Phils stage elaborate surprise to honor soldier

Former pitcher Greene, Phillies team with USO and more to send Army Sgt. 1st Class Ali to Phantasy Camp

Phils stage elaborate surprise to honor soldier

PHILADELPHIA -- The setup was plausible. A news conference announcing that right-hander Tommy Greene, who pitched a no-hitter for the franchise in 1991, was retiring as a Phillie.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Jamil Ali had no way of knowing it was an elaborate hoax.

Photo gallery

All the soldier -- who has served 19 years in the military, including deployments in the Middle East -- knew was that he had been offered a tour of Citizens Bank Park on Friday. When Ali entered the Media Room, sure enough, Greene was at the podium talking about his favorite Phillies memories.

And then the true purpose of Ali's visit was revealed.

Public affairs director Scott Palmer acknowledged his presence. The next thing Ali knew, the Phillie Phanatic was escorting him to the front of the room as members of the team's front office, who had been posing as reporters, gave him a standing ovation while waving rally towels and showering him with confetti.

Once Ali arrived, Greene greeted him with a personalized Phillies jersey and the news that he was being given an all-expenses-paid trip to the team's Phantasy Camp in Clearwater, Fla., beginning Jan. 20, when he'll get an opportunity to play with Greene and 20 other team legends. Visibly surprised, Ali could only mouth a silent, "Wow."

Phillies Phantasy Camp

Ali, 56, lives in North Philadelphia, rooting for bygone stars Dick Allen, Tony Taylor and Jim Bunning. He was stationed in Iraq while the Phillies were winning the World Series in 2008, but he found a way to watch every game and hung his Chase Utley jersey in the mess hall to advertise his allegiance.

Ali is currently assigned to HHB 108th Field Artillery in Carlisle, Pa. With him Friday were his son, Mike, who is also in the Army, and their fiancées.

Now, clearly there are many members of the military who could have been given this honor. Ali was identified by cooperation between the United Service Organizations and the military commands in Pennsylvania and South Jersey, which look for candidates who fit the profile of a combination of a long history of service, being a legitimate Phillies fan and being physically fit enough to handle the rigors of four days of playing baseball.

Said Joe Brooks, President of Liberty USO: "The USO is a values-driven organization. And those values are providing comfort, care, support and honoring our military and military family members. The Phillies share that."

That relationship has grown over the past five years. And Ali is only the latest to benefit from that, with help not only from the USO and the team but ESF (Education, Sports and Fun!), which runs the Phantasy Camp, and the David Geltzer Family Foundation.

In fact, the idea of sponsoring soldiers' trips to the camps began during Geltzer's third time at Phantasy Camp; this year will be his seventh.

"It all started when one of the guys on my team was a 27-year-old who happened to sit next to me at dinner," Geltzer explained. "He said he was on his way to Afghanistan. Then, on the last night, we have a banquet, and Scott Palmer does a thing where the veterans stand up and he salutes them. It was a pretty interesting evening when you see all these adult men who had played baseball all week now stand up for the flag."

When Geltzer got home, he continued to think about the young man. Geltzer emailed him and asked if he and his brother, who was also in the service, would like to attend again. At the same time, Geltzer contacted the Phillies and ESF to see if they were interested in matching his donation. The result: A dozen service people have been given this special opportunity. And it's a gift that works both ways.

"After the first year, one of the guys got up and made a speech at the banquet, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house," Geltzer noted. "It's pretty interesting after guys have their macho baseball for five days, and now all of a sudden they're listening [to a soldier] and seeing that there are bigger things out there."

Added ESF's Chris Landosky: "Days like this are special. We're privileged to be able to be here and provide this program for you and to honor you for your commitment and service to our great country that allows us to even have a Phantasy Camp. So thank you very, very much."

Ali was at first speechless. After he gathered his thoughts, he talked about what this meant to him.

"I'm stunned. This is just overwhelming," Ali said. "I really, really appreciate it. Words can't describe how I feel right now. It's just a litany of emotions. I'd just like to thank everyone."

Ali has attended many games at Citizens Bank Park before, so even before his big surprise, he enjoyed getting a behind-the-scenes look at the facility.

"It was very exciting," Ali said. "To be able to go on a tour and see Chooch's [Carlos Ruiz's] locker and Ryan Howard's locker, it was just amazing. I watch these guys on television, and to get a chance to be in their clubhouse, I took several pictures."

Before his trip to the ballpark was over, though, it was Ali whose picture was being taken. Over and over and over again.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.