By Jeremy S. Buddemeier, U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr Public Affairs February 6, 2013
GRAFENWOEHR, Germany -- First Lt. Casey Close dug in and stared down Wade Boggs, who peered back, menacingly. On the first pitch, Close smacked a solid hit into centerfield.
Nothing levels the playing field like wiffleball.
For one afternoon at the Grafenwoehr Physical Fitness Center, here, Feb. 6, a group Soldiers competed against some of baseball's greats.
The game, which paired Major League Baseball players such as David Justice, Heath Bell and Rollie Fingers with Soldiers from the 709th Military Police Battalion and the 172nd Infantry Brigade, was the marquee event during Fox Sports' "Spring Training to the Troops."
The three-day visit encouraged physical fitness, resilience and promoted a healthy lifestyle among the Army community through a series of activities with Soldiers and family members.
At the gym, the festive atmosphere started well before the game even began. Lt. Gen. Don Campbell, commanding general, U.S. Army Europe, swung by the dugout to wish 172nd Inf. Bde. Soldiers good luck.
"I'm pulling for you guys," Campbell said. "And I'm going to be telling them (709th MP Bn. Soldiers) the same thing."
Campbell threw out the first pitch and then fired up the crowd of more than 300 Soldiers, family and community members who filled the bleachers and lined the running track around the upper deck of the gym.
"These ballplayers are here for you," Campbell said. "You live the Warrior Ethos and you do great things every day."
As the game got underway, the players dealt with the dichotomy of a ball that is easy to hit but hard to control; routine, easy outs at first base became infield triples, and bat-cracking swacks to gaps in the outfield were easily run down.
The 172nd Soldiers scored first, but the 709th rallied on All-Star Heath Bell's drive to center, which put them up 3-1 in the second inning. Tim Salmon's triple to leftfield pushed in Spc. Matthew Klein, putting the MPs up 5-1.
No one was keeping stats though, they were barely keeping score.
Broadcaster Jose Tolentino conducted on-field interviews, sometimes interrupting batters between pitches, while AFN Bavaria's Sgt. Derick "DJ D-wreck" Call and Mario Impemba, who worked for seven seasons as a commentator for the Anaheim Angels, called the game. Fox Sports Girls led chants and orchestrated the wave in the bleachers.
Throughout the game, MLB players and Soldiers hammed it up and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere. And though the 709th MP Bn. Soldiers held on to win 5-2, the celebrities and Soldiers left with much more than just bragging rights.
"It's great to actually take a break and just have some fun with our brothers and sisters in arms," said Lt. Col. Steven Yamashita, commander, 709th MP Bn., as he held the winning plaque.
Hall of Famer Wade Boggs spoke on his experiences with the Soldiers -- from conducting a youth baseball clinic to training and doing PT.
"It's wonderful," Boggs said. "They put their lives on the line every day and if we can come over here and put a smile on their faces and see what they do every single day, it's phenomenal."
Soldiers and fans stuck around after the game to get autographs and pictures with the former MLB players.
Alisha Chavez, whose husband, Sgt. Isaac Chavez, serves as a team leader for A Co., 172nd Inf. Bde., brought her sons Jace, 5, and Cristopher, 10, directly from school to the event.
"We didn't have any souvenirs so they got their shirts signed," she said.
Sgt. Barrett Hood, from the 527th MP Company in Hohenfels, had the chance to welcome the MLB players at the airport. His father, Steve Hood, Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security, coordinated the Fox Sports visit.
A huge David Justice fan, Sgt. Hood spent a lot of the first day talking to the Hall of Famer.
"We talked more about my job than his," said Hood. "He's more interested in what I do on a daily basis. He asked me what it was like in Afghanistan and how I do it with a wife and two kids."
As players signed memorabilia and posed for pictures, many expressed gratitude to Soldiers and families for their service.
It wasn't exactly the big leagues, but everyone -- from the Soldiers who competed to the fans and even the commentators -- enjoyed some major league fun.
(Editor's Note: Chelsea Bissell, U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr Public Affairs, contributed reporting.)