LOS ANGELES – In a small ballroom where Bob Gibson would sing a couple verses of "Route 66" and Willie Mays went lyrically along for the sake of the program, a spirited young woman fought her quivering lower lip to remind everyone why they were there.
For those who've wondered what Joe Torre has been up to these past few years, since handing the Los Angeles Dodgers over to protégé Don Mattingly and taking an office at MLB headquarters on Park Avenue, he's been sorting through some of the league's issues before they necessarily get to Bud Selig's desk. And, like on Thursday night, he's been wrapping victims of abuse in long, sincere hugs and hoping not to cry himself.
He calls his foundation Safe at Home, because there were plenty of times in his childhood he was not afforded such a staple. It was terrible. It still is terrible. So, all these years later, he and his wife, Ali, offer a way out, or a way to cope. They've funded a program called Margaret's Place, named for Joe's mother, that provides safe rooms in schools and counselors trained in domestic abuse intervention.
This is what the young woman was there to reveal – the awful secrets in her own family, and her pain, and that of her siblings, and then what happened when she discovered a little corner of her school in Venice, Calif., where people understood. It wasn't her fault. She wasn't alone. When you're scared or sad, come here.
She'd prepared a speech, and sobbed in parts, and smiled at the end, and was met just off stage by Joe, who thanked her and hugged her, and her hands still shook when she walked through the crowd.
A couple hundred folks who'd thought they were there to meet the guy who won 251 games and the guy who hit 660 home runs, they instead met a young woman who took a long breath, lifted her eyes, met theirs, and tried to help the next young woman with fear in her heart and nowhere to go.
"I'm lucky," she said at the end.
She's safe. Her mom is safe. Because of Margaret's Place.
Even as a panel of Joe and Joe's friends – Mays, Gibson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bob Costas – took the stage, hoisted themselves (except for Kareem, who just sat down) into tall director's chairs and entertained themselves and the room, the story of the young woman and so many like her lingered.
Torre is baseball's godfather, sage and decorated. He was on the far right.
Abdul-Jabbar sat on the far left, and revealed a photo of John Wooden that sits on the same shelf as one of his parents. "He holds that status," he said.
Mays, 82, confided that the most influential man in his career was Alvin Dark, a teammate and a white man from the South who helped him find his way in baseball. "I never forgot that," he said. Mays said he'd return to Birmingham, Ala., to his neighborhood and friends, and tell them that Alvin Dark was all right, that there were others like him, too.
Gibson sat beside Torre, his old catcher, and recalled he'd once come so close to meeting Martin Luther King Jr. They were in an airport. King was with two or three bodyguards. Gibson was passing through. He stopped and looked at King, and King returned the gaze as though he knew this man, this famous pitcher. He nodded. Gibson nodded back. After a moment's hesitation, Gibson kept walking. "I wanted to go over so badly," he said.
They had needed someone. To become men, to become great, to wake up every day and try it again, they'd needed someone. This is how you do it. This is how you hold yourself. This is how to view your fellow man. This is how to treat people. How to respect them.
And so it was that the young woman from a difficult home, from Margaret's Place, from something that grew from Joe Torre's own childhood and Ali's kindness, continued to fill the room.
Safe at Home was founded 13 years ago. If it had saved just this lone young woman, had helped her leave her childhood with hope and dignity, then Torre would deem the foundation worthy. That it has embraced so many more, well, he's got plenty of hugs left in him.
She'd once wept alone. Now, when she cried, a whole room cried with her. She said she was lucky.