ST. LOUIS -- One by one, 240 young baseball fans piled into an interview room in Busch Stadium, and one by one their heads turned as they saw the star standing on the podium.
It was Nelly, the St. Louis-born and bred rapper, singer and entrepreneur, decked out for the occasion in a casual hoodie, long basketball shorts and, of course, a Cardinals cap. He was ready to meet and talk to a group of special kids.
The occasion was the completion of the first Jr. RBI Classic Presented by KPMG, an event that's part of the philanthropic "Going Beyond" theme for this year's Major League Baseball All-Star Game, which will be played Tuesday night at 7 p.m. CT.
Participants included a regular-season team in the 11-12 age division from each of the 16 pilot cities of the Jr. RBI program. The teams traveled to St. Louis to participate in a friendly 32-game tournament, which is part of the 20th anniversary celebration of the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program.
Nelly didn't hesitate to show where his allegiance lies, saying he wished all the kids the best of luck in the tournament, but making one small amendment. "Don't take this the wrong way," he said. "But I wish the kids of St. Louis very good luck."
The Jr. RBI Program is a youth development initiative that launched as a pilot program in 2009 to create playing divisions for children from ages 6 to 12. A nationwide roll-out is planned for 2010. Like the RBI program, the Jr. RBI Program is designed to increase participation and interest in baseball and softball, encourage academic participation and achievement and teach the value of teamwork to inner-city youngsters.
Nelly's meet-and-greet allowed one of hip-hop's most creative and engaging artists to take advantage of such a celebratory event in his hometown. He took questions, signed autographs and even told the kids a few stories from his experiences growing up and playing baseball
"My mother taught me how to play baseball because my dad wasn't exactly athletic," Nelly said to laughter. "My idol was [Cardinals legend] Ozzie Smith, so all I wanted to do was learn how to do his backflip. I practiced over and over again until I got it right. And I probably got a bunch of knots on my head doing it. But eventually I figured out how to do it."
Nelly said he understood that a lot of the kids he was addressing might have been growing up in homes with one parent or maybe even no parents.
"While you might look up to entertainers like myself or athletes as role models, it's more important for you to realize that the real role models are the people in your community who can help you when you need it.
"A role model should be close to you, someone in your community you can call or talk to. You can't call Nelly or Albert Pujols or Derek Jeter. So make sure you lean on the people around you that are there for you. The goal is to always have someone inspirational in your life."
Nelly also stressed the importance of education.
"I want you guys to do the right things," Nelly said. "That means listening to your parents and going to school. School is very important. Whether you're in my line or work or any other line of work, education comes first. "
One of the Jr. RBI coaches familiar with Nelly when the entertainer was a kid growing up in the University Park neighborhood of the Gateway City couldn't help but smile as he watched Nelly deliver his message.
"That's just Nelly right there being the good person he is," said Ray Merriwether, who knew Nelly from Boys Club sports activities. "He's a St. Louis guy through and through and he's never forgotten where he comes from.
"I'm really proud of him."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com.