Tom Archdeacon: Former Reds great Foster partnering with new program promoting baseball to area youths

Reds legend George Foster instructs Ivan Belton on Saturday at Howell Field in Dayton. TOM ARCHDEACON/STAFF

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Reds legend George Foster instructs Ivan Belton on Saturday at Howell Field in Dayton. TOM ARCHDEACON/STAFF

George Foster has been many things.

The feared right-handed slugger of the Big Red Machine was twice a World Series champion, twice the National League’s home run leader, three times the Major League RBI leader and he was a five-time All Star.

He was the MVP of the National League in 1977 and he’s a Cincinnati Reds Hall of Famer.

But a prophet?

He was one Saturday.

Long an advocate of young people – be they promising baseball players or at-risk juveniles – he is partnering in a new program with Sinclair Community College and its Chief Diversity Officer Michael Carter, as well as the City of Dayton and the Future Stars of Dayton mentoring program run by former Dunbar High standout and Wilmington College Hall of Famer Jonathan Cain to promote baseball and character building among inner city and minority youth.

The group just formed a couple of weeks ago and it quickly scheduled a tryout last Saturday at Howell Field for the centerpiece of the program – a select baseball team Foster hopes to launch next spring.

But because there had been little time to promote, the turnout was small. Just a handful of boys showed up.

Although he talked about “baby steps,” Carter worried the former big leaguer would be disappointed by the draw and want to wait for a bigger gathering on another day.

That was not the case.

“Regardless of the turnout, it’s a big deal to the kids who are here,” Foster said. “And you never know. This might be the day you’re able to use baseball to make a positive influence with a kid.”

And soon the 68-year-old Foster — still with chiseled features and looking a decade younger than he is — was on the field instructing the players. Eventually he set his sights on 12-year-old Ivan Belton.

Then again, how could he not?

Ivan – who had come to the session with his little brother Dion and his mom Shekila Belton – is the size of a college football lineman. Although bigger than the other boys, he had never played baseball before and it showed.

After stepping to the plate for batting practice, he flailed at a dozen pitches without hitting one. That’s when Foster approached to within a few feet and quietly encouraged him. Finally he stepped in and made a couple of adjustments to Ivan’s stance and swing.

And if anyone knows how to hit, it’s Foster. He led the Big Red Machine in home runs and RBI six years in a row. In that 1977 MVP season, he hit .320 with 52 home runs and 149 RBI.

Ivan didn’t know any of that, he just trusted the man talking to him so calmly.

And after whiffing on a couple of more pitches, Ivan suddenly drilled a ball to third. Then he hit three more pitches in a row and finally he lined a ball into the outfield.

“That’s what I’m talking about!” crowed Foster.

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Reds legend George Foster (right), Jonathan Cain (center) and Michael Carter on Saturday at Howell Field in Dayton.TOM ARCHDEACON/STAFF

Reds legend George Foster (right), Jonathan Cain (center) and Michael Carter on Saturday at Howell Field in Dayton.TOM ARCHDEACON/STAFF

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Reds legend George Foster (right), Jonathan Cain (center) and Michael Carter on Saturday at Howell Field in Dayton.TOM ARCHDEACON/STAFF

Ivan turned and was beaming. And as he headed back toward the dugout, he stopped to give Foster a fist-bump.

On a small scale in a very big body that’s what this program is all about.

“I know kids get embarrassed when they can’t make contact, but you want to encourage them to stay in there and not let them leave until they hit something,” Foster said.

“He just learned a life skill through baseball. You stay at it, you don’t give up and finally there’s some success.”

Foster inspires

The idea for this program was put in motion by Denny Wilson, the director of marketing and communication at Sinclair. His son Quinn – a 14-year-old Beavercreek High freshman – played on Foster’s select team in Cincinnati for two years

“Most coaches find what you’re doing wrong and criticize you, but George is just the opposite,” Wilson said. “He has a gentle demeanor and he inspires confidence. He’ll find what you do well and build on it.

“I got to see his idealism and what he wants to accomplish. It’s very noble. He’s really interested in getting more African-American kids, more minorities involved. Quinn’s mom is Native American so he fits the bill. And he’s all the better for being around George.

“And because of that, I’ll help George anyway I can.”

He already has.

Wilson is friends with Carter, the Sinclair administrator and former Trotwood Madison High basketball coach, who is also a Negro Leagues aficionado and has a vast collection of replica jerseys.

“I told George, ‘I’ve got a friend in Dayton who has the same idealism as you and he loves baseball. You two should meet,’” Wilson said. “I arranged it and they hit it off.”

As he and Foster began to talk about joining forces, Carter said he also thought of Cain and his Future Stars of Dayton program:

“He’s really been a leader as far as working with young people and developing them. His mentoring program is outstanding – there are over 100 kids in it – and what makes its unique is that it’s for younger kids.”

A multi-sport star at Dunbar – he was the City League Football Player of the Year in 1997 – Cain became an All American receiver at Wilmington and finished with 3,955 receiving yards and 40 TD catches.

He said the idea for his program came from his own life and the lessons imparted by his single-parent mom and some of his coaches. His program includes after-school activities, tutoring, family support, meals, an athletic component and it all revolves around one theme:

“We stress your talent isn’t what determines your future, it’s your character.”

And that’s why he’s already feeling a kinship with Foster:

“For him to buy into our city and our kids and do what he’s trying to do speaks volumes. You can talk about all he’s done in his career, but to me the real measure is the way he gives back. That truly shows his character.”

A return to Dayton

Foster first came to Howell Field in 1975

“Ritter Collett and his newspaper (the Journal Herald) brought a few of us in for a clinic,” he said.

Foster took a special interest in Dayton and two years later, he not only became the spokesman for the Building Bridges program run by the Montgomery County Juvenile Court, but he became a financial backer of the George Foster Home on Salem Avenue, a halfway house for troubled adolescents. His involvement would last more than two decades.

It’s been no different when he lived in Connecticut or now in Cincinnati. He’s been involved in Boys and Girls Clubs, youth baseball clinics and a program that supported children of military families from the inner city.

“My idea has been to follow Jackie Robinson’s legacy and work with inner city kids,” he said as he sat in the dugout Saturday. “I always felt I had something to offer. And when you reach a certain level of success, no matter what you do, it’s your obligation to help others learn and experience what you have.”

His interest in promoting the game to African-American kids comes as the number of black players in the big leagues is dwindling.

“Every year, April 15th is Jackie Robinson Day, but it’s mostly lip service,” he said. “There’s going to be 15 games that day and if you just charged $1 more per ticket and each game averaged 30,000 people, you’d end up with close to a half-million dollars to put into a program.”

“But you can’t just go build baseball fields in the inner city because kids don’t know how to play the game. You’ve got to have someone there to teach the kids.”

Carter agreed:

“You aspire to be what you see.”

A trade and the Big Red Machine

Growing up, Foster said he idolized Willie Mays. And then in 1968, Mays’ San Francisco Giants drafted him out of his California high school in the third round.

After 15 months in the minor leagues, the 20-year-old Foster found himself playing alongside Mays in the Giants outfield.

“That was a nervous situation,” he admitted. “I was playing left field and he was playing center. The centerfielder is supposed to call for the ball, but he wouldn’t call for it.

“Each night I had nightmares that I was gonna run into Willie Mays and it would be the end of my career. As a matter of fact one guy – his name was Bobby Taylor – he did run into Willie and the next year he was playing in Japan. I didn’t want to go to Japan that quickly. “

Foster was heartbroken when he was traded to the Reds in 1971 but he’s said he was made to feel welcome by Pete Rose. And four years later Rose moved from left field to third base and that opened the way for Foster to start and the Big Red Machine to dominate.

As he thought about those days, Foster also remembered his very first time in a Major League clubhouse.

He had just been drafted and was brought to Dodger Stadium, where the Giants were playing.

“I came out the same door the players did and everybody wanted my autograph,” he laughed. “It was the first time I’d ever signed autographs. I had this Columbo jacket on – like I was a detective – and everybody was saying, ‘Who is that?’ No one knew, but they still wanted my autograph.

“For a few minutes I fooled them. They thought I was really somebody special.”

Saturday at Howell Field he showed that he truly is.

Next Tryout for George Foster’s

Select 14U Baseball Team

Saturday, August 12

Howell Field, 11 a.m.

More info: contact Michael Carter


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