On the heels of Memorial Day 2008 and in anticipation of the 232nd celebration of United States Independence Day on July 4th 2008, Americans traditionally give thanks to our nation's military service members.
And traditionally, Major League Baseball, (MLB) partly due to where its season falls on the calendar, including May and July, through its various teams provides public ceremonies and military displays prior to game times, during 7th inning stretches and with post-game fireworks on these holidays, in honor of U.S. active-duty troops and veterans alike.
But given the times in which we live, nearly seven years since the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil on September 11, 2001, followed by the War in Afghanistan, referred to as Operation Enduring Freedom, and in the War in Iraq, referred to as Operation Iraqi Freedom, our military remains fully engaged in fighting our enemies and the war on terrorism in two countries in the Middle East.
For purposes of this report, political ideology and foreign policy will not be discussed, but rather it will be devoted to how important it remains for Americans to maintain a connection with our fighting men and women not only in the Middle East, but around the world as well as stateside.
One way in which troops remain motivated, as we all do, is by following our favorite sports and our favorite players. Fortunately, many MLB players have made a commitment to help boost troop morale in support of our troops in various creative ways, which will be highlighted here.
For as we take pause on these holidays to salute our military, we must be more conscious to do so throughout the year, not simply when we are reminded on holidays or during the good times.
This reporter received a press release on May 16, 2008, sent by a United States Air Force Public Affairs officer serving in Bagram, Afghanistan. The unclassified memo detailed an event which took place at the Bagram Airfield on Mother's Day, May 11, 2008. Through the efforts of Pro Sports Marketing, Ventures & Promotions (MVP) of Colorado Springs, CO, and its Heroes of the Diamond Tour in conjunction with the Morale, Welfare and Recreation division of Bagram Airfield, four MLB player retirees were afforded a visit with over 400 troops located there.
The four players making the trip were former relief pitcher, Jeff Nelson, of the Seattle Mariners and NY Yankees fame, who retired in 2007, joined by Tim Salmon, former outfielder for the Los Angeles Angels and retired in 2006, along with 3rd baseman, Dean Palmer, who last played for the Detroit Tigers and retired in 2003 and Mike Remlinger, former relief pitcher who ended his career with the Atlanta Braves in 2006.
The journey to visit the troops in Bagram, while not without complications and prior delays, required a commitment from the athlete visitors and the ability for them to be flexible with their plans, as traveling to a war zone comes with its inherent dangers requiring additional security details. But as Jeff Nelson recalls, "I'd heard stories of people going and how it can be life-changing."
Nelson was originally on tap to travel to Bagram in 2007, but due to military concerns, the trip was postponed until April 2008, when it was postponed again until May. Nelson was not as concerned about his safety knowing that, "They're going to try and keep you out of harm's way."
In my correspondence with U.S.A.F. Tech. Sergeant, Kevin P. Wallace, assigned to public affairs at Bagram Airfield, he disclosed that he got to spend some time visiting with Tim Salmon and relayed that all four players autographed baseballs, posed for photos which they also signed, and hung out with and talked with as many of the service members as possible at the Bagram Airfield Clamshell and various stops in Afghanistan and other deployed locations there where troops are serving, over a period of 10 days.
"I have been watching Tim Salmon since I was a kid," said Army Sgt. Jeff M. Lucenti. "It means a lot because I was at the last game he played in," he said. Dean Palmer recalled that being able to talk with the service members and listening to the things that they experienced has been one of the best experiences of his life. Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Rocco emoted, "Today is Mother's Day and yet they sacrificed time to be here with us."
Mike Remlinger stated before the troops that, "We wanted to come and show how much we support you." He later recalled that, "Being here with these soldiers and listening to their stories makes me realize how real this war is."
And while giving of time to actually visit deployed U.S. troops, in this case by retired MLB players, is probably the most meaningful to U.S. service members, as well as for the athletes, there are other active MLB players who have taken on personal missions to support U.S. troops stateside.
Among MLB players making commitments, both financially and through dedicating time with active-duty troops, veterans and their families are Barry Zito of the San Francisco Giants, Scott Linebrink of the Chicago White Sox, Jeff Suppan of the Milwaukee Brewers, Jamie Walker of the Baltimore Orioles, Aaron Harang of the Cincinnati Reds and the San Diego Padres organization. In fact, the Padres are the only MLB team with a dedicated military marketing department.
Probably receiving the most attention is Barry Zito’s organization, Strikeout for Troops, started in the 2005 season, which encourages MLB players to pledge a dollar amount donation for every pitcher’s strikeout or a batter’s every RBI, homerun or hit throughout the entire season. Donations are used for the care of returning wounded troops as well as their family's needs.
White Sox reliever, Scott Linebrink is hosting military veterans each month of the 2008 season at U.S. Cellular field. His outreach program, Scott's Heroes, in conjunction with the Wounded Heroes Foundation, Inc., gives VIP treatment for two veterans to meet Linebrink, meeting with them on the field before batting practice and providing each with 5 tickets to the game. Linebrink, who comes from a military family, simply feels that, "I think it's something that a lot of us need to do to voice our support for these troops."
Jeff Suppan, the Brewers pitching starter, introduced Soup's Troops, in partnership with the Milwaukee Brewers and the USO of Wisconsin. It benefits military service members to attend Miller Park games in the 2008 season. The Brewers donate 4 field-level seats to active military personnel as well as families of fallen soldiers.
And Suppan and his wife Dana pay the tab of up to $200.00 worth of food and merchandise for each group. He also pledges $100.00 per strikeout throughout the season to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, with each amount matched by the Brewers Charities foundation. It benefits children of fallen soldiers.
Jamie Walker, relief pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, donates money to the U.S. Army Emergency Relief Fund and provides a luxury box at Camden Yards to host soldiers and wounded veterans returning from the Middle East, with food and drinks on him.
Aaron Harang, starting pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds and his Aaron's Aces program hosts 30 military family members per game at Great American Ball Park, and they attend a meet-and-greet session in the Red's bullpen where Harang signs autographs, gives the fans T-shirts as well as vouchers for concessions. These fans are also put on the JumboTron scoreboard in the 2nd inning. Harang importantly notes, "If we start getting other teams and players involved, we can expand it. It would be great if a bunch of guys got together to do this at different stadiums."
Harang, who grew up in the military city of San Diego, CA and Scott Linebrink, who previously played for the San Diego Padres there, both realize the importance of service where San Diego has the largest active-duty military members' concentration in the U.S. As such, the San Diego Padres organization has been steadfast in the support of the military community in San Diego and around the world, noted as the Team of the Military by the U.S. Department of Defense.
The San Diego Padres has joined the America Supports You program of the U.S. Department of Defense in numerous charitable causes in addition to many others ways as it remains not only the only franchise in MLB with the only dedicated military affairs marketing department but the only professional sports franchise in the nation with one.
As dedicated and generous as these aforementioned efforts matter and mean to the various players, teams and the beneficiaries of such good causes, it is frightfully deficient when looking at the big picture. And as well-meaning such philanthropic and outreach programs are, such efforts require momentum and a constant stream of like-efforts in order to remain sustainable.
Praise is deserved for those MLB players who have personally taken it upon themselves to raise awareness of the needs of our active-duty troops, veterans and their families and largely with their own funding and ingenuity.
But in researching these efforts it has but crystallized the dearth of such funding and efforts generated by MLB, Inc. as well as the MLB Players Association and other MLB teams. Perhaps shortsighted on their part is that lifting the morale of U.S. troops provides a reciprocal benefit for players', teams' and fans' morale as well. It is but a win-win which should be encouraged.
For as Barry Zito has expressed, "Sometimes, in a world where professional sports and celebrities are front-page news, it's easy to forget who the real heroes are in this country." Let us never forget.
Copyright 2008 Diane M. Grassi