The next time you watch an obnoxious baseball player throw a ball at a fan or toss a set of bats out of the dugout in a fit of anger, or whine that $3 million is an insulting amount of money to be paid, you might consider another side to the story before you write them all off as spoiled brats:
In Seattle, baseball star Harold Reynolds spends $250,000 out of his own pocket to produce a series of free children's books that stress family values and warn against drug use.
In New York City, all-star Don Mattingly pledges to donate $100 to the Children's Health Fund for each home run he hits. When his season goes badly and his home run total is lower than expected, he adjusts and pledges $100 for any Yankee home run.
In Minneapolis, Twins star Kirby Puckett donates large sums to the Children's Heart Fund of Minnesota, an agency that flies children from third-world countries to Minneapolis hospitals where life-saving heart surgery can be performed.
In Pittsburgh, Pirate catcher Mike Lavaliere, raised without a father, buys tickets to weekend games for people involved in Big Brother programs, thinking how nice it would have been if someone had taken him to a ballgame when he was a kid. He buys so many tickets that he has become the single largest season ticket holder in all of Piratedom.
There's more: In Los Angeles, shortstop Alfredo Griffin, raised in poverty in the Dominican Republic, lays out enough cash to sponsor an entire Little League. In Oakland there's Dave Stewart, a one-man charity whose money, it seems, funds almost every worthwhile project in town. There's New York Met Dave Magadan, a generous supporter of programs for disadvantaged kids in the Big Apple, and Cubs pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, who donated $250,000 to start his own charitable foundation in Chicago.
Even Eddie Murray, the one-time Oriole favorite, now vilified on local talk shows because of his past bad attitude toward locals, still sends $50,000 a year to the Outward Bound program he started in Leakin Park.
Of course when you talk about Baltimore, there are plenty of names, past and present: Ken Singleton and Al Bumbry started buying tickets for the elderly and for kids way back when. They were followed by Eddie Murray, who quickly went beyond tickets to larger programs. Former Oriole Dennis Martinez, now a perfect pitcher with the Montreal Expos, sends money back to his native Nicaragua to support youth programs. Among today's Oriole stars there is Greg Olson who pledges $100 per save to two different charities. Or Glenn Davis whose Carpenter's Way Ranch for boys near Columbus, Ga., is almost ready to admit its first troubled youths, and who purchased 3,000 tickets to Oriole games to be donated to charities. And then there's Cal Ripken Jr. It seems like the whole world was aware of Ripken this summer -- from his Most Valuable Player explosion at the All-Star game, to his season-long hot streak with the bat, to his canonization as baseball saint on a recent cover of Sports Illustrated magazine.
But oddly enough, in the very thick of it there was one young Baltimore woman named Cynthia Willingham who shrugged and shook her head when she was asked what the name Cal Ripken Jr. meant to her.
"I don't know anything about sports," said the 30-year-old single mother of three. "All I know is I never knew how to write a paragraph before I came here."
"Here," is a modest, refurbished row house along North Calvert Street just below North Avenue, converted -- thanks to a $250,000 private donation -- into a learning center for adults with diminished reading and writing skills. That private donor, whose name stands out on the sign in front of the building, is none other than Cal Ripken Jr.
But to Cynthia Willingham, his name isn't nearly as important as that of John Downs, one of the teachers at the Ripken Learning Center. "He showed me how to write a letter," she said. "It made me feel so good, like I'm so important."
That kind of hit never shows up in a box score, but it's the kind that is occurring more frequently as a growing number of baseball players have been making significant financial donations to local charities.
While the motivations for this philanthropy predictably vary from sincere interest to personal promotion, baseball teams themselves have begun to take the cue, recognizing that a good image in the community as a supporter of worthwhile programs also helps sell tickets. Thus, team community relations programs have been sprouting up all over baseball to the point where last year, for the first time, they held their own annual meetings. The result? New players are now warned in spring training that their career as a ballplayer has taken on a new dimension: the giving of their time, if not their money, as well as hitting, throwing and fielding.
The charities themselves have long understood the value of an athlete's endorsement.
"When someone like Kirby Puckett gets involved," says Dan Fuchs, director of development for the Children's Heart Fund of Minnesota, "it's like a testimonial to what the agency is about. Kirby is well-respected, a community leader, people look up to him. When he adopts us as his charity, it gives us validation, it encourages others to look at us to see if they want to support us. The ripple effect of a known player is tremendous for an organization."
And yet, curiously, there is no central listing anywhere in baseball of just exactly who these generous players are or how many of them there are or how much they give -- only random remembrance of certain names by players, reporters, public-relations people, agents and front-office staffers.
"I couldn't tell you what players do it," says Deputy Baseball Commissioner Steve Greenberg, whose father Hank is the Hall of Famer who made his name in a different era. "But I see more and more players taking an active role today. We're working on a list and over the next couple of years we might be able to organize what, up to this point, is a disorganized thing. It's somewhat helter-skelter. Maybe we can get more bang for our buck."
WHILE THAT MAKES PLAYERS sound like some kind of commodity, Baltimore attorney Ron Shapiro, the agent for dozens of baseball players including several Orioles, prefers another term: "what an overwhelmingly valuable resource these people are to their communities."
It is no accident that Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken, Kirby Puckett, Dennis Martinez and others have become financially involved in charity work while under Shapiro's guidance. "A philosophy I advise my clients is a philosophy of sharing or putting back into the community something of what you get," he explains.
Shapiro is not alone among sports agents in that approach. In San Francisco, Jeffrey Moorad, whose firm Steinberg and Moorad represents dozens of National Football League players as well as more than 25 baseball players, says he won't represent any athlete who doesn't agree to the concept of giving back to the community.
"We believe that too many agents and lawyers in our field narrowly define their role as putting more dollars into the pockets of their clients," he says. "We believe it's our responsibility, both socially and personally, to challenge our clients and help them retrace their roots and to establish give-back programs. Athletes today are put on a pedestal and they are in a tremendous position to be able to trigger imitative behavior, especially in youth. We feel it's our role as sports lawyers to encourage that."
Both men recognize that such statements may not ring totally true to everyone.
"From a public-relations standpoint my feeling is there will always be doubters and people who challenge any positive act," says Moorad.
"Some people are cynical," adds Shapiro. "They say, 'Oh, they earn all of that money. They should give.' But it's still a giving up. You're still out of pocket. If you give $1 and you're in the 35 percent tax bracket, it still costs you 65 cents out of pocket. It's deductible but you don't save that much in taxes. It's a generous giving."
In fact there is a standard cynic test for those who are interested, expressed simply by Jim Small, a spokesman for Baseball Commissioner Faye Vincent. "It takes about five seconds to write out a check," he says. "But a lot of players go beyond that and spend a lot of their time. And they do it totally out of the goodness of their hearts."
Each year the commissioner's office presents a player with its ultimate community service award, named after the late Roberto Clemente, who died in an airplane accident while on a mission of mercy to help victims of an earthquake in Central America. This ** year's winner was Mariner second baseman Harold Reynolds, who was also named last year as one of President George Bush's One Thousand Points of Light -- the first sports figure so named.
"He gives and gives and gives," says longtime friend Wayne Perryman, who has written several of the children's books Reynolds' Children's Foundation has produced and distributed to schools.
"I know Harold would be angry if I told you the amount of money he's given out since the first of this year. It's well into six digits, from his own pocket. He's not a top-paid ballplayer, but he is like Roberto Clemente, who never forgot where he came from. His heart is touched by people who hurt."
Last year Reynolds invited 1,000 black men to a formal banquet at a Seattle hotel. He then gave a speech in which he challenged his audience to spend more time with children. "From that dinner," says Perryman, "everyone around here just knew his heart. He's given out scholarships, funded little leagues. When he comes off the road he has a full report on his desk of what the foundation has done. He takes the reports home and meditates for a few days, then comes back and says I want to do this or that."
Not a large man, Reynolds is quiet and polite in conversation. In an interview in the visiting team clubhouse at Memorial Stadium, he explained his motives in helping children. "I just feel it's where my heart beats," he said. "Kids are so overlooked, but we forget they are our most valuable resource. Our future lies with kids."
He also agrees that involvement goes beyond the checkbook.
"I give time and money, but time is the big key," he says. "Kids don't care about money. They want to spend time with someone who wants to spend time with them. The one who has the respect of kids is the one who spends the most time with them. If a kid spends most of his time in front of a TV, then the TV is his role model."
THE BUSINESS OF CREATING role models wasn't always such a formalized part of baseball. But the realities have caught up with the game. In Minnesota, for instance, there are 2,000 charities, and almost all of them want athletes from the Twins to help them with their fund-raising campaigns.
"With players playing every day it is impractical to give their attention to more than one charity," says Betty Piper, who directs the Twins' unusually aggressive community relations department. "Each of our players is therefore asked to select one charity. We insist they make a choice. It's a simple way to make sure they are involved. We usually sit them down and ask them, 'What are you interested in? Have you been touched by a disease? What pushes the buttons for you?' This method just kind of developed out of a practical nature. Winning or losing, the community doesn't go away. Kids are always in hospitals whether you're winning or losing games."
She says she never asks her players to donate money, only time.
"I would guess 95 percent of the charities want exposure," she says. "They call it problem awareness. . . . Any sports figure can give a charity's problem the public awareness it needs."
But she discourages charities from soliciting players for contributions. "What we can give the charities is exposure," she says. "Besides, to simply write out a check, it's too easy. I want players exposed to things outside of baseball. When the game is done with them, we'll turn them out into the community. Are we preparing them as citizens or as past athletes? . . . And I think that's a good image in the community. It sells you tickets and we're all driven by ticket sales."
In Baltimore, Community Relations Director Julie Wagner says the Orioles are also driven by the community's own idea of its need.
"If Mayor Schmoke makes Baltimore 'The city that reads' it makes sense for the Orioles to tie into that," she says. "We want to reach kids, attack the community's social problems. Community Relations used to be all about players making appearances. Now we take on an issue. It's very pro-active."
She noted that while high-profile players like Ripken and Davis are involved in extensive programs, other Orioles get involved to a lesser degree. "It's not just Cal giving $250,000," she says. "Dave Johnson is always willing to go out and talk to groups. We're sending Sam Horn down to Chantilly, Va., for a Little League clinic. Gregg Olson is doing a public service announcement for juvenile diabetes. He will stand in front of the otter cage at the zoo because his nickname is 'Otter.' People will hopefully look up and say, 'It's Gregg Olson. Let's take part in that march for juvenile diabetes.' You just hope people realize we are out there doing a lot of good."
Besides, she says, there is a degree of public expectation that players will get involved on some level. "They see these players as part of their community." Still, says Glenn Davis, some players get involved for the wrong reasons.
"A lot just do it, No. 1, because something is telling them it's good to get involved in order to advance," he says. "It looks good in public for PR reasons. It's for selfish gain."
When he started his boys' ranch in Georgia, he says, he felt the pressure of proving to the area that he was sincere. "I had to overcome the community saying, 'He's just another ballplayer looking for a tax shelter or building a name for himself.' One way to do that was to personally show my commitment with my own sweat of brow and heart. I did the work to get it going. I gave it my heart and soul every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m."
Jim Cunningham, who has known Davis since they were teen-agers, now serves as a director of the Carpenter's Way Ranch Inc. in Georgia. "The word tax break has never come up in his vocabulary, and I'm his banker," says Cunningham. "Glenn feels in his heart that this is a calling from God. He will do whatever it takes. When the team goes on road trips, he'll call everybody on the board of directors and ask what's going on. He motivates us. He keeps us pumped up."
While Cal Ripken Jr. is by nature a more reserved individual, his personal interest in adult literacy is duly noted in the offices of Baltimore Reads Inc. This is the umbrella agency that oversees efforts in improving adult literacy in Baltimore, and under which the Ripken Adult Learning Center has taken shape.
"Cal made a very large personal contribution," says Maggi Gains, the executive director of Baltimore Reads Inc. "But as much as that is important, his personal message is something that's invaluable. Cal comes across as an incredibly humble human being who has personal discipline and is able in a low-key way to communicate the message of what hard work can bring."
Just as he serves as a role model, Ripken says that his own involvement came from role models he followed.
"Eddie [Murray] and Ken [Singleton] and [Al] Bumbry were ahead of me," he says. "Those people stood out in my mind. They were always so giving of their time and also their money. One thing that stood out was the ticket program by Ken Singleton -- he bought tickets to games for the elderly -- and Eddie Murray, who bought them for kids. I always thought that concept was so good. The fact I was from this area, we always wanted to do what we could to make it a better place."
His money not only allowed Baltimore Reads to start up the new center bearing his and his wife Kelly's names, but it gave the organization credibility with other philanthropic organizations.
"Because of the Ripken money, we were able to leverage the Meyerhoff Foundation," Gains says. "The Meyerhoff people saw we could use four more computer stations at the Ripken Center. That motivated them because it was real. When you're brand new, you've got to establish a track record."
Since then, Ripken has added his name to a new program, one that has become a much copied fund-raising tool. Called Reading, Runs and Ripken, it invites the public to pledge donations to Baltimore Reads Inc., based on the number of home runs Ripken hits this season. In San Francisco, agent Jeff Moorad is talking about starting a similar public pledge program involving Gregg Olson and saves.
For his part, Ripken says few players talk among themselves of their charitable work. "In some cases I feel uncomfortable getting attention for it," he says. "Some people are only in it for attention. For the most part, though, people do this because they want to do it."
Ron Shapiro thinks more players would be involved if they were encouraged. "I see it as something that comes from the individual," he says, "but if it were promoted more heavily you would see more people doing it."
The problem is that there is no central coordination in baseball where anyone keeps track of such contributions or even encourages them.
Still, says Deputy Baseball Commissioner Greenberg, the commissioner's office is working on a list of players who are involved and "my personal vision is a hope that in each of the 26 major-league cities [soon to be 28] there will be an identity with at least one player or two or three as someone actively involved with charities."
In the meantime, people like Dan Fuchs, the development director of the Children's Heart Fund in Minnesota, will continue to rely on athletes' charisma to get their message across and their bills paid.
"Professional sports is a segment with lots of assets and liquid assets, too," he says. "Cash. From a very cold perspective they are very good prospects for fund raising. A very good market."
While he says he has never been afraid of approaching ballplayers, other fund raisers are skittish about going to big stars and asking for their support. But, then, the players 'N themselves are shy. "In some cases," he says, "I think it's as simple as that they haven't been asked."