Bringing spring training to the troops

FOX Sports Detroit

I’ve always felt that we should do all we can to support our military, both at home and abroad.

So when Greg Hammaren, the general manager of FOX Sports Detroit, asked me if I would like to represent our region on a trip to Germany, bringing “Spring Training to the Troops,” I jumped at the opportunity.

This past week, I joined major leaguers Heath Bell and Luke Gregerson, along with Rollie Fingers, Tim Salmon, Bob Brenly, Wade Boggs, David Justice and other representatives on a trip to the U.S. Army Garrison in Grafenwoehr, Germany.

The mission was to spend some time with our troops and bring baseball to them. It was an opportunity of a lifetime and the experience did not disappoint.

Despite some travel difficulties that forced us to arrive a bit late, we jumped right into the activities on Tuesday.

Day 1 featured a baseball clinic for kids of military families that live on the base. Learning the game from current and former Major League players was a dream come true for many of the kids.

I’m sure being a military child can be difficult, with all of the constant moving and having one or both parents deployed. The clinic provided a sense of stability for the moms, dads and their kids.

Upon my arrival, I watched and assisted as Heath Bell taught kids the finer points of pitching. When Bell had to leave for a few minutes to tape a Public Service Announcement, I was asked to fill in.

I thought to myself, “I can teach these kids some announcing tricks, but showing them proper pitching mechanics?”  

In any event, I defaulted to the days of my youth-baseball coaching and rifled off every coaching cliché I could remember. From finding your “balance point” to pointing your glove toward the target, I used them all.

The results weren’t pretty. My first two campers struggled with their footwork and fired every single pitch to the back wall.

Fortunately, Bell finished his PSA and returned just in time to announce, “I don’t know what you’re teaching them, Coach Mario, but step aside.” I gladly did.

For the record, I did redeem myself with Gregerson’s group. My first camper threw six straight strikes. Tigers Pitching Coach Jeff Jones would have been proud.

At the conclusion of the clinic, we hustled back to our rooms to get ready for dinner with local military leaders, including Col. James Saenz. He reiterated how excited they were to host us and how thankful he was that we traveled as far as we did to spend some time with his troops.

As dinner began to wind down, we were given our marching orders for Day 2. FOX representative Lindsay Amstutz told us that we would be participating in a physical-training workout with the troops.

“We meet in the lobby at 5:30 a.m.,” she said. “Dress warm. You’ll be outdoors.”

Cool. Wait, what? Did she utter the words “outdoors” and “5:30 a.m.” in the same sentence?

The next morning, I dragged my jet-lagged body out of a warm bed and stumbled downstairs where Boggs, Salmon, Brenly, Fingers and Justice were already waiting. Show offs.

After a five minute bus ride to the exercise area of the Garrison, it was time to fall in with a group of soldiers who looked like they were salivating at the thought of getting their hands on a load of out-of-shape civilians.

After being informed that we would participate in an exercise-circuit program that would feature running, push-ups, stretching and various other calisthenics, I began to get the feeling that this would not end well. I don’t know, maybe the fact that it was 20 degrees and snowing hard had something to do with that, too.

I was determined to show them what I was made of. Unfortunately, I was made of goo. Forty push-ups in, and halfway through the circuit, I decided that there was only one way that I would survive — cheat.

Typically, I frown upon breaking the rules, but that doesn’t matter when you’re doing push-ups outdoors on ice and snow-covered cement at 5:30 in the morning. In Germany. With the U.S. Army. And FOX filming it.

From that point on, I slithered to the back line of the group, out of the sergeant’s view, and participated only when the FOX cameras were on me. That way I looked like I could hang with the best military in the world and would live to see the rest of the day.

Fortunately, the sergeant got a kick out of my charade and let me slide. I’m pretty sure he didn’t want to see my heart stop, either.

Although some in our group did better than others, it gave me a vivid appreciation of how well-trained our soldiers are.

We ended the session by passing out T-shirts, caps and baseballs, and the major leaguers signed a lot of autographs. The soldiers were great sports. They put up with us bungling through their training session and told us how happy they were to see us.

The remainder of Day 2 featured the big leaguers participating in a wiffle ball game between two separate units.

I was also given the opportunity to interview Lt. Gen. Donald Campbell before the game. I’ve had a chance to interview a lot of baseball’s greatest players over the years, but interviewing a U.S. Army General was on a different level.

After the game, we were given an opportunity to experience some of the virtual training our troops engage in. With a video screen in front of me, I was selected to be the gunner.

I listened as our commander barked out orders over a headset. The exercise simulated being part of a convoy in enemy territory. The results were alarming. We ran into a tree and I took out only one insurgent, pretty much put our vehicle in peril the entire exercise.

If only my son were there, he would have wiped out the enemy with his advance video-game skills. Again, it gave us a chance to experience the detailed training our troops receive before they do it for real.

Day 3 was just as packed as the first two. We made a stop at a transitional facility designed to help our injured troops assimilate back into society or return to active duty.

A ride in an armored fighting vehicle called a Stryker and a visit to the 2nd Cavalry Regiment Reed Museum highlighted the day.

Throughout the trip, I learned that every soldier has his or her story.

I met a young man from Texas who was constantly getting in trouble with the law and wanted to set a better example for his young brother, so he enlisted.

I spoke with a retired military father who didn’t want his son to enlist because he didn’t want his boy to see the things he saw in combat. His son enlisted anyway and now dad could not be more proud.

I met a young woman who loves the Tigers. She suffered back and eye injuries in combat and is in a facility designed to transition her back into society. Having served her country, all she wants is to get married and start a family.

As the trip came to a close, it was difficult to leave the people we had become friends with the previous three days.

I think our entire group was thankful for the opportunity to get a glimpse of what military life overseas is like. FOX Sports can be proud of the initiative. Our troops constantly reminded us of how much they appreciated  what we did for them.

The truth is, what they do for us is far more important.