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09/02/08 11:58 PM ET

Rollins aims to improve youth literacy

Clemente Award nominee had early love for reading

PHILADELPHIA -- When shortstop Jimmy Rollins was growing up, his father used to assign him a "Word of the Day" to learn.

At the end of each week, Rollins would have to pass a test to prove he had mastered each word's definition. The young Rollins couldn't possibly have known it at the time, but this would mark the beginning of a passion for literacy that would ultimately be used to benefit thousands of students in the Philadelphia area.


Rollins now works year-round toward improving reading skills among Philadelphia's youth. For this and many other endeavors, the shortstop is the worthy Phillies nominee for the 2008 Roberto Clemente Award, presented by Chevrolet.

The award recognizes the player who best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual's contribution to his team. It is named in honor of the former Pirates outfielder whose spirit and goodwill will always be remembered. Clemente died in a plane crash while attempting to transport relief supplies to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua on New Years Eve 1972.

Last year, the Astros' Craig Biggio earned the award for his years of work to support children with cancer and their families. Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer earned the award while with the Mariners in 2003, recognizing his work in starting and continually supporting the largest network of bereavement camps for children in the U.S.

Fans can participate in the selection process of the overall winner of the award from Sept. 3 through Oct. 5. The fan ballot winner will be tallied as one vote among those cast by a special selection panel of baseball dignitaries and media members. The panel includes MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and Vera Clemente, widow of the Pirates' Hall of Fame right fielder. The winner will be announced during the World Series.

In 2002, Rollins and Philadelphia Reads teamed up to create the "J-Roll Readers Club" for the area's top young readers. To recognize the efforts of each of these students, Rollins hosts a pregame party at Citizens Bank Park each season to spend time with the students, read them a story and answer their questions.

"A lot of times, you'll get [motivated when] someone writes you a letter saying, 'This kid you worked with -- I know him, and he's doing great,' " Rollins said.

Rollins also plays an integral role in the Phillies' "Be A Phanatic About Reading" program. Each January, the shortstop visits one of the program's top-performing elementary schools alongside the Phillie Phanatic to speak to the students about the importance of reading and to encourage their efforts.

Rollins' desire to help children goes beyond literacy.

Since 2006, Rollins has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Arthritis Foundation's Summer Camp and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation through his annual Celebrity BaseBOWL tournament, attended by most Phillies players, in addition to other local athletes and celebrities.

Last fall, the shortstop donated 32 computers to Philadelphia's Olney West High School, where the students now work in what they call the "J-Roll MVP Computer Lab." In 2007, Rollins began purchasing $7,000 in Phillies tickets as a reward for public school students in Philadelphia and Camden, N.J. Once the students arrive at the stadium, Rollins brings them onto the field during batting practice for photos and autographs.

When Rollins visited northeast Philadelphia's James J. Sullivan Elementary School in May, he spoke to hundreds of students there about the importance of doing well in school, including his own efforts to master the definition of a new word each day.

"I was pretty smart," Rollins told the children. "[But] I got to play Nintendo, because I did my homework first."

Kevin Horan is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.