I remember my father and grandfather once sitting on our back porch discussing the game of baseball on one of those long Summer evenings. Those two used to sit there for hours naming the people who had served in the military and also been on the programs of their hometowns of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh before the war. Both of them had a genuine respect and admiration for some of the Nation’s best baseball player who put down their bats and picked up a rifle or wrench or whatever was needed to support and defend this country’s mindset and dreams. And because of those talks on that back porch, I also made sure to do my part at a time of need.
Even if my time sin the military was short compared to both of those men, it was a time that baseball also was intertwined into my daily routine. I was a attached to a small unit that made a offshore approach to the country of Kuwait and within my gear taken abroad was my glove and a baseball. There were a couple of us in the unit that had either played in college, or as kids and we used our gloves and that ball to make the long hours seems to drift away when not on duty throwing in back and forth that that penetrating sun and swirling sands that scraped your skin like sandpaper.
And even though most of the attached soldiers of my unit played football, there was always time for a game or someone boasting about their curveball being better, or having a fireball attached to their arms.The game of baseball was an instant bonding agent no matter if we were from St. Petersburg, Florida or Portland, Maine. The game transcended the borders and the accents, poked past the cultural differences and the social unrest of the region as we tried to get some of the local kids to also join in our games to spread this great sport to another region just as my father did in Japan, and my grandfather in Italy.
And even though I made my living several years before playing a more violent and physical game, the sport of baseball always had my heart and soul. It was the sport two people could participate in with a simple game of catch or playing “pepper”.
But if it grew a crowd, if it got a small platoon or squad involved, we had a great pick-up game that could span hours and promoted not only unity on the battlefront, but also a cohesion that you needed to achieve and preserve in a theater of battle. And it did take our minds off the fact we were ourselves now thousands of miles away like my ancestors, battling for another countries right to freedom. My glove saw a lot of action in the Persian Gulf. I think I actively used it everyday as a constant reminder of what I was there for, and why I needed to remain strong in both mind and spirit. And even there, so many miles away, the baseball rivalries were evident and very vocal.
Back then the St. Louis Cardinals used to do their Spring Training about 3 miles from my parents Jungle Prada community in St. Petersburg and I was always at the ballpark before and after school. Since my Junior High was only about a quarter of a mile away, and we started at 9 am, I could go to the complex and see the guys head out before turning and biking to get to school before the attendance bell rang loud and clear. I was late every once in a while, but the Assistant Principal, who was also a huge baseball nut, always seemed to understand as long as I did my studies and did not misbehave in class.
So it was natural for the Yankees names to come up in Kuwait, or even the Chicago Cubs or Los Angeles Dodgers when we picked teams and emulated players while striding our makeshift Home Plate. But we did not have Umpires, we policed ourselves on the honor system and basically just played until we hit the ball unless you really was lousy, then you got 8 swings. But in that time in the Middle East I got a new found respect and admiration for the game, just as my father and grandfather had gotten in their war times.
I saw what they meant now about the passion and the pulling power of the game bringing not only men together, but units and branches of the service who also held a special part of the game within them.
This simple game, this game that can start with two and then grow to 20 or more souls did have a significant part of my maritime adventures while serving in Desert Storm. And like the past times of my father and grandfather the game of baseball brought all of us in my unit together as a cohesive part during a time of chaos and conflict.
I remember just before finally pulling out for the last time at a small border post near the Northern border of Kuwait thinking I need to leave of piece of me here, something had to stay here for this to seem real to me. So as we were motoring through the city of Abdari I saw a few kids throwing a baseball around the town’s central square.
I called for one of them to come over to my Humvee. I had a friend in the unit with me who was a translator and he asked the boy for me if he knew how to play baseball. The young kid, maybe 10 told my friend he was being taught the game before the local Marines pulled out and he was left with only the baseball.
I took the Humvee out of gear and applied the parking brake, then went to the back of the unit. I got out my duffle bag and searched for a few moments and brought out my old college baseball glove, my wooden Louisville Slugger and about 5 more baseballs sent to me from home. Even though I knew soccer was the prominent sport in this country, I wanted to leave a piece of me in Kuwait that day.
I took the items out of the back of the Humvee and gave them to the boy and made him promise to use them for sport and not as weapons or as bargaining pieces with his friend.
I wanted gin to want the items to play the game, not to sell or even trade for something else. He nodded his head in agreement and he ran from the Humvee with his new found sporting equipment and his friends all surrounded around him like he had found a golden statue in the sand. As I got back in to drive away, he waved to us and I was glad inside to leave a part of me in this small Kuwaiti town. But more, I was glad to leave a part of the game.