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FROM WHISPERS, CLUB ROARS TO LIFE

There were high-stakes negotiations last week involving the Tampa Bay Rays and the city - specifically, hundreds of children in its summer camp programs.

It played out this way at the Wildwood Recreation Center gym Wednesday. Centerfielder B.J. Upton, 25, hovered over eighth-grader Jimmie Lewis, 13.

Rays broadcaster Rich Herrera nudged Jimmie to approach the ballplayer. Hundreds of children on bleachers waited for the first pitch. Jimmie turned to Upton, who moved closer to the boy and whispered something.

Jimmie turned to the crowd. "Guys, you want B.J. Upton at Wildwood?"

The roar was not unlike the Trop.

Just like that, the Rays Dugout Club was born.

This summer, Upton and other Rays will make several appearances at six recreation centers in St. Petersburg. Upton will sponsor "B.J.'s Bunch" at Wildwood and Childs Park recreation centers. Carl Crawford is backing "Carl's Crew" at the Lake Vista and Frank Pierce centers. And David Price will sponsor "Price's Pals" at Campbell Park and Gladden Park.

To sweeten the deal, the players handed out T-shirts, invited the kids to Thursday's game against the San Diego Padres, and donated several thousand dollars to each center for scholarships. Raymond, the Rays' mascot, will also drop by this summer.

The club was the idea of several Rays employees, led by box office supervisor Karen Richardson, 48.

Richardson was involved in bringing Upton to the Childs Park recreation center last year. Afterward, the children begged her to bring him back, she said. After the 2009 shooting death of Paris Whitehead-Hamilton, 8, in what police said was gang-related gunfire in Bartlett Park, Richardson did just that.

"What we are trying to teach them is that you can be whatever you want to be, regardless of whatever neighborhood you live in," said Richardson, who grew up in St. Petersburg.

Upton, whose son, Riley Emanuel, was born a month ago, was happy to help.

"I was at that point once. I was that kid sitting there at a recreation center," Upton said. "When you have someone to look up to, it just makes it easier."

The city was elated to host the Rays, who will return once more during the summer and again in the fall to remind the kids to work hard.

"This doesn't happen too much. It's a big deal for us," said Rick Craft, the city's recreation manager.

Jimmie, the teenager who helped broker the partnership, agreed.

"It was intense," he said. "It was like speaking to myself in the future because I hope to be in the MLB when I get to 19 or 20."

Reach Luis Perez at (727) 892-2271 or lperez@sptimes.com.

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