When It Comes to Charities Ballplayers Pitch in Big Bucks

MAJOR-LEAGUE GIVING

September 01, 1991|By PATRICK A. MCGUIRE

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.

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