NEW YORK -- First lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, helped get the 105th World Series started in a historic way by participating in the Game 1 first-pitch ceremony at Yankee Stadium and also visiting military veterans at a Bronx VA hospital in support of Major League Baseball's Welcome Back Veterans initiative.
This marks the first World Series that is being played around a constant theme of community initiatives, all tied to MLB's "Going Beyond" campaign for community service and charitable involvement. Each of the first four games has an attached theme. Game 1 is Welcome Back Veterans. Game 2 will focus on Volunteerism and Community Service (including the Roberto Clemente Award presented by Chevy), Game 3 will focus on Stand Up To Cancer and Game 4 will focus on Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI).
"I want to thank everyone in Major League Baseball for all that you are doing for our veterans," Mrs. Obama said. "This has just been a phenomenal effort to bring exposure and awareness, and we are all so very grateful that Major League Baseball has decided to take on this issue at a time that is so important and at such a celebratory time for Major League Baseball."
Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden escorted Yogi Berra, the Yankees legend and World War II veteran, to the mound for the first-pitch ceremony before the opener between the Phillies and Yankees. They watched there as Tony Odierno, a West Point graduate who lost his left arm during the war in Iraq, threw the first pitch to Derek Jeter. Odierno received the Bronze Star with Valor and a Purple Heart and now works for the Yankees in stadium operations.
The ceremony, along with the public-service announcement that aired at the ballpark and on the FOX broadcast, put massive attention on the Welcome Back Veterans initiative. Welcome Back Veterans is an MLB Charities initiative, inspired by Mets owner Fred Wilpon, who was in attendance at the afternoon visit to the James J. Peters VA Medical Center in The Bronx. Also in attendance besides the first lady and Dr. Biden were MLB president Bob Dupuy; Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal, general partner of the Yankees; and Charlie Hayes, third baseman for the 1996 World Series champion Yankees. They met with a crowd of 200, mostly vets.
Commissioner Bud Selig said of the first lady and Dr. Biden: "We hope their presence at both the game and the hospital visit will be an inspiration to the veterans, who proudly served our country. The support for WelcomeBackVeterans.org, an incredibly important initiative for Major League Baseball, will make a difference as we look to help today's veterans and military families with their transition back to civilian life."
Welcome Back Veterans is designed to support returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families with mental health treatment and job opportunities. In partnership with the McCormick Foundation, MLB has raised money for this cause through auctions on MLB.com, sales of special Stars & Stripes logo caps that have been worn by all 30 clubs on national patriotic holidays and other fundraising activities.
To date, WelcomeBackVeterans.org has awarded $5.8 million in grants to non-profit agencies across the country targeting veterans' greatest needs, including mental health and job training/placement. WelcomeBackVeterans.org has teamed with the University Hospitals of Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York, the University of Michigan and Stanford, which are developing treatment procedures for post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues of returning veterans and their families.
"I am happy to be here today," Mrs. Obama told the VA hospital crowd. "I am happy with every minute I spend time with our men and women in uniform and our veterans. Each and every day, they selflessly and courageously serve this nation. They demonstrate their commitment to upholding America's highest ideals. They make an enormous sacrifice for each of us, for our country and for the peace and security that we all enjoy. Today's visit is a vivid reminder that for many of them, the battle continues even after they come home. ... As a nation, we have a responsibility to honor their service by doing everything we can to support our servicemen and women, our veterans and their families -- that's a duty that we have."
Armand Johnson, 55, was among those vets in attendance before the game. He is a retired First Sgt., U.S. Army, and he said the focus on military veterans and their families is "a beautiful thing."
"Any attention that is given to our veterans is a plus, because it's been too many years going back to Vietnam where our veterans weren't welcome coming home," Johnson said. "This is a great thing here. I'm happy to see the Yankees and Mets organizations come out and support us and support the vets."
Johnson was in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1972, aboard a destroyer just before the Vietnam peace treaty was signed. He left the Navy after a three-year tour, then joined the Army seven years later, and in 2004, he was deployed to Iraq. He retired after 27 total years of military service and two combat tours.
"My brother was a Marine, First Marine Division 1968-69, and I heard first-hand of the atrocities that were bestowed upon our vets returning in the country," he said, recalling what it was like when Vietnam troops returned. "No one greeted them at the airport. My brother came home by himself and got out of a cab and walked two blocks to the house. I remember I came outside and waited for him."
"These young soldiers are our heroes. They are letting us know that the sentiment is strong, that they feel good when they see people of [Michelle Obama's] caliber come out and see us, to shake our hands, to talk to us, to let the country know that these are brave young soldiers."
DuPuy spoke to the veterans as one of them. Indeed, many in the crowd were in battle at Vietnam while he was there as well. DuPuy graduated from Dartmouth in 1968 and then served in Vietnam with the 504th Military Police Battalion in the Army.
"As a veteran, this cause is close to my heart," he said. "Forty years ago today, when I woke up in Fu Bai, if someone had told me I'd be here with all of you today with the first lady and Dr. Biden, I would have thought they were nuts," he said to the veterans. "But I do want to tell you on behalf of Major League Baseball, how proud we are of each and every one of you, and how thankful we are to be able to show our gratitude in some small way for your service.
"In sports, we toss around the term hero pretty readily, and pretty easily, to talk about great athletic achievements. But frankly, you're the real heroes. And we would not have the freedoms that we have today without your service, your dedication and your willingness to serve."
Mrs. Obama noted that her husband was in the process of signing a bill -- or about to sign a bill -- that would benefit military families who have members going off to service abroad. She said that providing service to military and their families "requires far more than government can do. It requires all of us to be very active in this effort. Jill and I have made it a personal priority to ask all Americans to join the cause by supporting the military and their families.
"If you are a business owner, big or small, you can help a returning solider or veteran or a spouse by helping them get or keep a job. We have to think about that. If you have a professional skill of any kind, whether you are a lawyer, particularly if you are a mental health professional or if you are an accountant, you can provide your services pro bono to military families who need assistance. Or you can do something like Jill said, as simple as offering to drive a carpool or to offer babysitting or making a meal -- so many small things can really make the difference and make sure our veterans and our men and women in uniform know that we care and are thinking about them.
"Above all, each of us can simply reach out and do something really small and say, 'Thank you.'"
MLB partnered with the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF) to launch "I Participate," a major new initiative that calls on the power of the entertainment industry, national political figures and MLB to promote the importance of volunteerism and community service. The initiative benefits WelcomeBackVeterans.org and four other charitable organizations.
President Obama appeared during the last All-Star Game in St. Louis to throw out the first pitch, and he and all the living presidents were involved in a ceremony to recognize 30 People All-Stars Among Us representatives.
WelcomeBackVeterans.org is the resource for veterans, their families and for all Americans to find out how they can participate, help and make a difference.
Alex Rodriguez and Jimmy Rollins said they thought the overall "Go Beyond" initiatives were a terrific thing to incorporate on with this World Series.
"I love that. I see the Boys & Girls Club, that's where I grew up," Rodriguez said, looking at a list of the four initiatives. "I'm going to be biased toward that. I think it's great. Anything we can do to help out in the community. We did that with Hope Week here during the season. Obviously, Major League Baseball is doing their part, and I'm glad to be part of it."
"Whenever we have an opportunity to sponsor, to help out, give money, bring attention to something, we're doing our job as part of the American culture," Rollins said. "Baseball and America go hand-in-hand. When baseball's going well, America's going well.
"We seem to keep smiles on people's faces. Anytime you can partner up, just bring joy to people who are going through things rough in their lives, you're doing your job. Not just as a baseball player, but as an American. You're doing your job as a role model. And hopefully we can add more things to the list."
Here are other "Go Beyond" initiatives that will follow:
Game 2: Roberto Clemente Legacy, Volunteerism & Community Service The winner of the Roberto Clemente Award presented by Chevy will be announced prior to this game. Bestowed annually, the award honors the player who combines giving back to the community with outstanding skills on the baseball field. In 1973, the award was named in honor of Clemente, who died on Dec. 31, 1972, during a humanitarian mission. Game 2 will honor Clemente's generous spirit, as MLB hosts a benefit fundraiser throughout Yankee Stadium.
Game 3: Stand Up To Cancer Game 3 will raise awareness and money for Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C), as MLB will promote the importance of supporting the fight against cancer through a number of special activities. MLB sponsor MasterCard will donate $1 million to Stand Up To Cancer if a "Hit It Here" sign in the outfield is hit with a home run during Game 3. In addition, MasterCard pledged $1,000 to SU2C for every homer hit throughout the postseason. MLB will broadcast an SU2C PSA in the ballpark, on TV, on MLB.com and on MLB Network. Also, current players, along with MLB executives and SU2C dignitaries, will visit patients in cancer care at a local hospital.
In 2008, Selig made a commitment on behalf of MLB to Stand Up To Cancer, an initiative created to raise money to accelerate ground-breaking cancer research. Selig announced an initial contribution of $10 million -- becoming the founding, lead partner for the campaign. There have been many examples of this relationship since then, such as the Sheryl Crow All-Star Concert under the Arch in St. Louis, raising money and awareness for SU2C.
Game 4: RBI Presented by KPMG/Boys & Girls Clubs of America This game will be dedicated to youth as MLB celebrates the importance of Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities. Local young people from both programs will attend a Wanna Play? event and clinic outside the ballpark on the day of Game Four. Wanna Play? is a new, experiential initiative intended to promote baseball and softball participation among young people in underserved communities, experienced the day of this summer's Civil Rights Game in Cincinnati. Activities available during these events include batting and pitching cages, baserunning contests and demonstrations with current and former players.
During an on-field pregame presentation, KPMG, the presenting sponsor of the RBI program, will be joined by representatives of the championship teams from the 2009 RBI World Series presented by KPMG as they present a $1 million check to the youth outreach program designed to increase baseball and softball participation, encourage academic achievement and teach the value of teamwork. KPMG, which became the first presenting sponsor of the RBI program in June 2007, also supports RBI with thousands of volunteers across the country assisting kids both on the field and in the classroom.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.