You can’t even begin to make a comparison between professional baseball players and soldiers in the US Army. Players make their living playing a child’s game while soldiers risk their lives every single day in service of our country. Baseball stars become our heroes, constantly entering our conversations and prompting us to spend our time and money watching them play and buying their jerseys and posters, and while we many of us would describe soldiers as “heroic” if asked, they rarely cross the minds of those of us without a close friend or family member in the service. Why? Baseball is all around us with our favorite players often playing just minutes from our homes. The soldiers are out in Afghanistan and we can’t begin to comprehend everything they do on a daily basis. The world of professional baseball and the world of the army could not be any different- yet at Fox Sports’ “Spring Training for the Troops” event the two worlds collided, leaving everyone, especially the current and former MLB players, the Fox Sports Girls, and the rest of the Fox Sports crew that participated, with an experience they would never forget.
For a few days, the group of MLB players got the slightest taste of what the soldiers in the US Army do on a daily basis. As former Marlins first baseman and current Rays studio host Orestes Destrade described to me in a phone interview, as soon as the Fox Sports group arrived in Grafenwoehr Military Base in Germany, they hit the ground running. They woke up at 5:45 their first day and began participating in PT- physical training- something not unlike what many of them had done before, but with the focus for the soldiers who participate being a completely different goal: not heading onto the field, but heading off to war. After a short break for breakfast, they continued their experience with classroom training, doing a simulation, almost like a video game, where they were in humvee and had to react to war situations. A different day, the group went into an actual humvee that was surrounded by an Imax screen that simulated the Afghan terrain with insurgents attacking them, and when their vehicle was struck by an IED, a man-made bomb, their vehicle shook violently like they had really gotten hit. And in a third experience, the players got to ride in a Striker, a tank with essentially car tires to increase maneuverability, and get a real appreciation for how the army’s technology facilitates the effort on the battlefield getting a first-hand look at the advanced computers used to move and fire weaponry in the Striker. Overall, it was the group had a fun time and was wowed by all the advanced technology the army is able to utilize for training. However, slowly but surely it sunk in: it wasn’t a game, it was preparing the soldiers for real-life situations where their lives would be on the line. As Orestes described, “We were joking around, but then when you stop and think, they’re training and using these incredible complex but yet very user-friendly software to fine-tune themselves so that when they’re on the real deal, they can react so quickly.” Things became even more real as they talked to soldiers and heard stories of these young men often in the early-20’s or younger watching their comrades fall on the battlefield.
“This is real life stuff and leaves a major imprint. It makes me realize that what these men and women are doing is something to another level where you think about it and can’t understand it, but once you get a chance to be around it and hear what they’re doing and the stories, it becomes real.” – Orestes Destrade
“Honestly, it was scary knowing that every virtual scenario we faced could, at a moment’s notice, become reality for the soldiers we met, each of whom must always be on point while in harm’s way. There is no option but to be prepared, because there are no second chances in battle. There’s no take two, no “We’ll get ’em next time.” It truly is life or death out there, and the weight of that responsibility is something each and every one of us struggled to process.” – Wade Boggs
The army was kind enough to give the Fox Sports group the training experience, but as big of a part of the event was the players giving back to the veterans by talking with them and playing whiffleball with them. While the players tried to keep everything light-hearted, the conversations and even the whiffleball game inevitably got intense. The players Fox Sports sent to the army base were a very diverse group, from Hall of Famers like Wade Boggs, Rollie Fingers, and David Justice to current players Heath Bell, and Luke Gregerson, and the players and soldiers were almost universally able to find a common ground. The soldiers were in a different world living on the army base, but at the same time they were still the same kids that had grown up watching baseball and rooting for their favorite teams, and meeting their childhood heroes impacted them. The group heard stories of all natures, from war experiences to watching baseball growing up, and were able to give the soldiers a temporary reprieve from everything they had been through and gave them a chance to feel like they were back home. The soldiers got to meet the players they admired, but it was the stories and the momentos that the soldiers gave back that the Fox Sports participants can never possibly forget.
“One of the most memorable moments of the trip for me came during my meeting with Sgt. Maj. Steve Carney, a soldier and Red Sox fan who had served multiple tours in Afghanistan. When he found out I’d be coming, Steve arranged to have the American flag that flew over his compound sent to Germany so he could present it to me. That he thought enough of me to give me his flag — and that other soldiers felt compelled to give us coins, patches and other mementos from their time spent in the trenches — was touching in a way that is difficult to describe, and in some ways, made the FOX Sports coins we were exchanging with soldiers seem insignificant.” – Boggs
Then the players participated in a whiffleball game and expected just a fun little game with a few soldiers. Instead, they entered a level of competitiveness like they hadn’t seen other than their playing days. They entered a packed basketball gymnasium for a matchup between the 709th military police battalion and the 172nd infantry brigade, and while it was whiffleball and not baseball, everyone played hard and the game went right down to the wire. It was as though the players forgot where they were and returned to being, at least a few hours, the same kids who many of them had been just a few years earlier, worrying about nothing more than playing baseball with their friends on a local field on a weekend, and despite the winners and losers of the game being inconsequential, getting lost in the moment and playing their hearts out.
The Fox Sports group also got to meet with the children of the soldiers on the base and visit their schools. The children are Americans from American parents, yet they’re living in a completely different environment in Germany. Living so far away from home away on a military base, it wouldn’t be too surprising to hear of children acting out, wishing they could simply live a normal life back in the US. Instead, as Orestes couldn’t stress enough, it was the exact opposite and they were extremely well-behaved.
It’s trying, it’s a little challenging, but in the short time we were there, they seemed to bring themselves together and the one thing that I noticed was that there was a real diversity of cultures, the whole melting pot of what America is is represented in our military, and all these kids are going to school together and have to work together. There’s a military modality and mentality that inbred from their families of how things are and the protocols thereof and I was just very impressed.
The families of soldiers, whether at home or abroad, are unsung heroes the way they find a way to live knowing that their loved ones might never come back, and it had to be a thrill for the entire group to put smiles on their faces. But despite the fact that they’re in such a different situation than most American children their age, though, so much remains the same. Destrade, Bell, Gregerson, and Justice got to be a part of a pep rally, something you would find at any high school in the US. Even in a place most of us could not imagine living, the kids find a way to leave their lives as normal as possible, and meeting them was a special experience for the group as well.
The Fox Sports “Spring Training for the Troops” event was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for everyone involved and the results could not have been any better. The entire group was able to bring the soldiers and their families a piece of home for a few days, giving them the opportunity to relax, meet the players they grew up watching, and forget about everything for a few minutes as they went to play ball. The players and the rest of the Fox Sports group, meanwhile, got the chance to appreciate everything the soldiers do on a daily basis by participating in training, listening to the stories the soldiers told them, and simply realizing how everything they do is truly a matter of life or death and it’s unbelievable that they can do that day by day. Despite how different the worlds of baseball and the military are, they are both things that have to been central to the American experience for as long as anyone can remember, and although they came together for but a few days, it was an unforgettable event and a moment that will continue to resonate in the hearts and minds of everyone who participated.