old players was recovering from cancer-related brain surgery and “was finally ready to come out and sit on the bench with his team.”

“I’m thinking, ‘There’s no way we can do that, because we just don’t do stuff like that,’ ” Grenier says. “I went back and asked the coach, and the coach said, ‘Sure, take three of my pitchers who aren’t pitching tonight.’ So I loaded up three pitchers and our mascot and we went out to the baseball game.”

“I’ll never forget walking across that field, seeing that little boy with a big bandage across his head, sitting on the bench, Grenier says. “I get goosebumps talking about it now.”

The experience prompted Grenier to create a 5K fun walk at Cashman Field with Candlelighters as beneficiary.

“We raised between $750 and $1,000 our first year,” he says. Participants “raced around Cashman Field, and we finished in center field. … We had food and drink, and people had a little picnic on the lawn for an hour after the race. It was really special, and I thought, ‘Maybe we can do this again.’ ”

The event has changed over the past 30 years — a few name changes, adoption of a team concept, and even the addition of a pet division — and “we just started getting more people in,” Grenier says. “We have a good time.”

For Grenier, the event also serves as a tribute to his father, Thomas, who died of prostate cancer in 1984 at the age of 51.

Grenier and his wife, Julie, have two sons, Justen, 28, and Cadyn, 22.

Review-Journal: It must have been fate that you were fielding phone calls that day.

Mark Grenier: I guess. I don’t know what to call it, but it certainly worked out. I give (Candlelighters) kudos. I’ve worked with so many executive directors and event coordinators at Candlelighters. This organization, honestly, (has) such a small group of staff members but they do such incredible things in this community.

The Stars job sounds great. Had you always wanted to work in baseball?

I had just gotten out of school at the University of Utah. … I wanted to be an agent, but after I graduated, I said, “There’s no way I’m going to go to law school.”

How did you land the job?

I love baseball, and a very good of friend of mine — he’s passed now — said a good way to get into baseball is to go to the (Major League Baseball) winter meetings. He helped me get interviews at a couple of places, and I ended up meeting with (Stars/51s/Aviators general manager) Don Logan and he hired me.

That turned out to be good advice.

I went to the winter meetings in December of ’85, and (play-by-play announcer) Colin Cowherd and I got the only two Triple-A jobs available that year. That’s what brought me here. I never wanted to move to Las Vegas, but I thought I’d come for a couple of years, and I’m still here.

The success of the Candlelighters event is a nice tribute to your dad.

He was a very busy professional … but I’ll never forget that he always tried to come out and be that dad who didn’t know anything about coaching but (did it) just to be with the kids. As busy as he was, he tried to come out to watch us as much as possible. I’ve never said no to either of my boys if they wanted to do something sports-related, to this day. I took that from my dad, to be sure.

Do you have Candlelighters regulars by now — people who participate in the 5K year after year?

I know there are two people I used to run with 20 years ago who have been to every one of them. They always come up to tell me at the awards ceremony when they get the awards — they’re 68 or 69 now — “You know, I’ve never missed. When am I going to get a discount?”

Did you ever expect it would last this long?

Not at all. This is all the big joke around my family. My wife is always on me that this is the only thing I’ve stuck with. She always says I start everything and never finish (laughs). But my family backed it. My kids grew up with it. They’ve volunteered through the years. I did it kind of selfishly for my dad and tried to come up with something that was unique for the baseball team — something different, something I had a passion for, which is running. It was just the perfect storm, I guess.

Contact John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280. Follow@JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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