#FOXSportsSalutes: Spring Training to the Troops
FEB 06, 2014 2:41a ET
FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Before the sun rose over the world’s largest Army installation Wednesday morning, four current and former Major League Baseball players and eight FOX Sports Girls had dragged themselves out of bed and lined up for physical readiness training alongside several hundred officers in training on a soggy field outside the installation’s NCO (Noncommissioned Officer) Academy.
Elsewhere on post, three more FOX Sports girls and another trio of players, including former big-league utility man and current Royals TV analyst Rex Hudler, had taken their positions behind the grill at a nearby dining facility, serving breakfast to a cafeteria full of troops, most of whom had already finished their PRT (Physical Readiness Training) for the day.
And so began FOX Sports’ Spring Training to the Troops, a whirlwind two-day goodwill tour that gives FOX talent an opportunity to embed themselves within the nation’s armed services while offering soldiers a reprieve, however brief, from the often thankless duty of serving in the military.
“It was great being able to serve the soldiers at breakfast,” said Hudler, who spent 13 years in the pros with six different teams before transitioning to the broadcast booth. “I loved that so much that I want to go back tomorrow morning and do it again. They serve us, and it was so nice, for one small moment, to be able to serve them.”
After a stop by the post’s famed “Iron Mike” statue, FOX’s brigade sat in on a command brief with Major General Clarence Chinn, then moved on to a school assembly at Albritton Junior High School, one of 11 elementary and middle schools within the installation.
There, several of the other players on the trip, including Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer, retired relief pitcher Chris Hammond and former journeyman shortstop Royce Clayton shared their stories and answered questions from the students, each of whom have grown up in the military, and many of whom have had to combat the difficulty of having a parent deployed overseas.
“I feel like that’s one of the reasons why I’m here on this earth, to use my platform to positively impact as many lives as I can,” Archer said. “So if I impacted one or two today, my goal was met. The looks on their faces and the eagerness and the innocence of those children in there had a great impact on me, so it was a dual benefit.”
Perhaps the most emotional moment of the hour-long presentation came when Hudler, who was also serving as the event’s emcee, took a moment to recognize the school’s special needs children, a group near and dear to Hudler’s heart. Hudler’s 17-year-old son, Cade, was born with Down syndrome, and he and his wife run a non-profit organization called Team Up for Down Syndrome, which spreads awareness about the condition.
“When I looked out in that audience of those kids and saw a couple special needs kids, that warmed my heart,” Hudler said. “I wasn’t planning on sharing (the story about Cade), but I told those kids, ‘You need to continue to embrace those kids with disabilities,’ because those kids enhance everybody else. And for you to accept them and accept their differences is wonderful.”
After the assembly, which featured a meet-and-greet and autograph session for the school’s baseball and softball players, the group headed to lunch, where the players and girls had an opportunity to visit with some of the post’s nearly 60,000 active-duty soldiers. For many, that simple interaction turns out to be the highlight of the trip.
“I did (last year’s Spring Training to the Troops trip) in Grafenwoehr, Germany, and we were at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, this summer, and every time you go on one of these military trips you’re excited for what you’re going to bring to them,” said FOX Sports Midwest Girl Kayla. “You think you’re going to reward them in some way, and it always turns out to be the opposite; they always end up rewarding us somehow.
“They’re so gracious and welcoming and love to tell their stories of where they’ve been and where they’re going. They love serving their country, and it makes it all the more real and all the more worthwhile.”
Competition took center stage at the tour’s first stop of the afternoon, a visit to the installation’s parachute-packing facility, a massive warehouse that packed and distributed more than 70,000 parachutes last year.
After a demonstration from four packers, known as riggers, each of the players and girls took part in a race — along with a little help — to see who could pack their own parachute the fastest. In the end, it was FOX Sports Southwest Girl Kaime who came out on top, just ahead of Miami Marlins lefty Mike Dunn.
“We joked that, ‘Oh, would you jump out of your own chute you just packed,’ but (the riggers) literally are so important,” said Kaime, quick to note that the parachutes packed in the demonstration were not to ever be used. “Those guys are trusting that you put the effort and put the work in, and they are going to jump out of a plane knowing the hard work you put into it and it’s going to be successful and they’re going to be OK.”
Fort Bragg’s Medical Simulation Training Center marked the next stop on the tour, where the crew learned to apply tourniquets and bandages before either viewing a demonstration on the safe removal of injured soldiers from a combat zone or tackling an obstacle course that featured everything from a barbed wire crawl through mud to an eight-foot climbing wall to dodging paintballs in simulation combat.
By late afternoon, the convoy had made its way to Tolson Youth Center, where the girls and the players put on a four-station baseball clinic for more than 100 young children. The camp gave opportunities to learn batting with Jose Tolentino, who had a cup of coffee in the majors and is a renowned coach in his native Mexico; throwing with Archer; fielding with Hudler and Dave Nelson and pitching with Hammond and Dunn while their parents watched on.
“The kids here, they’re most likely not going to be professional baseball players, and when I was working with them, I wasn’t expecting some kid to come in here and throw 95 miles per hour,” said Hammond, who last pitched in 2006 with the Cincinnati Reds.
“I knew when I was working with those kids that it was working from the ground up, teaching them how to throw, teaching them how to get out there and practice and have fun. That’s what they want. They just want a Major League Baseball player to come and spend time with them. They don’t expect to be a Nolan Ryan or a Roger Clemens.”
Among the children in the clinic were some from gold-star families. Families are presented with gold star lapel pins when a spouse is killed in combat, and for Hammond, it’s the families who aren’t in combat who need the most support.
“When I went to Afghanistan three or four years ago, we got in contact with a chaplain and he invited us to come to a church service, and before it started we stood up and he goes, ‘Would you like to say a quick few words?’” Hammond said. “So I got up there and spoke a little bit about where our world is today, and when I was finished, I go, ‘Can I get some prayer requests, because I pray for you guys all the time.’”
“But one of the guys stood up and said, ‘Excuse me, sir, you don’t have to pray for us, we signed up for this. Please pray for our families. My wife is at home with three kids and no help. Pray for my family.’ It broke my heart. At all of the churches and with all the people I know, it’s ‘Please pray for our troops, pray for our soldiers.’ Nobody ever says to pray for their families, and those are the people who need it more than anybody. It was powerful, it was awesome.”
Finally, the day concluded with a dinner at Fort Bragg Club and a draft for a Thursday wiffle ball game pitting teams of soldiers and FOX players and girls against one another. But, as was the case for most of the day, the most important parts of the stop came in the simple interactions with soldiers and family members who simply appreciate the change of pace.
“I’ve always respected everything that the military does for this country, but to get a hands-on account of what they do and what they go through and how hard they work, it just allows me to have a greater appreciation for everything overall,” Archer said. “I had an appreciation before, but this heightens it and magnifies it 100 times.”
Added Kaime: “You can’t sign up for this; you can’t just say, ‘Hey, I want to tour Fort Bragg and be in the middle of this.’ This is amazing to get to see some of the things we’ve seen. It’s unbelievable, and it’s life-changing.”