MINNEAPOLIS — Roughly 150 kids came off the playground at the Southside Village Boys and Girls Club and lined up patiently and quietly for Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays. He wasn’t there to take pictures or to sign autographs — although he did — but instead to give the kids a pair of New Balance sneakers.
Five or six at a time, they filed into a small room stocked with boxes of brand new shoes in a range of sizes that Bautista and New Balance hoped would be right for the kids waiting in line. If they didn’t have the right size for the boy or girl, the kid would get a backpack to take home and New Balance would deliver their shoes ASAP. Bautista and his helpers tried really hard to ensure that every kid who walked in, walked out with a fresh pair of kicks.
“I need a size 9 over here,” Bautista said, sitting with his legs crossed on the floor like an actual shoe salesperson might. “Does that fit better? It’s not a little tight? You sure your toes aren’t curling up?”
Southside is a place for kids in south Minneapolis to come, in many cases when they don’t have anywhere else safe to go. Branch director Mark Graves says the club averages about 185 kids per week in the tiny space allotted inside of the Phelps Recreation Center. For a $5 membership fee, the club keeps them active in sports, in and arts and crafts, and after-school homework programs. It also feeds them, sometimes the best meal they’ll eat all day. Sometimes, it’s the only meal.
And many don’t have proper shoes.
“You should see what some of the kids have to wear on their feet,” one Southside staffer said, shaking his head. “Some of their shoes are in pretty sad shape.”
This was the place Bautista said he had to be Monday morning, when most of the other major leaguers in town for the All-Star game were resting up for a long day of baseball-related commitments. Bautista also hit in the Home Run Derby that night. When he starts in left field at the All-Star game Tuesday, he will have nine pairs of shoes available to him. Most will be signed and auctioned or given away after the game. Stiil, it's more than anyone needs.
With the kids, Bautista also gave a brief talk and took a few questions — such as "When were you drafted?" and "Which team do you play for?" The kids were happy to see him, but most of them probably only know about Joe Mauer and the Minnesota Twins when it comes to baseball. Bautista has no connection to Minnesota, other than playing the Twins when the Jays come to Target Field. He just wanted to do something nice for the local community while he was in town.
“Sometimes, the best way to inspire people is to help them out,” Bautista said.
Most of the kids, ages 5-18, were quiet when they entered the room with the shoes. Many smiled and nodded after telling their sizes, if they knew. When appropriate, Bautista would converse in Spanish, which seemed to make those kids feel a little more at ease.
Perhaps 90 minutes later, Bautista hopped in a car heading to a downtown hotel, needing to get back for an American League team meeting. The first thing he asked New Balance’s Mark Kavanaugh: "When can I do that again?" Kavanaugh replied: They could set something up like that every day if Bautista wanted.
He does: “Let’s do it whenever we have days off,” Bautista said.
A native of the Dominican Republic who came to the U.S. in his late teens to play college baseball, Bautista has seen much worse poverty, and many more disadvantaged kids, at home. Bautista himself comes from a middle class background — rare among the Dominicans playing in the U.S.
“You can’t help or control where you’re born into this world,” Bautista said. “But you do want to give more back once you’re able. You see how much it’s needed and appreciated. It’s a great feeling to have and it’s a great feeling to see the look on the kids’ faces, even when they get a small present like a pair of shoes.
“The kids also see that, people beyond your family can care. It also might want to make them help out the next person who might be even less fortunate.”
Aside from a few places on a very small scale, there’s no such thing as a Boys and Girls Club in the Dominican. Yet.
“Maybe it’s something I should get involved with somehow at home,” Bautista said.
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