Video: Thigpen reunion in Dayton
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When it comes to memorable -- and tear-inducing -- Minor League moments, it would be hard to top the surprise that the Dayton Dragons sprung on Memorial Day in 2007.
After the second inning of a game between the Dragons and the South Bend Silver Hawks, the team welcomed Kim Thigpen and her two sons, Jacob and Caleb, onto the playing field. The family was there in order to speak via satellite with husband and father Jim Thigpen, a captain stationed overseas in Iraq.
Or so they thought.
Captain Thigpen appeared briefly on the videoboard, but then "technical difficulties" caused the picture to go dead. After an awkward and apprehensive pause, the sellout crowd erupted into ecstatic applause -- Captain Thigpen was actually in the ballpark, running from the dugout toward his stunned wife and family. The resulting on-field reunion was perhaps the most joyful and emotional entertainment ever provided during a between-innings break in the action, and it was all a result of the Dragons' comprehensive "Hometown Heroes" program.
A season-long commitment
Military tributes and ticket discounts are commonplace throughout the Minor Leagues, especially during Memorial Day weekend. But the Dragons' "Hometown Heroes" program isn't confined to a few special dates on the promotional schedule. Rather, it is a day-in, day-out celebration of Dayton-area military personnel -- of which there are many. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, one of the largest air bases in the country, is situated just 30 minutes away from the stadium. The Springfield Air National Guard Base is located nearby as well.
"Looking at the baseball schedule, there are just an awful lot of games," said Dragons executive vice president Eric Deutsch. "The length of the season helped us put into perspective the kind of sacrifices that people deployed overseas have to make, in that they are away from their families for months and years at a time. We put together this season-long program so that we could recognize and pay tribute to the hardships they go through."
To that end, the Hometown Heroes program includes a wide variety of components. Every home game, the team provides VIP treatment to the family of a deployed serviceman or woman.
"The families arrive at the ballpark at 5:30, have a meet-and-greet with the front-office folks, and we give them a behind-the-scenes tour of the stadium," said Deutsch. "They get souvenirs, meet the mascot and players, and are introduced on the field. We roll out the red carpet for them, and this is something we do 70 times a year."
Twice each season, the Dragons stage what Deutsch describes as "full-on military celebrations." Nearly every aspect of the game presentation is related to the armed forces, including an on-field swearing-in ceremony featuring new recruits.
"There will be 10-30 new recruits taking the oath, in front of a sold-out crowd," said Deutsch. "We'll also have a four-star general speak to the crowd about community support and a flyover, as well."
A different kind of instant replay
Crucial to the success of the Hometown Heroes program is Wright-Patterson's Family Services department, which helps the Dragons identify deserving military personnel.
"By working with Family Services, we can feature someone at the base in every one of our game programs," said Deutsch. "These people deserve to be recognized for their accomplishments. A lot of things happen behind the scenes, and there are a lot of great stories taking place beyond what might be on the news."
The team also stages an annual "do-over day," so that returning servicemen and women can experience some of the milestone moments they missed while they were deployed. The families involved take part in a pregame celebration and then are recognized on the field during the game.
"Our attitude is 'you missed it, so let's recreate it'," said Deutsch. "It could be a birthday, anniversary, Mother's Day, Father's Day, you name it."
Finally, each month the Dragons welcome a family onto the field so that they may receive a satellite greeting from a loved one stationed overseas.
"It can be heart-wrenching, but it's a really great moment," said Deutsch. "The families get a standing ovation, and there will be a lot of people tearing up in the stands."
Of course, the Thigpen family got a lot more than they bargained for when they participated in what they thought was a satellite call.
"I'm not sure how we got [Captain Thigpen] to agree to do that," said Deutsch. "He had gotten back early, so we put him up in the team hotel until the game. He said it was a good opportunity to decompress and get back to reality. When he came out onto the field to reunite with his family, it came as a complete shock to them. I've been here since Day 1 [of the Dragons franchise] and that was definitely one of the top three moments."
Benjamin Hill is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.