NEW YORK -- Rob Jones lost both legs to an IED in Taliban territory, received new prosthetic legs and taught himself how to row -- right into the 2012 Paralympics.
Israel Del Toro had a 15 percent chance to live after an improvised explosive device (IED) explosion left him with third-degree burns over 85 percent of his body. He survived, had 120 surgeries (so far), and became the first 100 percent disabled airman to re-enlist in the Air Force.
Josh Hooker's left leg was mangled in an explosion in Iraq and a few moments later, he watched his good friend die right before his eyes. Dozens of surgeries and skin grafts later, he had his leg amputated and soon was up riding a bike. He now rides 50 miles a day and spends most of his free time volunteering.
Jeff Mittman was left blind, without a nose, lips or teeth and severely damaged his right arm in a bomb explosion in Iraq, where he was serving as an adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior. He's endured dozens of surgeries to reconstruct his face and now travels nationwide to share his experiences as a motivational speaker, encouraging people to provide support for disabled veterans.
The word "hero" is thrown about quite a bit in sports -- probably a bit too much when considering the true meaning of the word. Suffice it to say, men who throw a ball to a three-inch target at 99 mph are hugely talented and should be lauded for their efforts. But are they heroes? That word probably needs to be saved for those who actually define it.
Like, for example, the 30 veterans and military service members, including the aforementioned, who were honored during a moving ceremony prior to the 84th Major League Baseball All-Star Game Tuesday night at Citi Field. These men and women were recognized for their service and for overcoming unbearable challenges that tested their physical endurance as well as their spirit. They all prevailed. They all are thriving. They are, by definition, heroes.
"Tribute for Heroes" was a joint venture between Major League Baseball and PEOPLE Magazine, where fans were invited to vote for the winners at TributeForHeroes.com, picking 30 from a pool of 90 finalists. Those 30 were given the VIP treatment throughout the All-Star festivities, a three-day bonanza that concluded with an on-field tribute, a rousing ovation from more than 40,000 fans and some face time with the players, who presented them with American flags.
First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, delivered a special message to the winners that was played on the scoreboard and shown throughout the stadium during the ceremony.
Military presence was front and center during the pomp and circumstance portion of the All-Star Game, beginning with select members of all segments of the Armed Forces emerging from the left-field corner with a giant American flag to kick off the ceremony. Unfurled, the flag took over the entire outfield at Citi Field.
The teams lined up between the bases for introductions, and not surprisingly, the biggest cheers went to those with Mets ties: current players David Wright and Matt Harvey, 1986 Mets manager Davey Johnson, and current Mets skipper Terry Collins.
A stirring rendition of the Canadian anthem was delivered by 2nd Lieutenant Scotty Newlands, followed by the United States anthem, sung by "American Idol" winner Candice Glover. Next up was a unique flyover, consisting of four ships, including three Agusta A119 Koalas and one Bell 12.
While the Mets have many legendary players who have worn their uniform during their decorated history, even the entire 1986 World Series winning roster would agree there really is only one logical choice to throw out the first pitch before an All-Star Game in Queens.
Tom Seaver, known in his day as "The Franchise" and "Tom Terrific," for obvious reasons, emerged from the home dugout to do the honors. The choice for catcher was also a no-brainer: Wright, also known in these parts as "Captain America."
Heroes appropriately were the focus of this elaborate ceremony, which is part of the point of having an All-Star Game. Those folks, combined with the baseball dignitaries, made this an unforgettable night in New York.