Citizens at bat: Baseball’s community all-stars

Citizens at bat: Baseball’s community all-stars

Fitzpatrick, Frank

Poor battered baseball. It’s got more problems than the Detroit Tigers pitching staff. Among Generation X’s favorite sports, it ranks somewhere between beach volleyball and Mortal Kombat. Its TV ratings resemble Greg Maddux’s earned-run average, and you can count its marketable superstars on one of Ken Griffey.jr.’s fingers.

But baseball is tops in one dubious category. There are unquestionably more boors in baseball than in any other sport. As the game battles to repair its tattered image, its legion of louts just battles-their fans, reporters, opposing players, even themselves. They rebuff autograph-hunters. They berate sportswriters (when they aren’t hiding from them). They charge the mound whenever a pitcher dares to throw inside. And some even abuse themselves with alcohol and drugs.

Fortunately, this isn’t the whole story.

There are many players who are doing much more than keeping tabloid reporters gainfully employed. They are as committed to their performance off the baseball diamond as on-old-fashioned role models for kids hungry to see even one adult stand by his word.

These players are using their resources and influence to help some of the neediest in their communities. Though most promote charitable causes, they are not merely mannequins on display for some local charity. Performance-based contributions-a homer for the heart association, a save for the Salvation Army, a grand slam for Goodwill-are fine as far as they go. But they do little to connect players with real people.

The players profiled below have found causes they believe in and turned themselves into vigorous and effective advocates. And they do not do so in the Hollywood style-joining a cause-ofthe-month club, strutting into congressional offices or the White House to plead for a new government program or grant. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to these men to ask government agencies or politicians to lend a hand.

No, these celebrities are founding scholarship programs to give needy children a shot at college. They are small businessmen determined to create jobs where they live. They are mentors walking into inner-city classrooms and playgrounds and turning dust and debris into dreams. They’re committed husbands and fathers for whom the word “sacrifice” means more than a way to advance a base runner.

They are, in short, productive citizens. “We’re not all jerks,” says pitcher Jeff Montgomery, of the Kansas City Royals. “A lot of us know that we have a responsibility notjust to our teammates or to the fans at the games, but to the entire community.”

Here are nine prominent baseball playerscall them “all-stars in citizenship”-that constitute an impressive lineup of caring athletes:

Jim Eisenreich

Philadelhhia Phillies

It was 11 A.M. on a game day. On the upper floors of Montreal’s Le Centre Sheraton hotel, “Do Not Disturb” signs hung outside the rooms of most Philadelphia Phillies. At that moment, Jim Eisenreich was a long way from his sleeping teammates. He was sitting in a home in a distant Montreal suburb. There, a nine-year-old victim of Tourette’s Syndrome, his face and body twitching violently, listened as the ballplayer tried to comfort him.

“I’ve got a mission with these kids,” says Eisenreich, his own Tourette’s symptoms harnessed by medication. “I try to show them they can dream too.”

The illness, which now afflicts about a million people a year, is a genetically transmitted neurological disorder that causes vocal tics and muscle twitches. This particular youngster’s problems were so pronounced, he had stopped attending school. Not long after Eisenreich’s lengthy visit, he returned.

“Frustration, pain, and depression had infected his entire family,” says Sue Levi, medical and scientific director for the Tourette’s Syndrome Association. “Jim spent 90 minutes with that child and, according to the mother, the discussion literally changed her son’s life. He was able to talk about his problems openly afterward and was a happier, more relaxed kid.”

It is a story repeated wherever the Phillies travel. Eisenreich, whose own childhood was marred by the disorder and whose baseball career was interrupted by it, meets kids with Tourette’s in every National League city. He escorts the youngsters and their families into baseball’s inner sanctums, answers their questions, and, most importantly, concludes each session with a message.

“My job is to be a good ballplayer who helps his team win. But it’s equally important that I help these kids,” says Eisenreich. “I believe that’s God’s plan for me.”

The Phillies outfielder has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Tourette’s causes and touched thousands of lives. Each week, he personally responds to as many as a hundred letters from victims of the disorder.

“Sometimes, on the road, I’m up till 2 or 3 in the morning writing letters,” says Eisenreich, who stands among baseball’s most dependable utility players. “But I’d be in my hotel room anyway. I don’t go out. I’m not a party person.”

Now among the sport’s most admired and well-liked players (“If you can’t get along with Eisy, you’re the one with the problem,” says Phillies coach John Vukovich), Eisenreich had few friends growing up in Minnesota. “Other kids couldn’t understand why I was making these strange noises and movements,” he says. “They used to make fun of me. Their parents didn’t like them playing with me.”

But Eisenreich could play baseball, and by 1982 he was a Minnesota Twins rookie hitting above .300. The pressures of big-league baseball aggravated his problem, though, and in three big-league seasons he appeared in only 48 games. One night in Boston he actually walked off the field; after only 12 games in 1984, he walked away from baseball.

Everyone assumed psychological problems drove Eisenreich from the game until a Minnesota specialist diagnosed Tourette’s. Three years later, armed with new medicine that gave him some respite from the twitching, Eisenreich began a comeback. He was traded to the Phillies in 1993 and ended that season by homering in Game 2 of the World Series. By then, when his story was well known, he had committed himself to helping others with the disorder.

“If I could ask one thing of people, it would be acceptance of us,” he says. “They need to understand that we have no control over this.”

Eisenreich and his wife, Leann, recently began the Jim Eisenreich Foundation for Children with Tourette’s Syndrome, based in Kansas City, Missouri, his winter residence. Their goal is to establish a nationwide network of clinics where the afflicted can get counseling, support, and medical assistance.

“I don’t want these kids to have to go through everything I did,” Eisenreich says. “This work I do is my responsibility to them.”

Dave Valle Texas Ran-ars

Dave Valle’s life changed 13 years ago amid a crowd of ragged youngsters at a ballpark in the Dominican Republic.

As a 23-year-old playing winter ball in the hopes it would hasten his rise to the major leagues, Valle and his wife were met one night by a crowd of youngsters as they exited Santo Domingo’s ballpark. It was hardly the Nike-clad, autograph-seeking crowds that big-league players encounter outside American stadiums.

“These kids had no shoes and very little clothing. They looked malnourished and they were begging for food,” says Valle. “Right then I told my wife that if I was ever in a position to do so, I would come back here and help.”

Two years ago, Valle and ex-Mariners pitcher Brian Holman decided that time had come. They founded Esperanza International (from the Spanish word for “hope”), solicited money, and sought advice on how the nonprofit agency could best deploy the funds in the Dominican Republic. “What we decided on was a program of microlending to women in the poorest of areas,” says Valle. “We knew that to help the children, we had to help the women. In that culture, it’s the women who are really involved in the nurturing of children. And the way it was there, unless they begged, stole, or sold their bodies, the children didn’t eat.”

Dominican women borrowed about $110 apiece. “That goes a long way there,” says Valle. Holman, Valle, and other volunteers helped them start small businesses. Some sold chickens, a few did laundry, still others made articles of clothing. “We charged them 2.3 percent interest and they were required to save 10 percent of the loan’s value while they were repaying it,” says Valle.

The women borrowed money in groups of 15 to 20. Before any of them could get a second loan, they all had to repay the first. “It was a way of providing a little peer pressure, and it worked,” says Holman. “More than 200 women have re ceived loans and there has not been a single default. It has borne unbelievable fruit. 1 Most of them are realizing profits of 300 to 400 percent on their loans.”

Holman, retired for two seasons now, does most of the administrative work for the organization, which is based in Bellevue, Washington. Valle raises money and encourages other majorleaguers, like Seattle’s Edgar Martinez, to join their cause. In the off-season, the 35-year-old Rangers catcher returns to the Caribbean nation to monitor Esperanza’s work.

“I just believe that people as fortunate as us have to help,” says Valle. “I just wish there was more I could do.” Soon there might be. Valle’s wife, Vickie, is Cuban; should the Castro regime tumble, Esperanza plans to set up a similar program there. “We’d like to help in the United States, too,” Valle says, “but the problem is, $110 doesn’t vo verv far here.”

Mo Vaughn Boston Red Sox

Boston educators will tell you that Mo Vaughn literally spends more time in the city’s schools than some of the truants he’s trying to reach. And his programs for inner-city kids go far beyond money and public-relations efforts. Vaughn, they say, has developed relationships with troubled teenagers, homeless mothers, terminally ill children.

“He has made a difference in the lives of many Boston youngsters,” said Bob Elias, the director of Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD).

Vaughn’s parents were teachers and they instilled in their son two traits that linger still-a spirit of caring and an appreciation of education. The American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1995, Vaughn is passionately involved in several education programs to help Boston’s impoverished youth.

“These kids need to learn the value of an education,” says Vaughn, a Seton Hall graduate. “Lots of times there is no one in their families who has been to college, maybe even no one who finished high school. They need to hear, in a personal-story kind of way, how it could change their lives.”

Three years ago, he helped establish the Mo Vaughn Youth Development Program, an innercity center where children gather safely for recreation and academic prepping. Volunteers tutor kids in classwork and in real-world workthey learn how to compose a resume, interview for ajob, and open a bank account. “The main things we teach here are the value of education, self-esteem and learning a skill,” says Roosevelt Smith, a program counselor.

“Baseball is my job,” says Vaughn. “But my most satisfying day was the day we graduated eight kids to the next level in my program and I could see how it changed their lives. Some of these kids get a bad rap. They are facing tough situations every day and sometimes they don’t make the right decisions. I try to spend time with them, to talk with them, because they want to know how life really works.”

ABCD director Elias says more kids are making the right decisions because of Vaughn. “He has had a definite influence for good. And the most impressive thing is that he wants to do more.”

Vaughn, 28, also works closely with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston, paying for equipment and activities and escorting groups to Red Sox games. He also is a visible spokesperson for the Greater Boston Food Bank and Catholic Charities. “Mo Vaughn,” says Red Sox coach Frank White, “can’t say no. He is just a great young man. Baseball needs more like him.” Jim Ab otl California Angels

If you peeked into the bedroom of an American child born with a physical deformity, there’s a good chance you’d find some reference to Jim Abbott-a signed photo, an autographed baseball, perhaps even a framed letter from the Angels pitcher.

Born without a right hand, Abbott pitched the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in 1988, reached the major leagues a few years later and, in 1993, threw the first no-hitter by a New York Yankee in a decade. He is, in a way, the Jackie Robinson of handicapped athletes, a pioneer who changed his game and the perceptions of others.

“He has become an idol, an inspiration, a tremendous figure in the lives of these kids,” says an Angels spokesman. “You wouldn’t believe how much mail he receives from them. And he makes sure that every one of them gets some kind of response with a hopeful word.”

Abbott works with numerous children’s agencies, particularly Amigos de Los Ninos (Friends of the Children), an organization that assists disabled, abused, and handicapped children. He frequently lectures, raises money, and signs autographs for the organization.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg: Disabled children constantly seek out Abbott, and if they can’t get to him, he’ll track them down. The pitcher once showed up at a game between two teams of disabled kids in an Orange County (Calif.) Little League. He walked unannounced onto the field, shook each youngster’s hand, talked with them, and then pitched an inning.

“The kids didn’t come back to earth for weeks,” says league president Kim Weingarten. It’s also not unusual for Abbott to spot a disabled child in the crowd after a game and bring the youngster onto the field. Several of Abbott’s game balls now reside in these children’s trophy cases. But he has something more to offer them than an autograph or a baseball.

“Someone has to convince these kids that they can accomplish whatever they want in life and their disability won’t stop them.”

Like Johnny Appleseed, Abbott planted those seeds of hope and inspiration throughout Southern California in his first stint with the Angels. Now, after playing in New York and Chicago, he is back in Anaheim. “When Jim was traded away it was like Orange County had lost one of its treasures,” says Cindy Eigenhuis of Amigos de Los Ninos. “He was so involved in activities for the kids. Now, thank God, he’s back.”

Jeff Montgomery Kansas City Royals

Even the most devoted baseball fans admit that the game lacks the action and pizzazz of basketball, football, or hockey. For Jeff Montgomery, that’s the point: He contends that the slow pace of baseball makes it an ideal setting for a father to interact with his son or daughter. The rhythm of baseball-with its foul balls, pitcher substitutions, pickoff throws to first base, and so on-creates a great climate for father-child quality time.

Montgomery thinks a lot about fathering-so much so that he has become an important spokesman for fatherhood in Kansas City. “All the evidence suggests that kids need some kind of fathering input in their lives,” he says. “For me, as someone who has a lot of visibility, I think it’s important to be out there identifying good fathers and informing young men about the joys and responsibilities of being a parent.” The pitcher has joined with the National Center for Fathering, a nonprofit agency based in Kansas City that is aggressively promoting the virtues of fatherhood. And in a nation in which nearly 40 percent of all children under 18 live apart from their biological fathers, the cause of fathering needs all the relief help it can get.

Montgomery recently recruited his entire family to star in a public-service announcement for the center. He appears at NCF fund-raisers and has persuaded other Kansas City athletes to publicly support the cause of fathering. He is the prime force behind an NCF-sponsored essay contest, in which children are asked to explain why their fathers are important to them.

“We’re always looking for fathering advice,” he says. “So I’ve been encouraging kids to write a brief essay on what their fathers mean to them. Some are not only touching and well written, but are of enormous benefit to the fathering center. They look at these essays and turn some of the messages into recommendations on how to be a successful father.” When the four-yearold agency sought a prominent spokesperson for the virtues of fatherhood, Montgomery, it seemed, was recommended by everyone in Kansas City. “Teff is extremely active in this community,” says Peter Spokes, an NCF official, “and the work he has done for us has given our organization tremendous visibility.”

Montgomery s life is indeed packed with charitable causes. The 34-year-old pitcher also helps the KC. chapter of the American Heart Association, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the City Union Mission, the YMCA, and the Boys and Girls Club.

Montgomery was due to reveal the winner of the fatherhood essay contest on Father’s Day, during a ceremony at the Royals’ Kaufmann Stadium. The lucky youngster will walk to the mound, shake hands with the pitcher, read his or her essay over the microphone-“and, hopefully,” says Montgomery, “every father at that game or watching on TV will go away a better parent having heard it.”

Steve Finley San Diego Padres

Twenty-five teenagers from San Diego’s worst neighborhoods stood nervously with 25 professional ballplayers on the first-base line at Jack Murphy Stadium. The players, all Padres, were there to help award the youngsters $5,000 academic scholarships. Center fielder Steve Finley stood there alongside Berenice Alcantara, a student at Palm Middle School.

Alcantara and her peers might never have gotten there without Finley’s determination. Shortly after a 1994 trade sent him from Houston to San Diego, Finley learned of the team’s plan to start a scholarship program for impoverished, academically talented students. Though short of a tuition-waiver, the money could help put college within reach of needy kids. Great idea, he thought, but he had a suggestion. “Both my parents were middle-school teachers back home” in Tennessee, says Finley, 31, the National League’s Gold Glove center fielder last season. “They were loving with their students but they could be tough too. In fact, my dad, who was a principal, had a plaque on his desk that said, `Attila the Hun.’ But they always insisted that the time to reach out to kids, to get involved in their lives in a positive way, was when they were in middle-school.”

Steve Finley remembered what “Attila” had told him. He convinced the Padres to aim the program at kids in middle-school, not high school, because “that’s when kids are most susceptible to the lure of drugs and the streets,” Finley says. “By high school, it might be too late. With a program like this, we’d be able to identify them as young teenagers and say, `Hey, don’t worry. You are going to college.’ ”

The Padres liked the idea and after much locker-room arm-twisting by Finley, the Padres Scholars program was launched. Finley guaranteed that he could raise $60,000, and the club said it would match the total. “You never saw anything like it,” says Charles Steinberg, the Padres’ director of community development. “There was Steve, carrying a yellow legal pad, walking slowly from locker to locker in the clubhouse, soliciting donations from his fellow players and convincing them of the worthiness of his cause.”

Almost immediately he signed up Tony Gwynn, Ken Caminiti, Brad Ausmus, and other Padres stars, as well as manager Bruce Bochy and his coaching staff. He was so convincing that many of his teammates soon became as active in the program as Finley. When San Diego traded pitcher Andy Benes to Seattle late last season, his final act as a Padre was to walk into the front of fice and write a check to the program for $10,000. And when Finley collected a bonus for winning the Gold Glove, he turned over a big chunk to the Scholars fund.

“This is something we should have been doing for a long time,” says Finley. “Players and owners should be working together in their communities. And education is a common denominator.”

Finley and Alcantara have grown as close as teammates through the Padres program. The ballplayer keeps an eye on her academic progress and is often the first one the teenager calls when she scores well on a test.

“This is definitely a two-way street,” he says. “We’re helping these kids, but we feel as if we’re doing something for ourselves and the community, too. Sometimes as players, we get asked to help so many different causes that it’s hard to see the benefits. But with this program, we sponsor individual kids and we see them…. We can see first-hand their progress and how this affects their lives.”

Don Mattingly New York Yankees

Don Mattingly wants to play baseball again. And if, later this season, a team decides to call the 34-year-old former Yankee first baseman, he’s easy to find: He has a couple of businesses to run.

A native of Evansville, Indiana, Mattingly operates two small businesses in his hometown. He lends his sweat, notjust his name and money, to Mattingly’s 23, a restaurant and sports-bar downtown, and Diamond Five Farm, his horse farm in the Indiana countryside.

His roots in Evansville mean a lot of people are watching to see how well his businesses perform. And that means he must spend a lot of time not only building up his operations, but the network of locals who will help them to thrive. “I’m from Evansville,” says Mattingly, speaking from his farm. “What happens here affects everyone who lives here and that includes meespecially since I’m not playing this year.”

Mattingly opened the restaurant, named for his uniform number, a decade ago, and bought the horse farm in 1993. “He would be in the kitchen cooking something up, or in the office checking on some numbers,” says Kevin Edmonds, the restaurant’s general manager. “He even got involved in some of the hiring himself. He was a very hands-on owner.” The restaurant-bar, which can seat 350 and serves traditional American fare, employs about 40 people. Mattingly drifts in often, making sure people are getting seated, looking over the menu to see what’s hot with customers, and checking on new employees.

“There are a lot of players who, having made their fortune, will move to a sunny beach somewhere and build a wall around themselves,” says Ray Shulte, the player’s agent. “Some get involved in business, invest some money, let someone use their name and then wait for the checks. Not Don. He feels a responsibility to Evansville. And by being a successful businessman there, he is giving people work and giving something back.”

Jeff Brantley Cincinnati Reds

Jeff Brantley hails from Jackson, Mississippi. To grow up in a poor city in one of the nation’s poorest states is to know something about poverty. Brantley watched how a welfare system helped to ensnare families in ramshackle neighborhoods, creating places where there were too many kids with too little to do.

“Those kids had nothing,” he says. “No opportunity. No hope.”

Not even baseball. “Even if they wanted to play baseball, they had no equipment.”

So three years ago, Brantley, 32, decided to start a baseball league in Jackson’s largely African-American west side. The Calvary Youth Baseball League began with eight teams and roughly 60 boys, ages 9 to 12. Today it has grown to 150 boys and 10 teams.

“He didn’t just lend his name to that project,” says Cal Wells, a close friend. “It was an eightteam league, a great project, and he got the whole thing together. He provided the money and the equipment. He got the ballpark and personally got involved in finding the coaches.”

To Brantley, the coaches are crucial. They help set a tone, an attitude. “He wanted to make sure that the coaches were people of character, people the kids could look up to. He was as hands-on as you could possibly be, and yet he wanted his involvement kept real quiet,” says Wells, a Jackson attorney.

For every good thing you know about Jeff Brantley, Wells says, there are 10 good things you don’t know. One day last winter, the pitcher heard that a child dying of cancer had asked a shopping-mall Santa for a ball autographed by Jeff Brantley. “A few days before Christmas there was a knock at that family’s door,” Wells says. “There was Jeff, delivering the ball himself.”

A religious man, Brantley said the combination of his Christian ideals and his professional good fortune compelled him to get involved in the lives of disadvantaged youngsters. “It’s not so much a sense that, `Well, I’ve done real well, I’ve got to help others,”‘ says Brantley. “I have a strong faith and I saw a need out there for kids to have some direction in their lives.”

The Mississippi State graduate got the idea for his hometown league early in his big-league career, when he was a Giants reliever. Brantley worked with a youth baseball league in a drugplagued section of San Francisco. “There I just sponsored the team,” he says. “But even at that level of involvement you could see the potential for good.”

Brantley knew that to alter conditions in Jackson he needed to touch the parents as well as the children. League rules stipulate that the parents of players must attend a certain number of games and lend a hand in league activities. “The way I look at it,” says Brantley, “the league is a little evangelism, a little baseball, a little fun.” And a lot of Jeff Brantley.

Craig Biggio Houston Astros

A Sunday afternoon game concludes at the Astrodome. Half-dressed Houston players linger at their lockers, talking with reporters or each other, picking at plates of postgame food, waiting for treatment in the trainer’s room. Craig Biggio is dressed and heads for the door.

“Told the kids I’d take them out for ice cream,” explains the all-star second baseman. Baseball separates families for most of the year and, more than other sports, confronts its players with constant temptations on lengthy road trips. “Anybody who thinks it’s easy to maintain a normal family life in baseball is fooling themselves,” says Pittsburgh Pirates manager Jim Leyland. “Just look at the number of second and third marriages in the game. It requires real effort and commitment on everyone’s part.”

And, according to many in baseball, no one works harder at his family life than Biggio. “Like it or not, we are seen as role models by kids,” Biggio says, “and if they can see an athlete they admire in a healthy family relationship, maybe it will have some sort of influence on their lives.” So, while many ballplayers shelter their personal lives, he and his family-wife Pattie and sons Connor, three, and Cavan, one, make it a point to live much of theirs in public. Biggio believes that a family is not unlike a baseball team. Its members function best when they function as a unit. So it’s not unusual to see the Biggio clan at a black-tie charity affair-with high chair and baby nestled among the diners-or in the children’s unit of a Houston hospital.

The Biggio family’s activities add a new meaning to the expression “family planning.” “Craig’s schedule is a very carefully orchestrated affair,” says Gene Pemberton, the Astros’ community-development director. “He leaves ample time for baseball, of course, but they make sure there is time for their causes.”

“The all-American family is a cliche,” Pemberton says. “But in Craig’s case it really applies. He and his wife and two kids do everything together. And he gets a lot of requests for his time, naturally, but he won’t do anything without clearing it first with Pattie. A family man is what he’s all about.”

A pet project of the Biggio family these days is the Houston chapter of the Sunshine Kids, an organization that tries to fill the needs of terminally ill youngsters and their families. Whenever the Astros are at home, Biggio and his family visit sick children, either in local hospitals or in their homes.

You could say they belong to a sort of extended family-and no one’s family is extended more than Biggio’s. Which is just the way he wants it.

Frank Fitzpatrick is a sportswriter with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Copyright Heritage Foundation Jul/Aug 1996

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