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Clemente nominee Willingham gives back

Clemente nominee Willingham gives back

WASHINGTON -- Nationals left fielder Josh Willingham is not only a popular figure on the field, but off it as well.

Willingham is always giving back to the community and that explains why he is a candidate for the 2010 Roberto Clemente Award presented by Chevrolet.

Willingham and his wife, Ginger, established the Josh Willingham Foundation in 2009 to provide life-changing opportunities and experiences to under-served children in the communities in which the couple has lived throughout Josh's career -- primarily focusing on their hometown of Florence, Ala. The foundation's first project involved building a public playground in Florence.

"We have helped a lot of people so far. Hopefully, we can do even more," Willingham said.

Since its inception, Willingham has been actively involved in the foundation and hosted the first major fundraiser -- a charity golf tournament in Alabama -- in the fall of 2009.

"[Florence, Ala.] means a lot to me," Willingham said. "All of my family grew up there, as well as my wife's family. You start doing a little research and you realize that even in a town that doesn't look like it has a lot of poverty, it has a lot of people that are in need.

"That's where we want to focus our efforts. We built a community playground last year. So many people like to use it. It has been good."

Numerous smaller fundraisers have also been held at the couple's church, with T-shirts being sold to benefit local causes.

In addition to his individual efforts, Willingham has made a commitment to giving back to the military community in and around Washington, D.C.

Willingham volunteered to stay on the field after the July 4 game against the Mets to greet the children who took part in the inaugural "Me & a Friend" program as they ran the bases. The Nationals launched the program in partnership with the USO to give military kids the opportunity to enjoy a baseball game with their friends.

Willingham also assisted USO volunteers in stuffing care packages for soldiers stationed overseas and made special trips to local military hospitals (Walter Reed Army Medical Center and National Naval Medical Center) to visit with patients.

Willingham has participated in many team-sanctioned events as well, including the 2009 and '10 Winter Caravan, where he traveled to a local elementary school to read to inner-city students and stopped by the Children's National Medical Center to visit patients undergoing treatment.

All 30 nominees have immersed themselves in the type of humanitarian and community efforts that distinguished the life of Clemente, which ended at age 38 on New Year's Eve in 1972, with the crash of a plane which he was aboard, personally delivering aid to Nicaraguan earthquake victims.

Fans will once again have the opportunity to participate in the selection of the national winner. They can cast votes for any of the 30 club nominees through Oct. 8.

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 Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and Vera Clemente, widow of the Hall of Fame right fielder.

Voting fans also will be automatically registered for a chance to win a trip for four to the 2010 World Series to see the national winner presented with the Roberto Clemente Award.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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