Standing on the mound to throw out the first pitch of an otherwise inconsequential Spring Training game between Tampa Bay and Detroit in 2007, Navy Chief Eric Lally froze.
The military veteran who served in Iraq's "Green Zone" didn't get stage fright, he was taken aback by the nearly 10-minute standing ovation he received as a representative of the U.S. Military All-Stars.
"It seemed like it lasted forever," Lally said. "I was so moved by it that I could barely throw that first pitch. A mom brought her little girl up after and said, 'I want her to shake the hand of the hero.'"
Moments like this are what the U.S. Military All-Stars are all about. Founded in 1990 by retired Navy Lieutenant Commander Terry Allvord, the joint-forces All-Star team gives military members -- both retired and active -- the chance to travel the country and play baseball in front of crowds of appreciative Americans. The gratitude the service members receive at these events, however, is only a small part of their reason for being there.
The team's official mission is "to promote awareness of all Americans in support of the honorable sacrifices our armed forces make at the tip of the spear." The team plays a nine-month season, suitably called the "Red, White and Blue Tour," in which they travel around the country playing professional, semi-professional and independent baseball teams at Major League, Minor League and amateur parks. In between games are practices, as well as trips to VA hospitals, schools and a variety of other public appearances in continuing service to the national cause, only this time on the home front.
The tour itself is essentially a win-win situation, according to Allvord. The public gets a chance to interact with members of the military in a positive manner, the players get to feel immediate support and gratitude for their sacrifice and, as the icing on the cake, baseball is enjoyed by all.
Marine Corps Sergeant Isaac Rodriguez, who used to pitch to a tire while stationed in Iraq, said it provides a mental vacation for players.
"It's just a great way to set aside the war and think about baseball and go to all these beautiful parks," Rodriguez said.
The team, which receives more than 350 appearance requests per year, routinely makes stops at Minor League parks. Last month they played at Trustmark Park, home of the Mississippi Braves, and are also scheduled to play at Gwinnett County Stadium on Aug. 8. To date, the team hasn't faced any Minor League teams, they instead use the facilities to play teams like the Latin All-Stars, another team created by Allvord to face the Military All-Stars when there was no direct competition.
If the connection between baseball and the military sounds familiar, it's because it has been happening for decades. Major League greats such as Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio and many others traded uniforms to serve their country during World War II, and it's the connection to this past that makes the opportunity special now for many of these players, Lally said.
"One of the great things we get to do is talk to World War II guys who played," Lally said. "For us to meet other military guys who played professional baseball or stuff like that, and people who may not have had the homecomings we've had, is special."
But when the personal appearances are over, the hands shaken, the flag raised and the anthem sung, there is only one thing left to do: play ball.
And the All-Stars can do that too. At 19-2 on the season so far in 2009, this team of service men is no joke. Their strong start is nothing new, even as their competition grows stiffer each year.
"We've gotten better and better," said Allvord, who now oversees the team. "We've routinely since 2005 started 20-0, 21-1. That's against pro teams. There's no slouch here. This year we played against the Red Sox's [Minor League team] in Spring Training. They had their best prospects on the team and they beat us 2-0. And we let everybody play. If we would have gone to the plate to win, we probably would win."
Perhaps most impressive is the way the team finds success. Unlike a normal team, the All-Stars play on their own leave time, using their own money for travel and personal expenses. Just like the military itself, the team is always in flux, with players joining the team for as little as an inning at a time before they have to rejoin their command. This bizarre operational tempo is what makes the team so different from others.
"Because people are at war, it is very tough," Allvord said. "It is very difficult for us to get Army guys and Marine Corps guys because of the way their jobs are set up. They deploy for a year, 14 months and then they come back and get a few weeks off and get right back in the training cycle again. So it's really difficult for them to have an opportunity to play baseball."
Occasionally, a player will come and go for a different reason, as players occasionally catch the attention of professional scouts. Although somewhat rare -- Allvord estimated less than 10 percent go on to play professionally -- it does happen in instances where a player is eligible.
Former U.S. Marine Corporal Cooper Brannan is one example. After two tours of duty in Iraq that ended when his left hand was injured in a grenade accident, he was signed by the San Diego Padres to a Minor League contract in 2007. He pitched in 20 Arizona League games in 2007 and 17 games for Class A Short-Season Eugene last year, but Cooper was released by the Padres near the end of extended Spring Training this year. He's since signed with the American Defenders of New Hampshire in the independent Canadian American League.
This sort of exposure can be invaluable for players who might not have another avenue to showcase their skills, Lally explained.
"There's a lot more visibility, I guess, than when I first started, so it's good for our young guys who decide that the military is not a career," he said. "If you are a guy like me, I'm getting ready to retire, and maybe there is some other job for me."
Whether the players are driven by military awareness initiatives or just pure love of the game, they exhibit the same level of dedication to the team as their military service. With the war in Iraq ongoing, Allvord said the mission at home becomes all the more crucial.
"[The players'] attitudes are that what we do is more important than ever," he said. "People more and more don't want to think about it. We acknowledge that it's more important than it's ever been."
And baseball is a particularly poignant way to keep the spirit of the troops at the forefront of the American mind.
"It works because it is America's pastime," Lally said. "These people, for the most part, love their country and love baseball. The two mix very well."