Earlier this month, as the buzz for the start of spring training grew louder, one D-backs contingent reported early — not to Salt River Fields in Scottsdale but rather across the world to Grafenwoehr, Germany.
As part of the FOX Sports “Spring Training to the Troops” initiative, D-backs reliever Heath Bell, analyst and former manager Bob Brenly and director of military affairs Jack Ensch, a Vietnam War veteran, traveled with a Major League Baseball delegation to U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr, a training base for U.S, and international troops.
The group also included FOX Sports Girls from each region, including FOX Sports Arizona’s Danielle, as well as Padres pitchers Luke Gregerson, former major leaguer David Justice, Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers and Wade Boggs and other FOX Sports broadcasters.
The visit, from Feb. 5-7, included meals with the troops, visits to hospitals and schools, morning physical training, training simulations, a Wiffle Ball game and youth baseball clinics for children on the base.
FOXSportsArizona.com caught up with Bell, Brenly and Ensch this week to get their reflections, memories and perspective on the trip.
FSAZ: What was your reaction when FOX Sports and the D-backs asked you about going on this trip?
Bell: I think FOX Sports asked the D-backs and the D-backs asked me, and my dad was a Marine so I kind of jumped at the chance. My wife came with on the trip as well. We did workouts in the morning and we went and learned how they train — weapons training and all that stuff. So it was a blast. It was like being in the Army for three or four days.”
Brenly: I was a little hesitant at first — I’ve never been to Europe. I’ve been to Canada to play ball, and to Mexico and Latin America, but I’ve never been across the big pond to Europe. You hear horror stories from people who travel about the length of the flight and jet lag and how it gets you, but at the end of the day, the opportunity to go over to Germany and visit our troops — it was a very short, quick trip, just in and out — it was too good to pass up. It was something I’m glad I did and hope I get to do again.
FSAZ: What did you hope to accomplish going on the trip, as part of the group or as an individual?
Brenly: I’ve always been of a mind that baseball is a really good distraction. It’s something for people to take their minds off things, maybe get away from the hustle and bustle or stress of whatever it is they have to do for a living. Especially for the men and women serving over there, they need distractions. A lot of them are just returning from Afghanistan, a lot of them are waiting to ship out to Afghanistan. To think that we could come in there for three days, play Wiffle Ball, sign autographs and brighten there life up a little bit, maybe allow them to take a deep breath and have a little fun … I said it in ’01 after winning the World Series that I’ve never been prouder to be a part of Major League Baseball for what we afforded the people who had suffered so much after 9/11, and this was another one of those experiences where it makes you proud to be part of something that gives people so much joy. There was some good-natured ragging — a lot of Yankees fans over there, and they remember me from ’01. But there were also a lot of Diamondbacks fans and a lot of Mets and Red Sox fans that were rooting for us against the Yankees.
Ensch: It’s a tremendous boost in their morale because, you know, they can’t attend games. They’re over there for years at a time, so what baseball they get to watch is coming across the Armed Forces Network or something — oftentimes they have to get up in the middle of the night to watch it. And, of course, I was in the Navy 30 years, and my era was Vietnam, so the trip was really personally rewarding for me to go and be able to interface again with the active duty troops. And it really makes me feel good to see that FOX Sports and MLB are recognizing the military, because in my era it was just the opposite. The military was not appreciated and oftentimes vilified during the Vietnam era.
FSAZ: Was there sort of a shared appreciation for the others’ presence between the FOX Sports/MLB contingent and the troops at the base?
Bell: The funny part was we kind of had arguments where we were like, ‘Hey, thanks for your service,’ and they were like ‘No, thanks for coming out,’ and then we’re like, ‘No, seriously, thanks for your service,’ and then they go, ‘No, thank you. This was awesome to actually have you come to Germany.’ It was like a big thanking war.
Brenly: They kept saying, ‘Oh, thank you so much for coming, you don’t know what it means to these soldiers, what it means to these guys,’ but I feel like we got more out of it than they did. Meeting these men and women who are so committed and so dedicated to doing a job that a lot of people don’t want anything to do with, and not only doing the job but doing it with enthusiasm, I think if a lot of major league ballplayers approached their craft the way these soldiers approach their craft, the game would be a lot better off, because I was extremely proud of what I saw over there on that base.
FSAZ: How much did it seem like it meant to the troops that you took part in what they were doing there and had an interest in their responsibilities?
Bell: You know, we’re over there playing Wiffle Ball and taking tours and stuff like that, but we also got up to do (physical training) with them and did the simulators. I think they appreciated that we weren’t just standing around and kind of just hanging out.
Ensch: It shows you’re not just standing there watching them do it. Servicemen take a lot of pride in what they do, and to have us, the civilian population — the taxpayers, if you will — come and let them show you what their tax dollars really do and show they’re really proud of what they’re doing. … These 18-, 19-, 20-year old kids with all that responsibility, and they don’t get to talk about it much because they’re all in the same boat. To be able to tell people what they’re doing and take pride in it like that is a tremendous boost to their morale.
FSAZ: So this was obviously about taking spring training to them, but what was the biggest thing you took away from the experience?
Bell: What we forget about is the families that have to travel with them. Some of the kids want to be major league baseball players, but they only play other bases. They don’t have Little League, they don’t have sports in high school, so it’s really hard for them to idolize anybody except for their parents, who can be shipped off to another country while they stay there in Germany. My dad was a Marine, so I kind of understand a little bit, but I never had to go overseas or anything.
Brenly: I don’t know if I could even put it into words. It’s one thing to dedicate your life to a game, to go play baseball, and don’t get me wrong — it involves a lot of hard work, a lot of heartaches, at times a lot of stress and strain. But you go somewhere like that and you look at what these people go through on a daily basis, and their commitment and their dedication is just off the charts. In a way it kind of makes you a little ashamed that we don’t appreciate it even more.
FSAZ: What’s the most memorable story or encounter, be it funny or touching, you had during the trip that will stick with you the most?
Brenly: We had dinner with the brass on the base and I had the opportunity to sit next to a master sniper. I’ve always been an outdoorsman — I like to hunt, I like to fish — so I started asking about how do you become a master sniper, how much do you practice. He started telling me stories, and I sat there with my jaw on the table the whole night. We didn’t talk baseball one time. That was by far a huge highlight for me, getting to talk to him. We also played a Wiffle Ball game with the troops. That was probably the most fun we had over there. I was the manager of our team, and I got into two arguments, almost got ejected from a friendly Wiffle Ball game. They kind of said, ‘We’d love to see you get on the umps if you can,’ and the troops loved it, they went crazy.
Ensch: I talked to this one family, and this woman’s husband was gone and she had two children there. She was holding things together there while he was deployed, and it really hit me, because that’s the way my wife was with our three children when I was deployed and when I was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for the last eight months of the war. My wife was both mother and father, taking care of everything. And it struck me how upbeat this woman was. She knew it was a possibility her husband might not come back, but she didn’t dwell on that. She was so proud of him and what he was doing over there — and the children were too. So that was my highlight, talking to her. It was almost like reliving my own life in the military when my wife was doing the same thing while I was gone.