BOSTON -- The young mother's name was Katrina Holifield. Hugging her 1-year-old niece, Charny, with one arm, she took her son, Rashod, 3, by the hand as she went up to meet Boston Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn.
"I didn't even know who you were at the start of the evening," she told him. "We didn't even know you were doing this. Thank you so much for doing this."
Mo Vaughn looked her straight in the eye, and said, in a soft, humble voice, "I do what I can."
Vaughn, a native of Norwalk, Conn., had wanted to do something special for kids this Christmas. Something that would widen their focus, make them look at the world in a different way. Something they would remember for the rest of their lives.
Tuesday night, Mo did something special. He took 250 kids from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston to see the Boston Ballet's performance of "The Nutcracker." For a night, he took them out of lives that are sometimes as rough as burlap and put them in velvet seats. "Nice velvet seats that they'll lean back in, that's what I remember from when I went to the ballet," Vaughn said.
No, Mo is no ballet fanatic. His parents took him once when he was young, and Mo says he probably slept as much as he watched that night. It would have been easy, he said, to take 250 kids to a Bruins or Celtics game, but he wanted to show them that there are other performance artists who do wondrous things.
"It doesn't matter what you are," Vaughn said. "If you're a professional and a success and they're exposed to you, it gives them a wider focus."
There were several TV camera crews adding to the frenzied atmosphere of 250 kids cavorting at the pre-performance party Mo threw Tuesday night at the Wang Center. Fiddling with his earpiece, Mo did the obligatory "live" shots for the 6 o'clock news. Several kids made like pogo sticks behind him, hoping to get on TV.
In a perfect world, Mo would have loved to take the kids to the ballet without the media around. In a perfect world, he said, not only would he have rented the buses, he would have driven them to the ballet, entertained the kids and driven the kids home without anyone being the wiser.
But Vaughn, 26, is one of the few Red Sox who lives in the area year-round, and one of his goals is to make as big an impact in the community off the field as he does on it. If publicity about his good works inspires others to give their time and/or money to those less fortunate, so much the better.
"I was lucky," Vaughn said. "I had good parents. I think it's important to give back to the community. I don't knock anybody for not doing this. I don't judge anybody for not doing this. But when the kids see that someone cares, it makes them feel good. It makes them feel important."
Vaughn could have just written a $6,000-$7,000 check to cover the tickets ($25 per) and rented the buses and let deputies handle the rest.
"But when you come and participate with the children," Vaughn said, "you take it to another level."
Vaughn is a hands-on guy. And a believer in the importance of respect and discipline. When the kids started getting a bit rowdy shortly before being led upstairs for the ballet, Vaughn climbed onto a rickety wood chair and read them the riot act.
"I did this for all of you," Vaughn said, his voice loud and serious. "I did this for you to learn something. I wanted you to see some things that you've never experienced before. Quiet in the back. I'm speaking. Listen. This is important. It's important for you to hear when I'm speaking.
"Try to be as open-minded as possible. It will help you in the future. It will help you develop your mind. Respect who you are. Respect me and my name. Respect the [performers] for what they're doing. Be respectful and be quiet. Be good for me because I will continue to be good for you. Have a good time."
That, they were already having, grabbing the sandwiches and cookies and soft drinks, running around with their friends, many of them oblivious to the burly benefactor in their midst. Truth is, a lot of the children didn't even know who Mo Vaughn was.
"I asked everyone on our bus," said Shannon Reed, 10, of South Boston, "and nobody knew."
But it hardly mattered to Shannon or her friends from Southie.
"This," said 10-year-old Dawnell Adams, who says Babe Ruth was her grandfather's uncle, "makes you feel like someone cares."
Mo was in the center of it all, wearing a turtleneck, denim pants and jacket and black work boots and the black-and-turquoise cap of the Portland Sea Dogs, a soon-to-be born minor-league team.
"Have you taken enough pictures of me yet?" Mo scowled when several media photographers, sticking to him like greenflies, threatened to crowd out the kids.
A tiny figure sprinted away from Vaughn and back to her friends, waving her open palm and jumping up and down.
"Mo Vaughn autographed my hand," shouted Joy Willis, 6. "He's cute."
Mark Gillam, 33, Vaughn's business manager, stood off to the side, taking it all in. He talked about the calendar on the back wall of his Sacramento, Calif., office. Gillam represents about 35 athletes, but that calendar is "Mo's calendar," because it tracks Vaughn's off-field activities.
Even when Mo was sent down to Triple-A Pawtucket in the 1992 season, Gillam says, calling Gillam from the team bus to tell him how 'down' and angry he was, he never shirked his responsibilities.
"It's always, 'What do I have to do today?' " Gillam recalls Vaughn saying. "Never a hint of, 'Oh, I don't want to' or "Do I have to?' "
"If Mo Vaughn and his guys say we're going to do something, we're going to do it," Mo said. "I'm just glad for the kids. I hope they're happy. If nobody else is proud of them, I am."