It is the pinstripes that get their attention. But it's the stories that make a lasting impression.
When a pair of former New York Yankees come to school, kids take notice. It doesn't matter that they're not Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez. The Yankee mystique provides a platform from which Rosendo "Rusty" Torres and Frank Tepedino are mentoring young people. They've been reaching out for more than a decade, talking baseball but preaching responsibility.
"I always wanted to do things that would assist the youth in and around the communities where I grew up," said Torres, a Brooklyn kid who played nine seasons of professional baseball. "Our message is that you can achieve things in life, but we are going to tell you about the little things you need to do to keep straight and achieve it."
Torres, 62, of North Massapequa, and Farmingdale-based attorney Tom Sabellico founded Winning Beyond Winning over a dinner conversation 13 years ago. Tepedino, from Hauppauge, was one of the first to join the group.
A twofold mission
Their mission is twofold: to promote athletics and to educate kids about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. They speak at schools, Boy Scout meetings, Little League clinics and with just about any organization that is willing to listen.
Athletics "builds life skills," said Torres, who works for the Town of Oyster Bay doing community youth service. "It builds character. It helps kids understand teamwork. These are all things that will help them no matter what they choose to do in life."
But Winning Beyond Winning also emphasizes there is life beyond the playing field with everyday battles that need to be won.
Torres (a Yankee from 1971-72) and Tepedino (a Yankee from 1967-70 and in 1972) weren't stars. They played for the Yankees during some of the darkest years in franchise history. But their pinstripe past gives them instant credibility with audiences. They also have overcome the battles about which they talk.
"I was addicted to alcohol since I was 19 years old. I struggled with it," said Tepedino, 63. "And at a time in my life, when I gave up alcohol, Rusty and Tom came into it. Winning Beyond Winning was a blessing. Since that day . . . I've probably spoken to over 60,000 children about alcohol."
Added Torres: "When you are at the end of your playing days, it gets a little scary. You are at a crossroads and you have to figure out what you're going to do with the rest of your life. We've gone through it, we've made those decisions. So now Winning Beyond Winning is using ballplayers with all this life experience and we're passing it on to the youth of our communities."
One message they try to convey involves the reality of an athlete's life: That just because you play for the Yankees doesn't mean you are impervious to peril or temptation.
Message from heart
"This is what I try to impart to the students," Sabellico said. "These athletes exist before you put the TV on and after you turn it off. I try to bring that humanization of the athletes back to the students."
With Torres and Tepedino doing the recruiting, athletes -- almost all former baseball players -- responded immediately: Ed Charles (Mets), Bud Harrelson (Mets), Jim "Mudcat" Grant (Indians), Fred Cambria (Pirates), Jose Valdivielso (Senators) and Felix Millan (Mets) are some of the former major leaguers who regularly make appearances with Winning Beyond Winning.
"All of this has been unscripted," Sabellico said. "Every message comes right from their head and their heart."
This month, Winning Beyond Winning begins a working relationship with the Education and Assistance Corp., a nonprofit human services organization based in Hempstead. The first program the athletes will participate in is called Chance to Advance, for children in foster care.
"We are always looking for positive role models," said Jackie Jacobs, EAC's assistant vice president of development. "The kids idolize athletes. They play such an important role in their lives. And some of these sports figures have dealt with drugs or alcohol. For the kids to hear that and to hear how you get away from that, it's a win-win situation."
When Tepedino speaks about the connection he has made with kids, tears come to his eyes. "If I can help one child get through a problem or let them see that they can make a decision and not let alcohol or any substance affect their career, affect their schoolwork or affect their home life, it's so gratifying," he said.
Said Torres, "We're only a baby organization, we're just 13 years old. And yet we have kids in college who are saying, 'Hey, I am doing something for myself.' We run into kids who come back and say, 'I remember what you told me.' That's the greatest feeling in the world -- when you know you've helped somebody."