A Home Run for the Kids

Originally published June 1, 1997, by Mike Barnicle for The Boston Globe

This was Friday, before the day turned to a night when the biggest star in town would burn three home runs across a dark sky and pull his team by the collar right into the win column against the New York Yankees. It was noon on Westville Street in Dorchester as Mo Vaughn pulled to the curb outside the John Marshall Elementary School in a tan Mercedes sedan.

The large school has nearly 1,000 students. It is a bright spot in a sometimes bleak environment where teachers can proudly and justifiably claim victory by coaxing a simple smile out of children who often spend the happiest and safest hours of their day in a classroom.

“Mo Vaughn,” a boy named Dwayne said as the Red Sox first baseman walked into the principal’s office. “I want you to meet my whole family.”

“I’ll do it,” Vaughn told Dwayne. “Go get ’em.”

The boy ran down the corridor toward an open door that led through the gym and out into the sunlight of a playground where hundreds of his schoolmates waited eagerly to see a guy who performs just as well off the field as he does on it.

Vaughn went into a conference room to wait for Derek Jeter, the spectacular Yankee shortstop, who was also coming to the Marshall to help paint a graffiti-scarred playground wall for a mural the children would then design themselves.

“I like this,” Vaughn was saying. “These kids probably won’t remember a single home run I hit, but they might remember that I came to their school.”

The ballplayers were in attendance as part of a community service program sponsored by Fleet Bank. Right here, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to tell you that a truly nifty member of my family works for the bank. But Vaughn and Jeter were there because they are different from many millionaire athletes in that both are blessed with the gift of humility that quickly makes children feel at ease around them.

Now, Derek Jeter arrived. He wore the uniform of the young — T-shirt, jeans and sneakers — as he walked gracefully into the office, smiled, and shook Mo Vaughn’s hand.

Jeter is playing his second year of major league baseball. Along with Alex Rodriguez of Seattle and Nomar Garciaparra right here with the Red Sox, he is one of three American League shortstops destined to be huge in the history of baseball. Already, he has attained matinee idol status in Manhattan, and when he comes to bat in Yankee Stadium, teenagers squeal.

Yet, both men stood in the playground, paint brushes in hand, and represented the tremendous lost opportunities that threaten their sport and cloud its future. They are young, attractive, articulate and approachable, a marketing major’s dream.

But they are playing a sport in danger of being permanently damaged by selfish owners too shortsighted to appoint a commissioner strong enough to capitalize on the personalities of players like Vaughn, Jeter, Junior Griffey and a host of others capable of restoring our best game to its proper slot in American life.

They are not 7 feet tall. They do not weigh 275 pounds. They are not hidden in protective gear. And Friday, laughing and fooling with a couple of hundred school children, there was an ease to them that cannot be contrived.

Baseball has been diminished by its parts: by greed, by agents seeking to cash in, by ego-crazed owners willing to cave in, by players mesmerized by contracts rather than community as well as by a history of 28 teams operating as 28 separate businesses instead of as a single industry eclipsed by the NBA and NFL. Look at the playgrounds you pass today and see how few children are playing baseball and you know the sport has trouble.

“You think they’ll boo me?” Derek Jeter asked Vaughn.

“No, man. They like you,” Vaughn laughed.

On the playground, they cheered for both ballplayers because they came to a place where children live. For an hour, everyone was at home in the land of the young, led by Jeter and Vaughn, grown men who play a kid’s game marvelously well.

As the two athletes were leaving, Dwayne ran back into the office and said: “Did you know I was famous too? I was on TV after they held a gun to my brother’s head. That was me on the TV that night.”

“Forget that,” Mo Vaughn told the boy. “Just keep on doing your homework and do what your teachers tell you to do. Then you’ll really be famous.”

“OK,” Dwayne said, with a smile as big as any home run. “I’ll do it. I’ll do it for you.”