MLB honors heroes of past, present on Veterans Day

MLB honors heroes of past, present on Veterans Day

As Major League Baseball pauses with the rest of the nation on Veterans Day to honor and appreciate those who have served in the armed forces, it stands and salutes as a sport forever linked with the military, in many different ways and in many different eras.

And the message remains the same through the years: Someone who throws or hits a baseball isn't a hero. Someone who puts his or her life on the line to protect our nation is the very definition of a hero.

Certainly, baseball's long history includes many who have done both, achieving true hero status off the field and in the line of fire. They erect statues for such heroes, and as of mid-September a marvelous likeness of Jerry Coleman now stands outside Petco Park in San Diego -- one of a couple of shining examples in just the last couple of months that demonstrate how the nation's armed forces and the national pastime are indelibly intertwined.

In the statue, Coleman isn't depicted deftly leaping over a runner to turn a double play at second base in his days winning World Series rings with the Yankees of the 1950s. And he isn't behind a microphone, where four decades of broadcasting Padres games earned him honors from the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Fittingly, he's immortalized in bronze as a Marine pilot, standing as a proud and strong example of what a hero really looks like.

Indeed, for all the great things the 88-year-old Coleman has done in his life in baseball, nothing compares to the 120 missions he flew as a Marine pilot in both World War II and the Korean War. "The Colonel" is one of many players in Major League Baseball history to have served his country in the military during that era -- but the only one to have seen combat in two wars.

"What gets me is when I start thinking back in the past," said Coleman, upon seeing the statue depicting him in his 1952 flight suit. "People talk about great heroes. The great heroes are the ones not with us."

While baseball earnestly joins the nation in honoring those fallen heroes on Memorial Day and those who served and survived on Veterans Day, MLB helps veterans in every Major League city throughout the year, through individual club and player programs and a wide-ranging initiative on the industry level.

Welcome Back Veterans, instituted in 2008, is an MLB Charities initiative in partnership with the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation, and in the last three years it has awarded more than $17 million in grants to nonprofit agencies and programs to benefit veterans and their families' greatest needs. It was designed to support returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their family members as they transition to civilian life, with an emphasis on helping those afflicted with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

As MLB was shining a spotlight on the program and the veterans it serves before Game 2 of the World Series, Commissioner Bud Selig made it clear that it's not only an honor but a duty to do so.

"Many fought for us, many obviously gave their lives, and so people have often said, and I regard this as a privilege for us, to be able to do something for people and attract the kind of attention that they richly, richly deserve," Selig said.

Prior to Game 2, Selig and MLB specifically honored World War II veterans, including Coleman, former Dodgers pitcher and manager Tommy Lasorda, former Red Sox second baseman Bobby Doerr and broadcaster Bob Wolff. Others, such as Hall of Famers Ted Williams (who like Coleman served in both WWII and Korea but only saw combat in the latter), Yogi Berra, Warren Spahn, Bob Feller and Hank Greenberg are among those who saw action in the military and returned to continue their careers in baseball. There's also Lou Brissie, who shattered his leg in combat and returned to pitch in the Majors with a brace, and longtime Yankees right fielder Hank Bauer, who brought home two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars.

Baseball's veterans remain heroes for many decades after they served. But baseball's appreciation for veterans obviously extends beyond that group to all men and women who have made that sacrifice. So as Game 2 of the World Series was about to begin, the spotlight turned to a new era of heroes, the ones returning home who need the help of a nation they were sent abroad to serve.

Onto the field stepped Corporal Nick Kimmel of the U.S. Marine Corps, representing those more recent veterans with a ceremonial first pitch unlike anything seen before -- providing another shining recent example of baseball and veterans literally standing beside one another.

Kimmel had hopes of pitching at Arizona State but instead enlisted in the Marines in 2008, returning home a triple amputee, having lost both legs and his right arm during his second tour in Afghanistan late last year. It was just a few months later that he met Giants pitcher Barry Zito, whose Strikeouts for Troops program that involves other Major Leaguers has been one of baseball's strongest efforts for veterans since its inception in 2005.

So it was alongside Zito and Giants great Willie Mays, one of those whose baseball career was interrupted by military service, that Kimmel walked out on crutches to the mound and delivered the ceremonial first pitch in full dress Marine uniform.

Giants reliever Sergio Romo, who has been on the receiving end of almost every ceremonial first pitch at AT&T Park the last several years, called this experience "moving," and it brought him a profound sense of pride that he was even involved in the pitch.

Hero? Romo knows who's who.

"I'm just really proud and glad that I was able to be alongside there, and just shake that man's hand, to catch that pitch he threw," Romo said. "A fastball right down the middle for a strike. It's hard to do with all four limbs and that man did it with one. I respect that man a lot.

"I was just very proud to meet him, look at that that man and what he's given up and what he's been through. I respect everything he's done, the sacrifices he's made. I told him we appreciate it. Think about it: He's part of those men and women that give us the opportunity to live this life, so I'm very thankful."

Just a couple of days later, Romo experienced the ultimate baseball thrill of throwing the final pitch of the World Series, an act that some who use the term loosely might say qualifies him as a hero.

But the only truly heroic pitch of this World Series was thrown before Game 2, by Cpl. Kimmel, with Romo on the other end.

That man, the veteran who represented so many men and women who have served with a fastball down the middle before a World Series crowd, now that is a hero throwing a baseball.

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