EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 25, 2009

Play Ball! After theft, Little League overwhelmed by support

Mo Vaughn among those who donated

By Mark E. Vogler and Brian Messenger

LAWRENCE — After hearing about the $1,500 worth of baseball gear that got stolen from the South Lawrence East Little League, a Louisiana man made league president George Herman an offer he couldn't refuse.

"This gentleman called me around noon, saying he would send $300 because he really loves baseball and wanted to help us out," Herman said last night, as teams practiced for opening day activities set for this morning.

"He told me 'All I want is a baseball signed by some kids so I can put it on my mantle'," said the league president, smiling as he recalled the story.

"And that was before Mo Vaughn contacted us," Herman continued, referring to the former Boston Red Sox slugger who is among those contributing close to $11,000 in donations as of last night.

The Louisiana baseball fan was just one of dozens of people - from the Merrimack Valley to the West Coast - who stepped up to the plate yesterday - one day after reading about how the theft of baseball gear jeopardized the start of the baseball season for 300 kids - many from meager means who depend on financial assistance to play America's favorite pastime.

"It's just unfortunate," said Vaughn, whose New York company recently purchased the Sycamore Village affordable housing complex on Lowell Street. "When you start messing with kids, it really starts to become a problem."

Vaughn, in an interview with The Eagle-Tribune, declined to say how much he contributed.

The South Lawrence East Little League celebrates opening day today with a ceremony and scrimmages at its field complex at South Lawrence East Elementary School.

Outgoing League President Greg Morris summed up the outpouring of generosity as one of the league's finest days.

"I fielded calls from Arkansas; Phoneix, Ariz.; Los Angeles; Atlanta, Ga.; and all over the place," said Morris, a Lawrence School Committee member.

"I talked to a gentleman who lived in New Hampshire. He asked that I not name him. He played in South Lawrence East Little league 40 years ago when he was 9-years old. He wrote a check for $1,500." The Steven Baddour Chartiable Foundation, named after the state senator, donated $2,000. Jim Zenevitch, chairman of the charity, said they were saddened by the theft and wanted to see the players back on the fields.

"The kids don't have enough to do around here as it is," said Mary Sullivan, owner of Independent Tire and Auto of North Andover, who stepped up to the plate with a $1,500 donation - half of it coming out of her own pocket and the remainder coming out of her business.

A life-long resident of South Lawrence herself, Sullivan's business has been a sponsor of the league in the past.

"There's a lot of good people out there," said Kenneth Daher, co-owner of Daher Companies Real Estate in Methuen, who donated $500.

"It's a shame that they could hurt these children," said Daher. "These kids need to be in a ball park and not on a street corner."

League officials had kept this week's theft confidential to all but a handful of people so they wouldn't have kids and coaches worrying that their season was ruined.

"We didn't want to upset the kids - a lot of them who come from rough areas of the city - a lot of them are on a payment program," said John Berube, manager of the Lawrence Astros of the South Lawrence East Farm League.

"It would be heart-wrenching for those kids to find out what actually happened. Frankly, I believe that if it wasn't for those kids - we wouldn't be getting all these donations," said Berube.

Also contributing were Metro PCS and Bellmore Transportation Services $1,000 each.

Many kids and parents interviewed last night at the league fields were unaware of help that was on the way from the "Hit Dog," Vaughn, and other baseball fans.

"I felt like we weren't going to have a season - because we lost all the balls, bats and helmets," said Berube's 9-year-old daughter, Aliza, who plays shortstop for the Astros. She's a third-grader at South Lawrence East School.

Aliza had to keep the theft a secret, but was one of the first kids to learn about how much people nationwide cared about the poor kids from Lawrence.

"I think he's a generous person - a very nice person," Aliza said of Vaughn.

"That's what I would tell him if I could talk to him," she said.

League officials were hoping to get Vaughn to attend the opening day festivities today.

One of Aliza's team mates wasn't interested in rooting for any Red Sox, star or no star.

"I'm for the Yankees," said 10-year-old Eddie Torres, an Astros outfielder, who never heard of Mo Vaughn, so was unaware that he played a little for the Yankees and the Mets before retiring.

But Eddie, the son of Erica Del Valle and Francisco Ortiz, later said he would personally thank Vaughn if he could.

As Ortiz watched his son practice, he said he wasn't surprised about the outpouring of financial support.

"It seems like there's always a lot contributions of this type any time something bad hits Lawrence. People from Lawrence and people who live in the area - and a lot of other places," Ortiz said.

Police said $1,500 worth of baseballs, bats, helmets and other protective equipment was stolen from the league's locked storage pod either late Wednesday or early Thursday morning.

The storage pod was located in a parking lot near the field complex. Police said they plan to review school surveillance footage. An investigation into the theft is ongoing. With the money to replace the stolen equipment already collected and promises of support continuing to roll in from around the nation, league volunteer Greg Morris said officials have set their sight on something greater - building a permanent storage facility. Morris said he spoke with Congresswoman Niki Tsongas yesterday about facilitating a plan to build the structure.

"We'll never have this problem again," said Morris. "This is going to be phenomenal for the league."

Reporter Tim McCarthy contributed to this report.

How to Donate

Call Greg Morris at 978-726-7334 or e-mail slebaseball@comcast.net