Purple Heart baseball game returns to Angel Stadium
MAY 17, 2014 3:09p ET
DOWNEY, Calif. -- Rick Rodriguez Jr. will tell you he's blessed. He feels that way, in part, because of the support around him.
That support has helped him get back to leading a normal life.
Rodriguez Jr. was deployed three times as a member of the United States Army -- twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. His injuries include a slipped disk in his back and a dislocated hip. Both required surgery.
But when he was doing all that, he was with what he considers his team in Afghanistan.
Like many members of the armed forces, when he returned home he was left with battle scars, emotional scars, and the feeling of being alone.
The blessing came in his family.
“I'm telling you, you ain't broken and you can play baseball.”
"I have a big family who helped me when I came home," Rodriguez Jr. said. "They didn't let me sit home and not do something."
With the help of family, he worked himself into being active again. And then he got to work on his next task.
His father fell ill and asked him to return to help run the family business. Rodriguez Jr. obliged under one condition: Dad had to help him find a way to help vets.
That led to Rodriguez Jr. starting a program in which he helped, he estimates, 175 veterans find jobs.
In the process he was told about a coach, Lou Rivera, who had an idea of helping veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder through baseball. Rodriguez Jr. grew up playing baseball and thought it was a great idea but he had no idea to get it off of the ground.
He then met Ernie Medina who had an idea of purple heart recipients playing baseball. Rodriguez Jr. already had the coach, Rivera, and the players and was nearly ready to get started.
In Texas, Rodriguez Jr. had a friend who served with him during his second tour of duty who was working as a federal police officer at Fort Sam Houston, home to the wounded warriors of the Army.
He asked his buddy, turned federal police officer, to look around for some veterans interested in playing baseball. There were 20 veterans who expressed interest, although it was very mild because since returning to the States, they all got accustomed to playing softball.
Rodriguez Jr. and his father flew to Texas to meet with the veterans who were interested. Most of them had grew up playing baseball but didn't believe it would be possible to make a return to the sport.
"What do you mean, play baseball?" they asked Rodriguez Jr. "We play softball."
Rodriguez Jr. had an answer.
"You grew up playing baseball and then you went to war and you got hurt and everybody told you you're broken and you can't play baseball no more," Rodriguez Jr. retorted. "I'm telling you, you ain't broken and you can play baseball."
The players hopped in the batting cages and after hitting a few balls, they were sold. They realized they could, indeed, play baseball.
"You (darn) right you can play baseball," Rodriguez Jr. told the veterans. "The only people told us we're broken was other people. They ain't us. We did all kinds of stuff. We can do whatever we want."
Split up into two teams, the Army vs. the Marines, the first Purple Heart Baseball Game was held at Angel Stadium last season.
Sunday following the Angels' series finale with the Rays, they will play again for the second consecutive year at Angel Stadium. The Army team is town from Texas and coached by Rodriguez Jr. Rivera coaches the Marines team based in Southern California.
"Getting out, being around people, experiencing new things, being with guys that understand when you start talking to them -- it helps rather you trying to explain to somebody who doesn't know," said Nico Detour, a purple heart recipient after being struck in the neck in Afghanistan as a member of the U.S. Marines. "The only people that understand is people that been there."
Sports are powerful, Rodriguez Jr., says. He contends when the wounded warriors were deployed, they were a part of a team. Purple Heart Baseball gives them the opportunity to once again be a part of a team. That's very beneficial to their ability to, once again, lead a normal life.
"I'm a blessed person," Rodriguez Jr. said. "I knew what helped me stay sane. It was my family. It was the team atmosphere around me. I just felt like some of the guys I was meeting, they weren't coming outside or maybe they were divorced or maybe they were having some issues at home or whatever and I just felt like when we started putting them together they started getting motivated again, they started playing sports again, being the guy they were before and that's all that mattered to me."
Rodriguez Jr. will tell you he's blessed. He's since taken that to be a blessing to others.