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02/07/08 5:30 PM ET

'Cardboard to Leather' magic for kids

Oriole Advocates program takes needed donations abroad

BALTIMORE -- Everywhere they went during a whirlwind five days in Nicaragua, Shirley and Bob Harden were greeted by smiles. Now, weeks after returning to Baltimore to await another baseball season, they are warmed by the memories of appreciative children communicating thanks to strangers thousands of miles away.

"Looking at the faces of the children, especially the small ones, how can that not affect you?" asked Bob, a retired educator and administrator from Columbia, Md., who is part of the Oriole Advocates, an 80-member booster group of activists who share their love of baseball and the Baltimore Orioles. "The way they smiled, the way they would hug us or take our hands and show us what they'd received ... I'll never forget that feeling."

Through one of the Advocates' signature programs -- called "Cardboard to Leather" -- new and used baseball equipment is collected in Maryland and then sent to youth players, usually in impoverished nations where bats, balls, uniforms and other gear is hard to come by.

In January, for the first time, a member of the Advocates accompanied the shipment. The Hardens helped in the giveaways at five Nicaraguan towns and reveled in the opportunity to see the impact of the donations, many items castoffs from folks who thought they were no longer usable.

"Knowing that with so little effort you could make such a difference is an amazing feeling," said Shirley, a retired educator now working in marketing for the Washington, D.C.-based National Children's Museum.

The Advocates have been brightening the lives of faraway youngsters since a 1992 article by Baltimore Sun reporter John Eisenberg. While traveling through the Dominican Republic on assignment, Eisenberg was struck by the passion the kids showed for baseball despite their ragtag equipment.

Tightly wound balls of tape sufficed for baseballs, while tree limbs functioned as bats. Gloves were fashioned out of pieces of cardboard, providing minimum protection for tender hands. But the happy children focused on the game they were playing, not better equipment no one possessed.

Reading Eisenberg's dispatches, then-Advocates president Chuck Lippy came up with a plan to collect gear at Camden Yards during a summer weekend series. Equipment was then sorted, boxed and shipped to where it was most needed -- Cuba, Belize, the Dominican Republic, Aruba and even Afghanistan in the midst of a war.

"I want to make this the benchmark program against which all other programs of this kind will be measured," said current Advocates president Scott Zimmerman, a Northrop-Grumman manufacturing engineer from the Baltimore suburb of Cub Hill who has been with the organization for 19 years. "Every little bit helps, and all the donations are so appreciated. While we've had some lean years with the program, it's really started picking up steam now."

Since its inception, Cardboard to Leather has yielded almost 40 tons of equipment in nine distributions. But until January, the closest the Advocates came to seeing their good deed come to fruition was in 1999, when members of the Orioles delegation traveled to Cuba for an historic exhibition game. As part of the festivities, American visitors witnessing a youth championship game were told players were using Cardboard to Leather donations.

That changed last year, after one of the most successful equipment drives in the program's history. For the first time, donations were solicited at the Orioles' in-state Minor League affiliates -- Double-A Bowie and Class A Frederick, Delmarva and Aberdeen. The annual Camden Yards collection yielded another banner haul, but was far from the only Baltimore-based source for donations.

Several Jewish 12-year-olds turned their bar mitzvah celebrations into a new avenue for donations, which brought donated offerings instead of traditional gifts. The Community College of Baltimore County-Catonsville, with new uniforms finally on its players' backs, sent old jerseys and pants to the Advocates.

"I want to make this the benchmark program against which all other programs of this kind will be measured."
-- Advocates president Scott Zimmerman, on 'Cardboard to Leather'

And then there was Keith Mitchell of Laurel, Md., who met Harden at the Orioles' annual FanFest and asked if there was some way he could integrate his love of baseball with an Eagle Scout community service project. Over four months, Mitchell sponsored neighborhood yard sales to promote his effort and coordinated collections from local recreation leagues and high school programs, then cleaned and repaired worn equipment to make it useable again.

"I always think of baseball and kids together. It's very gratifying to hear of young people doing such tremendous things," Bob Harden said. "You might not hear as much about it, but I really do believe there is a whole lot of good in kids today."

Those collective efforts yielded 900 baseballs, 500 bats, 850 pants/jersey uniform combinations, 300 gloves, hundreds of ball caps, shoes, 60 sets of catcher's equipment, bases, pitcher's rubbers and home plates. Cardboard to Leather co-chair Kevin Joyce, the operations manager at Runners, Inc. in Gaithersburg, Md., arranged to have the equipment transported to Nicaragua by Econo Caribe, a shipping company.

Joyce had been contacted by Alex Torres, a coordinator for Little League baseball in Nicaragua and former teammate of ex-Orioles pitcher Dennis Martinez, and a distribution was planned. Only this time, Bob and Shirley Harden would help hand out the equipment.

Through e-mail and phone connections, the trip was scheduled for Jan. 9-14, and the Hardens flew to Managua, where Torres met them. The Hardens stayed with Torres' family in their home in Sebaco and visited five different towns, where they were praised by local dignitaries and interviewed by area media.

"People came from all over to get their equipment, and they got to town any way they could," Bob said. "Some teams were bused in; others who lived closer walked. We saw kids riding bicycles and on horseback, on donkeys -- even whole teams crammed into the back of pickup trucks."

The distribution directly affected 845 boys' teams, three girls' teams and a trio of coed squads. About 1,800 kids from 6 to 18 benefited from the Maryland-based generosity, Bob says.

"In our country, everyone wants to play baseball, but the equipment is way too expensive for our means. The average household in Nicaragua only brings in around $95 a month," Torres wrote in an e-mail. "Children are very grateful, but most of all very happy to be able to play. Usually leagues go on for four to six months; with the new equipment, more than likely they would play all year long."

But nothing prepared the Hardens for the powerful sense of appreciation as the distribution in Sebaco, where their arrival was a cause for celebration.

"I'm still overwhelmed talking about it," Bob said. "When we rode into that stadium, it was just -- well, it's hard to describe. There were all these people, the stands were packed. We rode down the foul line and got out of the car and everyone was applauding."

As part of the distribution, the Hardens and Torres often stayed in town to watch a game, as youngsters broke in their new equipment. Occupying seats of honor behind home plate in a dusty, fenced-in stadium in the town of Esteli, Bob winced when one team's catcher was stuck on the head by a batter's backswing.

The game was stopped while the catcher, wearing only a mask and a baseball cap, was examined. The backstop was quickly brought a new piece of gear -- a catcher's helmet, common protection in the United States -- though Bob figured it would take him some time to adjust to the feel of the addition to his protective arsenal.

"The very next pitch, the runner on first base tried to steal second," Bob said. "The catcher threw a strike to second base and caught him. So much for needing time to adapt."

While driving back to Sebaco after another distribution, the Hardens and Torres happened upon a pickup game in a field. Torres stopped his car, fished out a brand-new baseball and tossed it to the pitcher's mound, where it became a subject of fascination.

"All the players from both teams were gathered around, just looking at it," Harden said. "They were feeling it, rolling it in their hands and they were taking turns smelling it -- you know, that new baseball smell. And that was only one baseball. To think that just a single baseball could have that kind of impact, well, it makes you realize just how special the game is to those kids."

The adults recognized the connection, too.

"When Alex took us to the airport for the flight home, I told him, "'Can you believe that five days ago, we were trying to figure out how we could identify each other at the airport?' Now we're friends, and it's because of baseball," Shirley said.

Since returning to Baltimore, Bob has been making presentations at Advocates gatherings to show the success of last summer's collections. He's hoping the 2008 effort surpasses last year's.

"When I think of kids, I think of baseball," he said. "For me, it's a natural to just put the two together."

Zimmerman is eager to start planning for another Cardboard to Leather collection.

"What's the old saying -- one man's trash is another man's treasure? There's tons and tons of equipment out there," Zimmerman said. "And there's so many kids that can use it. They're so appreciative of it."

Pete Kerzel is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.