Early on Veterans Day morning, the New York Yankees teamed up with Bank of America employees to prepare 5,000 gift packages that the United Service Organizations (USO) will send to troops serving overseas.
The gift bags were assembled in the “Great Hall” of the new Yankee Stadium in which volunteers walked up a line of stations to drop into gift bags books, dominoes, cards, snacks, socks, hand-written cards and, of course, Yankees caps.
Many officials were on hand including Yankees manager Joe Girardi, mentioning he was the son of a Korean War veteran, and expressed strong empathy for injured veterans:
“The battles they face everyday just to get back to full strength. It leaves a lasting impression. Sometimes we get a little bit irritated that we have to get up early, earlier than we want, or we don’t get to sleep—but what they go through everyday is so difficult.”
The Yankees skipper went onto the describe his appreciation for the security that veterans provide our country,
“I lay my head on a pillow every night and feel safe. I wake up everyday, and I feel safe and it is because of them, and that is why I am so thankful.”
Girardi was very approachable and was thoughtful in his response to my questions regarding the service of his father during the Korean War,
“My father worked on airplanes, and we used to think he did not hear us because of the loud engines, that effected him. But I think I have learned over the years, being a father, that sometimes as parents we have selective hearing.”
“I see my father in his uniform, I have a picture of him at home in his uniform, and it makes me proud, that my father helped protect this country, and the things he did,” the Peoria, Illinois native said of his father’s military service.
In his opening comments, he mentioned a visit to meet injured soldiers at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington. I asked him about the visit,
“Wow, it was very impactful, to see what so many of these men and women have been through, losing a limb.”
The memory of a conversation with one particular soldier left a major impression on the former major league catcher:
“I remember a man who was shot through his ear, it came out the back of his head. He talked about, he could not wait to go back to his unit. Wow the dedication, the loyalty he has for this country, it has to be amazing. I don’t know if I could have thought that way. It made me proud to say I had met this man and his dedication, and how accountable he felt to his unit.”
One of the themes I have learned about from talking with soldiers, sailors and airmen serving overseas is their passion and continual interest in the goings on of their favorite teams. One of the organizers for the event was the Yankees senior vice president for marketing Deborah A. Tymon. She described to me how the Yankees have built a network of past attendees from the military, sending them daily email game notes and updates of the team.
The 1994 Cy Young Award-winning pitcher and current broadcaster David Cone was in attendance and also spoke of veterans in glowing terms. Cone won 194 major league games for the Mets, Yankees, Royals, Blue Jays and Red Sox. I asked him if any of his family or friends had served in the military.
“No immediate family, certainly some friends, everyone knows someone who has been effected, given up their lives or been injured over there as well," he said.
I asked the two-time 20-game winning pitcher about how players feel when they see members of the military in the stands at a game.
“Love it, absolutely love it. There are so many people in the military that are baseball fans, who are trying to get scores, or keep up to date with what is going on in the baseball season," Cone stated.
"It makes us feel pretty special, because we are entertainers, they are the real heroes, over their giving up their lives and kind. So we feel pretty lucky, I am always excited when we find out there are some Yankee fans over there in the military. It makes us feel pretty good.”
Military members are often great fans of professional athletes and checking scores on the Internet is a priority right after checking on their families. I asked Cone if baseball players realize how much overseas service members appreciate their teams and the welcome distraction they serve.
“That makes us feel really good. All the players, even the current players, certainly the players of the past understand that," he said. "That really gets to you when you think that, hey this guy who is putting his life on the line, when he wakes up in the morning, he wants to know how the Yankees, or how his favorite team did the night before. That really gives you inspiration.”
An injured Army veteran in attendance of the event was 2001 West Point graduate Anthony Odierno. Tony is now a Yankee Stadium operations executive. As a young lieutenant leading a platoon in Iraq in 2004, he was seriously wounded when a rocket propelled grenade was shot into his Humvee, killing his driver and causing him to lose an arm.
He proudly described to me plans to host a visit Saturday when his alma mater’s football team takes on Rutgers at the new Yankees Stadium.
As the event went on, many volunteers from Bank of America, Yankee employees, USO officials, military members and Derek Jeter’s fan club helped prepare packages that will reach troops overseas. It was a great way to spend Veteran’s Day morning.
Ken Kraetzer produces the West Point Football Report by Sons of the American Legion Radio broadcast Tuesday night’s during the season at 5:30 PM on WVOX 1460 AM in New Rochelle, NY and heard nationally on WVOX.com. Reach Ken on KGK914@aol.com.