As a boy in Asheville, Cal Ripken Jr. would follow his father as he recruited children growing up in tough neighborhoods to take part in his free baseball clinics.
Cal Sr., the late major league manager whose own father died when he was 10, ran Asheville's minor league team for three seasons. Every chance, he'd use his clinics to deliver his “life's lessons” about building character, working hard and persevering.
“I didn't get it at first why he would go out with these kids and not spend time with me playing baseball at home,” said Cal Jr., the Hall of Fame shortstop who played a record 2,632 straight games. “Looking back on it, he didn't talk about baseball. He was providing something to these kids to steer them away from trouble.”
That's the basis for “Badges for Baseballs” that Ripken and N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper launched Wednesday in 15 N.C. towns and cities.
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The yearlong, $530,000 program is aimed at preventing juvenile crime by recruiting law enforcement volunteers or youth organizations to mentor and coach middle school students growing up in rough communities.
Starting early next year, it will provide funding, equipment and training to the mentors. Cooper's justice department is putting up $265,000; Ripken's foundation, named for his father, is providing a matching grant.
Baseball is mostly a hook.
“We use baseball to get the attention of the kids, but then we talk to them about making good choices. We put caring adults in front them,” Ripken said at a news conference at United Way of Central Carolinas in Charlotte. “Law enforcement uses the sport as an ice-breaker to build bonds.”
Cooper said there are 14,000 gang members in North Carolina. Many are recruited in middle school.
“It's important to bring in role models in that period of time when they're beginning to make choices,” he said. “We want to help them find the right choices that are healthy and productive.”
He said the program will begin in Charlotte once a law enforcement or youth organization partner is recruited. Other Charlotte-area cities include Gastonia and possibly Concord.
The program is under way in Massachusetts, Virginia and Mississippi. In addition to North Carolina, it's being launched in eight more states, Ripken said. He's already seen it making a difference.
In Virginia, one neighborhood had little to do with their patrol officer – until he got involved with the children through “Badges to Baseballs.”
“He'd go on patrol and they were all scared of him,” Ripken said. “After the program was implemented and he started to build rapport, all the kids in the neighborhood would come out and climb all over him.
“ … If you can touch one child, you can touch two. And if you can get them off a path that could be destructive and onto one that is positive, then that feels as good as hitting the game-winning homerun.”