ATLANTA (AP) — When Mark Teixeira was growing up in Maryland, he loved hanging out at a sprawling park near his home.

That's where he headed most every day after school. He could play all sorts of sports, from baseball to soccer to football. There was a pond for fishing. Sometimes, he was content just to stroll around with his dog.

"Every community deserves that," Teixeira said, his tone both nostalgic and hopeful.

Now that he's retired after a 14-year career as one of baseball's most feared sluggers , Teixeira is devoting considerable influence and financial clout toward providing the advantages of his childhood to one of Atlanta's most impoverished communities.

He's at the forefront of a new wave of sporting philanthropists — the eco-athlete.

Instead of trying to knock a fastball out of the park, Teixeira is focused on leaving the environment in better shape than he found it. He's taken on a whopper of a project, helping form a nonprofit foundation that wants to clean up Proctor Creek, a grotesquely polluted waterway that flows through the west side of Atlanta within view of the downtown skyline.

It had been dubbed the "Emerald Corridor," but that tranquil name is more about the creek's hard-to-see potential than what it actually is. The water is littered with garbage — soft drink cans, broken beer bottles, Rice Krispie wrappers, car parts, tires.

Teixeira sees nothing but potential beauty.

"I think this area of Atlanta is the ultimate diamond in the rough," he said this week in a telephone interview. "It just needs some investment."

He's certainly got the means, having made more than $200 million during his baseball career.

But more important, Teixeira is setting an example for other athletes to follow.

Protecting the environment is a particularly hot-button issue these days, with many prominent politicians and business leaders still casting doubt on the overwhelming evidence that the planet is getting warmer and man-made development is largely responsible.

There are plenty of worthy causes that athletes lend their names to, but most pale in comparison to having a planet that we'll actually be able to live on for millions of years to come.

"I like to see athletes get involved in anything they're passionate about," Teixeira said. "One thing that's great about athletes is their competitive desire is substantial. If we can take a cause — whether it's the environment or childhood cancer or homelessness — and attack that cause with the same passion that we played our sport, good things are going to happen."

Already, good things are happening on the Emerald Corridor.

The city has committed millions of dollars toward building a multi-use trail that will eventually run the 7-mile length of the creek, from its origins near downtown to the spot where it dumps into the Chattahoochee River, a major source of drinking water for the entire Southeast. New homes and parks have already been constructed, and the hope is to eventually have some 400 acres of greenspace along the creek.

Teixeira and the Emerald Corridor Foundation are also committed to helping clean up the creek, which is now marked with warning signs prohibiting swimming and fishing — not that anyone would consider diving in or eating something from its filthy waters, contaminated with everything from sewage overflows to industrial runoff. In many spots, it's hard to even reach the creek because of sprawling vines and thick kudzu.

"Cleaning up the creek does two very important things," Teixeira said. "It becomes an amenity for the community if we can clean up something that's not pretty to look at right now. More important, clean water goes into the Chattahoochee River. At the moment, a lot of pollutants that come from Proctor Creek are washed into the Chattahoochee and eventually into our drinking water."

Teixeira's passion for this overlooked area of Atlanta was first sparked during his college days, when he attended nearby Georgia Tech. When he played with the Braves over parts of the 2007 and '08 seasons, he got involved with a group that was buying up real estate on the west side, which is blighted by boarded-up buildings, rampant unemployment and a lack of economic development.

Even though he now lives in Connecticut, Teixeira considers Atlanta his second home and spends about one week a month in the city.

"This is a very important part of my life," he said. "For me to be able to leave my mark on the city of Atlanta — inside of the city limits and so close to Georgia Tech — is very important to me. I'm going to be involved with this and doing projects for a very long time."

Let's hope that Teixeira influences a whole generation of athletes to take up a cause that should be dear to us all.

"If cleaning up Proctor Creek is a way to get people outside, give them some greenspace, cleans up a creek they once used," he said, his voice rising with enthusiasm, "what a cool thing that would be to do for Atlanta."

Teixeira is showing how to make this a better planet.

One creek at a time.

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Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry@ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .

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For more AP baseball coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/MLBbaseball

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