A baseball clinic at FDR Park, summer of 2009. A teenager went up to Jimmy Rollins and pointed out that he was almost as tall as the Phillies shortstop.
"Actually, you are as tall as me," Rollins told him that day. "You could be with us."
That message really hit home, Kelly DuPree said Thursday, with virtually all the ballplayers in his RBI League youth program, which is run out of the Shepard Recreation Center at 57th and Haverford. Rollins may have been Superman to these youngsters, but he was a 5-foot-8 superhero.
DuPree absolutely believes that meeting Rollins that day, along with Shane Victorino and Ryan Howard, put Shepard on a path toward the championships it won in the Phillies RBI League at the 16- to 19-age level the last three years. Maybe Taney Little League becomes a phenomenon without the inspiration of the Phillies some years earlier, or maybe not.
Now that Rollins is about to become a former Phillies shortstop and to move on to Los Angeles, DuPree can reflect. His players who were at FDR Park went back to West Philadelphia, , DuPree said, and "I couldn't get them off the baseball field. . . . At that clinic, he [Rollins] really put his thing down. You could hear a pin drop.''
Obviously, Rollins wasn't driving around the city every day, stopping at every field or street corner, handing out baseball gloves, offering wisdom. DuPree and Rollins agreed back in '09 that winning the World Series in '08 didn't suddenly mean kids were picking up bats and gloves all over the city. Too many other factors were in play.
"I'm doing my job," Rollins said that day at FDR Park. "I can only do so much. Being out of trouble is one way. Being around at my charity event, smiling, just trying to be a positive person, so when a kid turns on a TV set, or if they do get a chance to see me outside of a uniform, maybe they see me as a positive influence on their life, even though I can't be there on a daily basis. Maybe they have something - one thing - to hold on to."
The talk also resonated, DuPree said, because Rollins made it clear his path didn't include college - that, Rollins told them, was Ryan Howard's path.
"That doesn't take away from my education, it just took a different path," DuPree remembers Rollins saying. Several Shepard players, DuPree added, have taken the Howard path, going on to play college baseball.
DuPree heard the reports Wednesday that Rollins was going to the Dodgers and said, "I can't believe the Phillies, man. I want them to keep somebody for their whole career and let them stay for their whole career, like [Derek] Jeter."
But then he immediately added, "The tenure is over. It's been over."
The Phillies finally move on, and Rollins waived his no-trade rights so he could move on. Rollins "deserves it," DuPree said. He leaves as one of the most important Philadelphia athletes of the last quarter-century, for his role bringing home the only world championship in that era, and also for being a star, which Rollins certainly knew how to be.
"J-Roll - just the nickname rings bells," said DuPree, a lifelong baseball fanatic, a former Overbrook High captain and third baseman more than three decades ago.
DuPree, who also runs a nonprofit year-round program called the West Philadelphia Youth Initiative, pointed out that baseball isn't the kind of sport you pick up in a day.
"It is not easy to teach,'' DuPree said. "It's a lot of phases. You've got to teach them how to tie their shoes."
Beyond his inspiration to one particular group of ballplayers, Rollins clearly moves into the group of athletes who don't become a villain the instant they leave Philadelphia.
And, DuPree added, "the women loved J-Roll. All I've been hearing, 'They got rid of J-Roll?' "