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From Juvenile Camp to Peanuts and Cracker Jack

Sixty-five teens from Orange County corrections sites get tickets to a ballgame thanks to Angels' right fielder Tim Salmon.

June 27, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

For one night, this group of teenagers blended into the crowd. They could have been high school students from Irvine -- in fact, one of them once was -- or a church group out for an evening of fun at Edison Field.

The only thing that set these 65 kids apart was their county-issued trousers and the orange bracelets -- mandatory attire at Orange County Juvenile Hall -- that some of the girls wore.

These kids came from five Orange County Probation Department juvenile camps Wednesday night to watch the Angels play the Seattle Mariners, guests of Angel right fielder Tim Salmon.

For six seasons now, Salmon has purchased 100 tickets a night for youth groups and underprivileged children. On many nights, that group includes teenagers on temporary furlough from juvenile custody.

"A lot of these kids grew up in Santa Ana and they've never been to a baseball game, never been to the beach," deputy probation counselor Lisa Ripley said while she kept watch on the kids in the right-field bleachers. "There's probably 10 rival gang members, but they're all sitting here enjoying the game."

Some of the kids had seen Angels games before, when they were younger. But several were like Michael, 17, a resident at the Youth Guidance Center in Santa Ana, who grew up a few blocks from the stadium but had never been to a game.

Though some are serving time for felonies, they showed youthful enthusiasm. They started the wave and smiled as the rest of the crowd of more than 40,000 followed their lead. They turned their backs to the field and flapped their arms like angels' wings. They draped their arms around each other and sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

They laughed. They cheered. They acted like kids for one night.

"You just see it in their eyes," said Lorraine Garcia, one of 10 probation counselors who escorted the kids to the game. "Their eyes are huge."

A few hours before the game, Salmon sat at his locker in the Angel clubhouse and talked about his guests. He allows Angel staffers to choose the groups that get his tickets and only recently learned that some of his invitees were doing time.

"It's an opportunity for kids, whatever walk of life they came from," he said. "You hope you can pull a kid out of his environment for a brief period of time and inspire him there are better things in life. If this can in some small way contribute to that, I think it's great."

A few hours later, at the guidance center, teenagers waited on benches before they could pile into vans for the short ride to the ballpark.

"I'm all happy. I'm feeling it. I always wanted to go to a baseball game. I've seen that many times, the Big A," said Vincent, 17, who raised his arms above his head to form the letter A.

Only a fraction of the teens under Probation Department supervision get to attend, so the games offer an incentive for good behavior.

"They've been bugging me since last week. They see me [and say], 'Am I going? Am I going?' " Garcia said. "There are some that do good here, but they're run-risks: They see a door, they run. Or they don't work well with others."

At Edison Field, the probation staff relaxed the rules a bit. The youths strolled into the ballpark in small, scattered groups, not in single-file lines, heads down, arms behind backs, as they usually do when they walk to classes or wait for chow. They wanted the kids to feel welcome, not to stand out.

The staff kept a close eye on them, though. The youths had to ask permission to switch seats. If they needed to visit the restroom, a staff member accompanied them.

Shugar, 15, from Santa Ana, said he thought his first professional baseball game was "pretty exciting."

"That guy [Salmon] has heart," Shugar said. "Maybe I'll do that when I become famous."

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