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Kids have a lot to learn

Trip to teach about diversity

PHILADELPHIA -- When's the last time a Philadelphia baseball team covered 3,720 miles in a stick-shift double-clutch bus, a bus built in 1947 when a toilet and air conditioning were optional? Sixteen cities in 20 days? South to Durham, N.C., west to the Iowa cornfields, north to Chicago's bleakest neighborhood, east to the emerald pastures of Cooperstown, N.Y., and then back home by way of Harlem? If you guessed it might have been the Philadelphia Stars, a legendary Negro League team, go to the head of the baseball history class. It's about to happen again, this time a very different Philadelphia Stars team: 15 13-year-old kids; five white; five African-American; five Hispanic.

This odyssey began with a passionate dream of Steve Bandura, program director at the Marian Anderson Recreation Center. Bandura wanted to honor the hardscrabble barnstorming of the Negro Leaguers, wanted kids to learn about baseball, about each other, about diversity.

"There will be no video games on the bus," Bandura said. "I want them to look at the scenery, to look at America."

And when America looks back at them, it will see this diverse, handsome squad, not one baseball cap worn backward, not a single shirttail flapping, no shoelaces dangling. Nor will it hear profanity, trash talk, or arrogant slang.

Bandura is a disciplinarian, not just a dreamer of impossible dreams. Seven years ago, he shepherded a mostly black playground team called the Monarchs on a similar barnstorming trip. That one honored the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson integrating major league baseball. That was a younger team, on a shorter journey (13 days, 2,000 miles), games being booked on the fly. Same "Flxible Clipper" bus, the "e" missing, perhaps to make the bus sound swifter.

That trip ended at Robinson's gravesite in Brooklyn. Bandura gave the kids new baseballs and asked them to write a message to be left there. One kid wrote, "Thank you for changing my life."

"Robinson integrated major league baseball," Bandura said, "but Little League remains segregated. And that's because neighborhoods in most cities, including this one, remain segregated. Ignorance creates fear, breeds intolerance. On this team, the kids learn about other cultures, other lifestyles."

Peter Capolino, president of Mitchell & Ness Nostalgia Co., bought the bus for $25,000 and turned it over to Bandura. Each kid and coach gets a throwback jersey. Hence the name "Throwback Tour."

"I was thinking of calling it `A Little Exposure Goes a Long Way,' " confessed Bandura, who chose a Dick Allen 1972 White Sox uniform as his throwback jersey.

"Steve Bandura is a saint," Capolino gushed. "This man could have gone on to a lucrative career in marketing, but chooses to work with kids instead.

"Steve Bandura is probably living the life I wanted to live. He is trying to unify people, to battle racial prejudices. He started in his neighborhood playground and has expanded his horizons. This trip, for these kids, will be like going to another planet. I think it will be a pivotal moment in their lives, and I'd love to see other, bigger businesses jump in to support it." When the Stars made an early-season appearance at Citizens Bank Park, along with survivors of the original Stars, Phillies Charities Inc. handed over a $10,000 check. But Bandura is still about $20,000 short of budget for the trip and is searching for a qualified bus driver.

Assistant coach Bob Hopkins says winning games is a secondary aspect of the trip. "Our goal is to show that diversity works," he said. "That's the reason this team was put together. You can see how these kids interact. Five minutes after they first got together, it was like they were lifelong friends." Shawn O'Neill is another assistant coach who has known Bandura for five years. "I coached against him with 8-year-olds," O'Neill said. "He asked my son, Shawn, if he'd like to play on the Stars. It was a no-brainer. You look at these kids, you wouldn't know they come from different neighborhoods. They're like the best of friends."

John Bromley, another assistant, recalls competing against Bandura in a softball league in the mid-1980s. "One year our team won the championship and Steve's team finished second," he said. "He was the only guy from his team to show up at the banquet. We're cut from similar cloth.

"The one thing he's always stressed is racial diversity. We've got four of my players from the Northeast on the team. I'm tired of the knucklehead mentality that creates prejudice. The world is changing. You get on board with it, or it passes you by. And Steve has been way out in front.

"I've learned more baseball in the last two years, working with him, than all the years I've been playing the game. You pay close attention every game, you'll see something you've never seen before. I'm probably more excited about the trip than the kids. We're going to get to see and touch baseball history and that's a lifetime dream."

To recap, Bandura is strict, compassionate, idealistic. Add stubborn to the mix. "It's a player-centric team," said one of the dads.

Bandura explained: "If there's a question about playing time, I'll talk to the player. I will not talk to the parent about playing time.

"The kids are all different, different neighborhoods, different lifestyles. And they defy stereotypes."

Tim Vernon lives in the Fort Washington section of Philadelphia, goes to a mostly white school in a mostly white neighborhood. Tony, his dad, is an executive with Johnson & Johnson, who grew up celebrating Robin Roberts's birthday. He wears a throwback Phillies windbreaker to games. Jean Vernon is a first-grade teacher.

Surely, there must be teams closer to home that would welcome Tim, a pitcher/catcher.

"There's nothing that would offer Tim this kind of experience," Jean said. "Living in the suburbs, going to an independent school, you're not really seeing the whole picture. Tim feels blessed to be part of this team."

Anthony Ortiz lives in the Northeast, the son of a retired police officer. His mom, Leticia, is an elementary school nurse. "Steve has a wonderful vision," she said, "and he's working hard to fulfill it. I'm not sure the kids realize the opportunity they have here. It's an opportunity so many kids can't even dream about.

"People should be culturally sensitive. Steve was before his time when it came to that. We all have the same likes and dislikes. We all need a roof over our heads, food in our bellies, clothes on our backs. People fear what they don't know. This team gives the kids a chance to see that other kids are not so different."

Rasheed Stewart lives within walking distance of the Anderson rec center. His dad is a firefighter, his mom, Cherise, a human resources manager.

"There's so much ignorance and prejudice out there," she sighed. "Understanding needs to start when kids are young. We may all have different cultures, but people are people. These kids get along great."

Not all the kids come from stable, two-parent homes. Bandura has coached them for five years, thinks he knows them, hopes they will mature into good citizens. "There is always the lure of the streets," he said glumly.

Meanwhile, they hone their skills in indoor batting cages. There's a weight room designed for 8- to 14-year-olds. There are Friday night sessions devoted to learning baseball's history. They are the "Good News Bears" and are counting the days until the magical trip begins.

They are eager to step out of Iowa's rustling corn at the Field of Dreams, eager to see the ivy clinging to Wrigley Field's walls, eager to watch them churn out baseball bats at the Louisville Slugger Museum.

Bandura requires each kid to keep a journal. He will, too.

It is the quintessential feel-good story at a time when America is achingly desperate for feel-good stories.

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