MLB.com Columnist

Terence Moore

Heyward's mentor thankful for chance to LEAD

Moore: Heyward's mentor thankful for chance to LEAD

His name is C.J. Stewart, and he is appreciative of so many things during this time of thanksgiving. For one, he ranks among the primary individuals who helped "L.E.A.D." Atlanta Braves Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward to the Major Leagues.

Then there is everything else.

Let's start with "everything else," and that ties into Heyward and L.E.A.D., which stands for Launch, Expose, Advise and Direct. The concept is all part of a non-profit organization that Stewart founded in his native Atlanta to help underprivileged youngsters excel at baseball while growing academically and socially.

"I'm 36 years old, and I know the God I serve is real, because he has given me an amazing capacity and a burning desire to help folks," said Stewart, telling the truth, especially since his life says so.

This tells you much of Stewart's story: Atlanta civic leaders declared November 20th of every year as "C.J. Stewart Day and L.E.A.D. Day" throughout the city. In addition, Georgia governor Nathan Deal issued a proclamation this week that was in honor of what Stewart has done through the years with youth, and Stewart has done much.

Said Heyward in a L.E.A.D. newsletter sent to parents and coaches around the Atlanta community, "[I've] seen firsthand how L.E.A.D. provides opportunities that go well beyond baseball, and we hope you'll support us by being a part of the L.E.A.D. Celebrity Clinic."

With Colorado Rockies outfielder Dexter Fowler, Houston Astros prospect Telvin Nash and Heyward leading the way as Stewart pupils, that clinic will occur on the morning of Saturday, Dec. 1 at Turner Field, and it will be free to inner-city kids.

Stewart was one of those kids -- struggling to survive the crime, the drugs and the poverty around him. Now, a couple of decades since growing up in a housing project on the northwest side of Atlanta, he has flourished as a philanthropist while mostly wearing a baseball cap.

The transition was swift.

He worked as a Minor League outfielder for the Chicago Cubs during the late '90s. He acquired business skills at Georgia State University with baseball instruction in mind. He served as an area scout for the Cincinnati Reds. He became a highly sought-after private hitting instructor for youth around the Atlanta area.

In addition to Fowler, Heyward and Nash, Stewart's pupils have included Pittsburgh Pirates star Andrew McCutchen, Rockies infielder Chris Nelson and veterans Andruw Jones of the New York Yankees and Jarrod Saltalamacchia of the Boston Red Sox.

Through it all, Stewart has sought to perfect the deepest passion in his heart besides his family: L.E.A.D.

In essence, Stewart and his wife, Keli, who also is his business partner, take youngsters from some of the toughest neighborhoods in Atlanta and use their six-year-old organization to develop them athletically, academically and socially enough to excel through high school.

The results? Well, the Stewarts mostly recruit youngsters from the Atlanta Public School system, where the high school graduation rate is around 34 percent. The Stewarts began this school year having mentored 33 so-called Ambassadors at the top of their organization's three levels, and all 33 received high school diplomas.

Not only that, 90 percent of those Ambassadors earned baseball scholarships.

"I say with a lot of pride that I'm the right person for this," Stewart said, without a hint of arrogance. "There's nobody else who could do this. Not in my city. Maybe somewhere else in Detroit, Chicago. But in the city of Atlanta, nobody can do this but me."

No argument here. Stewart is so respected that L.E.A.D receives financial help from the Braves. There also are contributions from the Atlanta Public Schools system, local businesses and individuals.

Those dollars for L.E.A.D. helped create that annual clinic. Plus, the day after this year's clinic, there will be a fund-raising dinner with College Football Hall of Fame member and former University of Georgia football coach Vince Dooley as the keynote speaker.

So Stewart is thankful.

There are many folks he wishes to thank.

He mentioned Willie and Gail Stewart -- his parents who gave him a servant's spirit. The same was true of Rev. James Hightower, the pastor at the Atlanta church that Stewart has attended since his youth.

"I learned a lot from my church, because people would fight over the opportunity just to help one person," Stewart said. "And I saw that, and I heard it. If somebody was sick, everybody was raising their hand to try to help. People in the congregation didn't have a whole lot of money, but I always noticed that everybody was happy.

"I would watch television, and I could tell those families had more money than we had. But when it came to service, I could tell that my family did more of that than anybody I saw on television."

Around his 10th birthday, Stewart began developing a plan. The plan involved helping folks better their lives through baseball, and that plan later became L.E.A.D.

Others helped Stewart along the way.

There was T.J. Wilson, an Atlanta police officer, who befriended troubled youth such as former Major League outfielder Marquis Grissom and others in the inner-city, and Wilson pushed them from badness to baseball. Said Stewart, who watched Wilson up close and personal, "Because of him, I said right then, 'This serving stuff works.' "

There was Danny Pritchett, a baseball instructor that Stewart met through Wilson. Said Stewart, "Pritchett was the best, and T.J. drove me all the way [out of the city] to meet him, and [Pritchett] really trained me on how to be an effective instructor."

There was Dave Wilder, the Cubs' farm director when Stewart became a professional player. "I mean, this man was Superman to me," Stewart said, chuckling. "He was African-American. He dressed nice. He also was confident, even without opening his mouth, and he was in charge."

Stewart cherished Wilder, because "He was so humble, and he showed me how to be a nurturing guy."

Actually, Stewart is naturally a nurturing guy.

To which the world is thankful.

Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.