Ryan Howard came to Hunting Park yesterday not to bury it but to praise it.
"Seeing the look on these kids," the Phillies first baseman said, gazing around at swarms of upturned, eager faces, "that's what it's all about for me: giving back."
What brought Howard to a scruffy, much-used ballfield near the southern boundary of the 87-acre North Philadelphia park was the announcement of the creation of the Ryan Howard Family Foundation.
The philanthropic organization's first officially announced grant will be $50,000 toward revitalizing Hunting Park, plagued by crime, lack of maintenance, poor lighting, and deteriorating facilities.
The Fairmount Park Conservancy, the park's nonprofit fund-raising arm, has already initiated planning for revitalization involving the surrounding communities. A master plan for restoration and improvements will be released in September.
"As a professional athlete and an individual, I recognize the importance of philanthropy," Howard said to officials, community leaders, and scores of young ballplayers arrayed around a microphone and speaker system amid left-field grass and weeds.
On an overcast, cool day, children - and some adults - eventually pressed in and surrounded the tall, gray-suited slugger, hands clutching pens and baseballs, T-shirts, and scraps of paper. Shouts of "Mr. Ryan! Mr. Ryan!" filled the air.
Howard seemed a friendly and patient Gulliver towering above an island of cell-phone-picture-taking Lilliputians.
"We'll be focusing our efforts in Philadelphia as well as my hometown of St. Louis," he said.
Corey Howard, 29, his twin brother, who stood quietly away from the excited, moving island, will serve as the foundation's manager of programs and services.
"We chose the Hunting Park project because we recognize the . . . important role a park plays in the community," Ryan Howard said. "A park functions as a place for kids to play. It's a hub for community activity. Kids have a place to play sports. Families have a place to gather. And neighborhoods as a whole come together."
For Louis Santiago Jr., 11, who lives in the neighborhood on Franklin Street and plays the outfield for one of the North Philadelphia Youth Association teams, Howard's appearance was "very, very cool."
"It's exciting," he said.
Leroy Fisher, one of the association's cofounders, said more than 300 young people in association programs use the park, most notably on the Aztec teams that have won city and national championships in football and cheerleading.
"The programs and the people are here," Fisher said, praising Howard's focus on the park.
"Him coming here and sharing anything is a beautiful thing. People want the programs. People need the programs. People need anything that will keep them off the streets. The fields are in deplorable shape - the baseball fields, the football fields, deplorable shape.
"But you talk about this park, it's every race, every color. It's a rough neighborhood, but you get jewels coming out of here."