Smith, Madson give back to community

Smith, Madson give back to community

PHILADELPHIA -- It was hard to tell who was having more fun -- Phillies relief pitcher Matt Smith or the starry-eyed children lined up to get his autograph Tuesday night at the FORD PAL Center in South Philadelphia. Smith was joined by fellow relief pitcher Ryan Madson, as well as the Phillie Phanatic.

Over 100 children showed up to the event. The Phillies adopted the FORD PAL Center this summer, donating $10,000 for the renovation of the center, which included new computers. Smith and Madson signed autographs on caps, and each child received a backpack and a bobblehead.

"These kids are very appreciative and that's what makes this special, and our association with this organization has been wonderful," said Gene Dias, director of community relations for the Phillies.

But the ones who seemed to have the most fun, besides the kids, were Smith and Madson. Both relief pitchers have relocated to the Philadelphia area. Madson has done offseason work for the Phillies before, but for Smith, this was something new.

First, he had to get a little used to the fall chill of Pennsylvania, since he he usually spends the offseason in Las Vegas. But the smiles of each of the children whose caps Smith signed had a way of warming him up.

"It just feels good being a part of something like this," Smith said. "I'm here for the offseason and I told Gene Dias anything you need me for, I'll be there. The only thing for me is getting used to the weather. It's always important for me to give back to the community. Being here today means more to me than it might mean to some of these kids."

Then Smith smiled whimsically and reminisced about when he was nine, 10, 11 years old -- the ages of many of the children he visited Tuesday.

"I was so intimidated when I met a pro athlete around that age," Smith admitted. "But these kids come right up to you. Some are a little shy, some aren't. For me, it's more about giving and not thinking you're bigger than anything else."

Madson concurred.

"It is special," he said. "What impressed me was how organized everything is and how well this was run. Plus, it's great to see some of the neat things these kids received."

A big part of the credit for making it happen was Philadelphia police officer Joe Ellerby, whose been the director of the FORD PAL for the last five years.

"The Phillies have always been great supporters of us," said Ellerby, proudly wearing a red No. 1 Phillies jersey, which the Phillies presented to him before the event began.

Ellerby and the FORD PAL run programs that range from computer labs, after-school homework clubs, snack programs and recreational basketball leagues. Many of the children, Ellerby noted, come from broken homes.

The Phillies visit made the children realize how close Christmas is.

"I tell these kids that if they can survive this area, they can survive anything," Ellerby said. "What the Phillies have done here gives these kids a sense of hope, because a lot of these kids are survivors. For the players to come is an added bonus. They only see players like Ryan Madson and Matt Smith on T.V. For a day, these kids were able to touch them and talk to them. That's a blessing."

Christmas came early for On-nir Kendall, D'Ondre Barmes and Lawyan Moore. They each clung to their presents, anxiously waiting to open them. "I'm going to open this when I get home," vowed Kendall, 10, looking at the partially wrapped CD player.

For Barmes, meeting the players was a special joy. He attends a number of Phillies games a year. "It was exciting to meet the players," admitted Barmes, whose favorite player is National League Most Valuable Player Ryan Howard. "I knew about this for a week and I couldn't wait."

Moore received an early birthday present, since the 12 year old's birthday falls on Christmas. "Christmas is for the family. But this was like Christmas for me, but what made it nice is that it was like Christmas for everyone else, too."

Joseph Santoliquito is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.