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Legends, underprivileged tied by bond of baseball

Baseball is magic.

It has the rare ability to transcend what happens on the field.

Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Wade Boggs, Paul Molitor, Lou Brock, Dave Winfield, Mike Schmidt, Rod Carew and Robin Yount are living proof.

Every one of those men is in the Hall of Fame, with the exception of Rose (who many feel should gain Cooperstown status). Six (Molitor, Yount, Winfield, Carew, Brock and Boggs) are in the 3,000-hit club. One (Rose) is in the 4,000-hit club. The remaining two, Bench and Schmidt, had hit totals of 2,048 and 2,234, respectively -- nothing to scoff at. Collectively, these nine men garnered more than 25,000 hits and 2,500 home runs.

It's safe to say that every one of those guys was a legend on the field.

But they are legends off the field as well. At least to nine young people, each of whom has a physical disability, had a life-threatening illness or comes from an impoverished area.

The nine baseball players and the nine kids beating the odds convened on Saturday, in a crowded banquet hall in Cincinnati.

The ringleader of them all? The greatest catcher of them all. Johnny Bench served as the host of the second annual event "Johnny and Friends," organized by the Character and Courage Foundation, a local non-profit.

The Character and Courage Foundation was founded by Bob Crotty, proprietor of the renowned Green Diamond Gallery in Montgomery, Ohio. It's thanks to Crotty that you can view the three life-size bronze sculptures of Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, and Roberto Clemente that occupy a prominent place in the lobby of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Crotty commissioned those statues to represent the essence of those three players in an exhibit Hall of Fame staffers would come to call "Character and Courage."

Thus came the name for Crotty's next project.

"I thought about the fact that I have been real blessed in life and at this point, I want[ed] to create something, to do something, to give back in some capacity," he said. "I knew I wanted to make it youth- and baseball-related.

"I was very moved by the story of the Miracle League [for kids with disabilities] -- as a matter of fact, I think I cried like a baby when I went online and saw the video about the Miracle League and what they are all about. And then I look at kids that are out there and are raised in underprivileged circumstances and would like to play the game, but they just don't have the means ... I felt they deserved the opportunity, as well."

The Character and Courage Foundation was born.

"We wanted to become the [national] United Way, if you will, of baseball charities," said Trey Jurgens, the foundation's development manager. "We want to become the clearinghouse of baseball charities and donate money to different charities that support children and playing baseball, whether it is children with disabilities, children with life-threatening illness or [children] living in an impoverished area."

They've been successful. That much was evident in a quick glance at Jurgens' surroundings as he spoke those words. Top-flight patrons in suits and dresses filed in for the event, having come to see baseball greats swap war stories.

But there's something more to "Johnny and Friends."

Crotty, Jurgens and Character and Courage general manager Kevin Manley consulted with a panel of local Reds Community Fund, Miracle League, YMCA Youth Baseball, and Leukemia and Lymphoma Society officials to select nine individuals who have, in Jurgens' words, "seen baseball play a large role in their life."

And so it was that each of nine nominees (vying for a "Character" award and a "Courage" award, each good for a $1,000 scholarship), representing the Miracle League, Cincinnati RBI Softball, and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, walked down the aisle of the event center Saturday night, arm-in-arm with a Hall of Famer (or, in Pete Rose's case, an all-time hits king).

And those baseball heroes felt just as privileged as their escorts were.

"What made me want to be here is Johnny Bench," Yount said. "He asked if I could come to his event, and when Johnny Bench asks you, it's really easy to do. And after he asked me, I thought a little bit about what the event was for, and that was even a better reason. What we are doing is helping out a lot of youngsters to give them an opportunity to play the game themselves."

"Any charity where you can help kids, I'll sign up for," Rose said. "Kids are the foundation of the world in the next 10, 15, 20, 30 years. And if you can help a kid be a better citizen and have a better life through this banquet here, [I'm in]."

Best of all, said the former players, is what baseball offers to kids: the power of inclusion.

"You know, baseball can be played by everyone. That's why baseball is so loved," Bench said.

"That the [kids] have a chance to participate is huge," Molitor said. "There are a lot of things that maybe they get shut out from, and for them to be able to step into the arena and have an opportunity to participate, to create friendships, and definitely create memories and experiences -- it's just a positive thing that they are going to remember for the rest of their life."

But more than that, baseball serves as a bond.

"It's part of our fabric," Molitor said. "It's been a part of our country, from the small towns in rural areas to the big cities. People have been connected through this game from generation to generation and so anytime you can bring community together around the game of baseball, it's usually going to be a good experience."

"Not only [does baseball] give them an opportunity to play, but [also] to bridge the gap between generations," Brock said. "We all connect through baseball. It has this tremendous ability to bring people together."

And on a rainy Saturday night in a banquet hall in Cincinnati, that is precisely what the national pastime did.

Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for in the fall of '11.