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AFL game honors Native American veterans

AFL game honors Native American veterans

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AFL game honors Native American veterans
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Freedom isn't free.

That was the message placed on the video board at Salt River Fields on Friday night as the Arizona Fall League staged its first ever Military Appreciation event just prior to the game between the Mesa Solar Sox and the host Salt River Rafters.

The colorful and emotional pregame ceremony was quite different from the norm. The brainchild of AFL director Steve Cobb, it was designed to honor veteran members of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, which funded this wildly unique and successful new Spring Training facility for the D-backs and Rockies.

"I just felt like there was an opportunity -- because we're always playing baseball on Veterans Day -- to honor the veterans," Cobb said. "Particularly because were on tribal land, I thought it was important to recognize Native American men and women who have served our country. That was the genesis of the idea."

By the way, the Rafters won the back-and-forth game televised by MLB Network and streamed by MLB.com, 7-6. D-backs second-base prospect David Nick snapped a 6-6 tie with his first homer of the fall hit deep into the grassy left-field berm with one out in the bottom of the eighth inning.

The AFL is about to conclude its 20th season and Cobb now envisions this Veterans Day production as a yearly event, traveling from the East Valley to the west and back, while utilizing a different theme considering the venue.

"My hope is that with the cooperation of Major League Baseball we can build this into a yearly event," Cobb said. "I see it as an East side-West side thing. Perhaps next year we'd have it on the West side in conjunction with Luke Air Force Base or something."

This year's event came to fruition about six weeks ago when the Network and MLB.com decided to broadcast the game, Cobb said.

Veterans Day fell just six days before the end of the Fall League season and eight days prior to the annual AFL Championship Game at nearby Scottsdale Stadium, the spring home of the Giants.

When all the pieces came together on this one, league representatives went to members of the Native American community and asked them to designate various veterans to honor at the event. They came up with a cross-section of nine soldiers, who fought for the U.S. in a number of different fronts such as Europe, the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.

"Since the birth of America, Native Americans have contributed immeasurably to our country and our heritage, distinguishing themselves as scholars, artists, entrepreneurs, and leaders in all aspects of our society," President Barack Obama said recently. "Native Americans have also served in the United States Armed Forces with honor and distinction, defending the security of our Nation with their lives."

Each of the nine was escorted to one of the nine fielding positions by a young woman from the tribal community. From James Joseph, who fought for the Army in World War II, to Garnette Gates, who served with the Marines in Vietnam, to Franklin Kauakahi, who was assigned duty by the Navy on the USS Nimitz in the Arabian Sea.

Their faces were worn and craggy, but they revealed the wisdom of their years.

"Military personnel from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian community have diligently and honorably served the American government for over 130 years," read the script of the event's narration written by Michael Bouscher, the director of operations at Salt River Fields. "Tribal members have served in various branches of the armed forces during times of military conflict -- beginning with the Indians Wars, during present day conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and during times of peace."

"They're the first to serve and the first to enlist," David Dunne, the general manager of Salt River Fields, said about the Native American community, in general.

Friday night's ceremony began with a slide show of fallen veterans set against melancholic chimes of music from the HBO's World War II epic, "Band of Brothers."

The slide show ended with those three stoic words: Freedom isn't free. To especially the folks who fought, nothing could ring more true.

Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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