Indians give veteran memorable Fourth of July

CLEVELAND — Rick Strong thought he was going to be spending a relaxing July 4 with his four buddies watching the Indians-Royals game at Progressive Field. It ended up turning into an experience he won’t forget anytime soon.

On a night when the Indians honored fallen, current and future members of the U.S. military as part of its Homestand Heroes event, the Army Major was selected to throw out the first pitch before Friday’s game. Strong, who has served in the Army for 14 years, did not know until his wife gave him the ball on the field.

"It was surprise after surprise and ended up with the first pitch," Strong said. "I asked my wife a couple times if I was throwing out the first pitch and she said no. I said ‘good, because that we would make me nervous.’ Then (as they were down on the field before the announcement) she gave me the ball and told me I was."

When he arrived at the ballpark on Friday, Strong thought he was just going to be interviewed for a pregame feature. He ended up being surprised with his wife, parents and other family members. Strong’s wife, Nikki, worked with the Indians to set up the whole day along with the first pitch.

"I ruin surprises all the time because I can read people and tell what it is going on but this was a total and complete surprise," he said. "It was definitely an honor to do this."

The first pitch came right after the Indians honored the Derga family of Columbus and TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors). The Dergas lost their son, Corporal Dustin A. Derga, in Iraq in 2005. Color guards from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard were also present for the National Anthem.

Following the game, which the Indians lost 7-1 before a sold out crowd of 39,020, and before the fireworks show, new military recruits from various branches participated in an on-field enlistment ceremony.

First Pitch Photo Gallery

Strong, who grew up in Parma, graduated from West Point in 2000. Besides teaching at the U.S. Military Academy, he has served at Fort Hood (Texas) and Fort Stewart (Georgia) along with doing two deployments each to Iran and Afghanistan. He finished his recent tour this past January.

Major League Baseball has taken a greater emphasis on honoring the military during Memorial Day and July 4. This year players wore Stars and Stripes caps with American League teams wearing red and National League wearing blue. So that meant for one day the Royals were in red caps and the Reds were in navy blue.

"I wanted to serve my country and I enjoy what I do," Strong said. "For Major League Baseball to honor the military with the uniform and hats has been amazing."

SWISHER HONORED BEFORE GAME: Indians first baseman/designated hitter Nick Swisher was honored before the game as one of the six finalists for the Bob Feller Act of Valor Award. Fellers’ widow, Anne, also participated.

"Any time your name is in the same sentence as Bob Feller and everything he stood and did for the game it is an honor," Swisher said. "Just to be a part of the nomination, not only me but my wife who is a major part of what we do. I could not be more happy."

Swisher has participated in USO tours to Afghanistan for forward-deployed troops and is active in the Wounded Warrior Project and Operation Homefront. Swisher and his wife, Joanna, also visited troops in Afghanistan during Thanksgiving in 2011.

That visit continues to have an effect on Swisher today.

"We went with the Undersecretary of the Army at the time and I thought it was a USO Tour. We’ll go to a couple of bases and it will be safe. It was nothing like that at all," he said. "We went to 14 Forward Operating Bases where the fight takes place. Spent most of the trip in helicopters going from place to place. I’ve never been in an Apache or Chinook or cargo planes that they have. Just to be a part of it and to do our part to recognize what they do. Anyone can write a check. To go face to face and thank them for what we do. I’m not going to lie to you I was scared (stiff). Just to be able to have the honor and privilege was amazing.

"You land full geared up and run. We get into the safe zone and one of the soldiers with an AK asking me what I’m doing here. They were like ‘no one has ever been here.’ I think he meant a celebrity. It was definitely tense but something I was proud to do."

The other MLB finalists are Kansas City’s Billy Butler, Washington’s Adam LaRoche, Milwaukee’s Jonathan Lucroy, Pittsburgh’s Charlie Morton and Arizona’s Brad Ziegler.

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