By Thomas Fields-Meyer
May 31, 2004 12:00 PM

When Eddie Garza drives up to the South Dade Labor Camp in his SUV, he’s like a Pied Piper on wheels. Kids of all ages emerge from their homes—a drab collection of cinderblock boxes—and chase after him through the camp’s narrow roads, yelling, “Eddie! Eddie! Eddie!”

Garza, 18, greets each one by name. The son of former migrant workers, he grew up near camps like this one in Homestead, Fla., where seasonal and migrant workers, mostly of Mexican descent, pick fruit and vegetables and make their homes. On visits throughout his childhood, Garza noticed that the children of the workers spent much of their free time sitting around bored. “The kids had nothing to do; the playground was dangerous,” he says. “It had no swings. The slide had a big hole in it.” So Garza, an ace outfielder on his high school baseball team, decided to take action. In August 2001 he started a free baseball camp, offering the labor-camp kids instruction in batting, fielding—and fun. “Through baseball,” he says, “I can teach them many things.”

Lesson 1: There’s more to life than picking produce—a powerful message for kids facing significant obstacles to success. Armando Bustos, 13, is typical of Garza’s players. One of three children of Mexican parents, he was among the first to enroll in the baseball camp. “It helped me stay off drugs and off the streets,” says the sixth grader. “It’s better to do something than to do nothing.”

For his first camp, Garza borrowed $350.from his parents for T-shirts and scrounged gloves and hats from friends. Though 20 kids had signed up, only 11 showed. “We were like the Bad News Bears,” he says. “I learned to be very patient.” He persevered and now runs three weeklong camps annually for around 25 kids aged 7 to 15, funded by $500 in donations. “He does this almost without any fanfare,” says Patrick Snay, headmaster of Gulliver Preparatory School in Pinecrest, Fla., where Garza is a senior with a B-plus average and a varsity right-fielder. “He’s reticent and shy. He really feels it’s part of his lot to help other people.

That altruistic drive came in large part from his parents. Born just north of the Mexican border in Texas, Cipriano Garza Jr., 56, one of nine children, traveled to 34 states picking produce with his own parents. Though few of his peers completed high school, Cipriano went to college on a track-and-field scholarship and now runs the Migrant Education Program for the Miami-Dade County public schools. In 1981 he married Mexican-born Maria, 44, the youngest of five children of migrant workers who, in the 1970s, lived at the same South Dade camp where her son now teaches baseball. She, too, defied expectations by going to college, eventually becoming a labor activist to help people like her parents. “Eddie hasn’t fallen far from the tree,” says actor Edward James Olmos, who met the Garzas in the early 1980s and is Eddie’s godfather. “These people have not only sacrificed their lives but have given to the community they’ve come from.”

When Eddie first brought up the idea of starting a baseball camp, however, his father was skeptical. “I told him these people get lied to all the time,” says Cipriano. “If you’re going to do this, you need [to make] a commitment.” Cipriano has no doubts now. Like his parents before him, Eddie has been an inspiration to brothers Cipriano III, 14, and Alex, 13, who have started another baseball camp. But Eddie has no plans to abandon his own when he goes to the University of Miami in August. “No money can make up for the joy these kids give me,” he says. “The biggest reward is the smiles on their faces.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer. Siobhan Morrissey in Homestead