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Military Baseball Players Hopeful for Renewed Latin America Tour

Por Dialogo
março 11, 2011



MIAMI – U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Eric Santana is always looking for a few good
men, especially if they are good with a glove and have a quick bat.
The U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) established a unique Latin American
goodwill mission four years ago to promote the U.S. military’s commitment to the
region.
The Friendship Baseball Tour is an opportunity for U.S. service members to
interact with citizens in the region who share a common passion for the game. In
2008 and 2009, the SOUTHCOM baseball team held clinics for Little League players,
conducted outreach events and played several exhibition games against military,
police and local professional teams.
“The program is much more than just baseball,” said Santana, who has overseen
the program since its inception. “We're thinking outside of the box here. We have
partner nations out there and we want to prove we have more in common than just
sharing a military base together. We're using baseball to bridge the gap.”
In 2008, the program partnered with the U.S. Military All-Stars and set out
on a multi-week baseball tour that visited the Dominican Republic, Panama and
Nicaragua. The next year, the SOUTHCOM baseball team grew in numbers and the tour
expanded to Honduras and Chile along with stops in the three previous countries.
The baseball tour was canceled in 2010 due to SOUTHCOM's immediate assistance
and committed response to Haiti following the country's devastating earthquake.
It remains to be seen if the program will continue this spring, but everyone
involved is hoping for another baseball tour so U.S. service members alike can
rekindle the rivalry that started three years ago.
“It was an extreme pleasure to work with the U.S. Military and I know
everyone in Latin America was more than happy with the tour's success,” said Elias
Sosa, who played with eight different Major League Baseball clubs over a 12-year
professional career and managed the SOUTHCOM team during its visits to the Dominican
Republic and Nicaragua.
“I was born and raised in the Dominican Republic and I know that in certain
parts of Latin America, the U.S. Military isn't seen in the best of light. But
because of tours like this, people got to see the military men with their own eyes.
Wherever we went, we left a legacy of respect for the Latin American people.”
Sosa has no military background. but is an expert when it comes to playing
baseball in this part of the world. He is the MLB Latin American coordinator and
it's his mission to develop the sport through baseball seminars, clinics, sending
equipment and setting up exhibition games.
When the SOUTHCOM team needed a baseball-savvy manager from the region to
help bridge the gap, Sosa was the clear choice.
Without a robust internal baseball program, SOUTHCOM was assisted by the U.S.
Military All-Stars in 2008. The Starting 9 Foundation and its US9 Armed Forces
Baseball program has volunteered its time and personnel to help prepare the SOUTHCOM
team accomplish its mission.
The SOUTHCOM baseball team was formed specifically to perform a unique
mission, Santana said. Just like its command, the baseball team is a true joint and
inter-agency team. It has players from the Marine Corps, Army, Air Force, Navy and
Coast Guard while integrating MLB, DoD and non-DoD civilians into its staff. “With
the current operational tempo across the services, we have been very fortunate to
have a number of different commands from across the spectrum provide players to help
accomplish our mission,” Santana said.

Gracious Hosts

Aside from the quality baseball being played on the diamond, Santana said the
U.S. servicemen involved get an up-close-and-personal perspective of life in the
counties they visit.
“The competition was strong because when people heard that the U.S. military
was here to play baseball, everyone showed up to the stadium,” Sosa said. “But it
was the time spent away from baseball that really made the tour a success. Our guys
brought a lot of character and they treated people with respect. These Latin
American people need to feel that. They don't get to see it too often.”
Depending on the time available, the team usually sat down with the host
country's team for a luncheon or dinner ceremony the day before or after a game.
Camaraderie usually developed during these events as language barriers rarely got in
the way.
"We all speak the language of baseball," said retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Terry
"Crash" Allvord of the U.S. Military All-Stars. "Eating with the other teams was
great because it reminded our guys that we have many more responsibilities besides
just playing the game. They always were gracious hosts to us and for our younger
guys, who may have never played in front of a crowded stadium, it was quite an
experience."
When the Dominican Armed Forces team hosted the SOUTHCOM squad for a dinner
before their game in 2008, a friendly rivalry sparked immediately.
“At first, the language barrier was evident with only a few bilingual
SOUTHCOM players,” Santana remembered. “But once the food was served and the
Dominican Armed Forces band started playing music, the two teams behaved like old
friends. They started to scout each other and figure out who played what position.”
Very quickly, Santana realized the tour would be a success as the Dominican
Armed Forces and SOUTHCOM teams shared stories and interacted in ways different from
a normal military exercise.
Plenty of planning and cooperation was needed from foreign embassies to aide
the tour. Maj Marvin Loera and Thomas Mesa of the Panamanian Embassy played vital
roles during the team's trips in 2008 and 2009, but could not be reached for comment
because they were traveling.
When the SOUTHCOM baseball team visited different countries, former MLB
players who reside in the host country usually lent a helping hand. Sosa filled that
role during the first two tours and he said he would gladly do it again.
“If I was invited again, it would be another fantastic experience,” he said.
“I was so proud of our guys and the people loved them.”
Omar Moreno (Panama) and Pedro Guerrero (Dominican Republic) combined to play
25 years in the majors and have assumed similar coaching roles when the SOUTHCOM
team visited their respective countries.

Fierce Competition

For the past 20 years, the U.S. Military All-Stars have gone from coast to
coast spreading patriotism to appreciative Americans on the baseball diamond. But
when Allvord's joint-forces All-Star baseball team took its game global in 2008, the
pressure to win was magnified.
"The language of baseball is understood worldwide," Allvord said. "The most
important thing is when we visit these countries in Central America and the
Caribbean, we have to take a talented team."
The team’s first Latin America tour in 2008 lasted a month ─ with no days of
for sight seeing ─ and included games in multiple cities in Chile, the Dominican
Republic, Panama, Nicaragua and Honduras.
"When we played in Panama, the crowd was disappointed because we lost and it
was a blowout," Allvord said. "They appreciate good baseball. When you go there
without a quality team and lose by double digits, they take it as disrespect."

Coming together

The joint-forces All-Star team gives military members ─ both retired and
active ─ the chance to travel and play baseball in front of American and foreign
crowds. The gratitude the service members receive at the events, however, is only a
small part of their reason for being there.
The ovations and cheers are nice, but Army Ranger Lt. Karl Seiter said the
connection the group makes with fans worldwide is what stuck out to him during the
2009 tour.
"They really interact with you," Seiter told MLB.com. "It's a face to the
masses I guess. They hear about all these Army guys and these Marine guys, but this
gives us a face."
Getting players on the field at the same time can be a daunting task,
especially with many desired players deployed in war zones.
"These are guys that are current military personnel who take time off of
their schedule and they travel on their own dime," American Defenders of New
Hampshire team spokeswoman Jodi Callinan told BaseballAmerica.com
"They want to go tour and they may have a catcher that's part of the Marine
Corps and the pitcher might be from the Navy. The second baseman might be part of
the Army and the first baseman might be part of the National Guard and they take
their leave time to travel around the country and play baseball."
Even though the home crowd in Latin America wants to see their team win,
Allvord said the same feeling of camaraderie consumes the people in the stands after
each game.
"Once we go through our pre-game ceremony and start to connect with the
crowd, I'd say 99 percent of the people there are Military All-Star fans by the end
of the game," Allvord said. "In the States, that is just a natural reaction. When we
pull it off in these other countries, that becomes special."
Sosa said Americans have never even set foot in certain parts of Nicaragua
before the SOUTHCOM baseball team showed up during the first two baseball tours.
“There was a little intimidation factor, but our men played solid baseball
and the people in the stands responded with respect,” said Sosa, whose team split a
two-day doubleheader with a Nicaraguan team that featured professional players.
“They came to play and they wanted to beat the Americans. By the end of the games,
everyone was happy.”
The host countries rarely pull any punches when playing the U.S. servicemen.
The Military All-Stars do take on other countries' joint forces teams, but
Honduras matched up a few professional teams with the U.S. servicemen in 2008 and
Panama picked two of the best players from each pro squad another time to take on
the Americans.
"The Panama professional All-Star team was very strong," Allvord remembered.
"The crowd was crazy and like all of these visits, we definitely were the underdogs.
We only had three pitchers that tour so it was difficult."

How Military All-Stars Got Started

While attending flight school in Pensacola, Fla. More than 20 years ago,
Allvord had dinner with President George H.W. Bush. During the meal, President Bush
talked about his days playing baseball at Yale and how important the sport had been
for morale during World War II. As the evening wore on, the president asked Allvord,
a young officer at time, how the baseball team was doing.
Allvord responded by saying he thought baseball was another casualty of
Vietnam.
"That's too bad," President Bush said. "Someone should do something about
that."
The proverbial light bub lit up in Allvord's head. He took it upon himself to
follow President Bush's suggestion and, the very next day, placed a note card in the
base gym announcing tryouts. A few weeks later, 150 players turned out and a league
was formed with 10 teams. The league had an annual All-Star game, which sparked the
idea for the U.S. Military All-Stars.
Over the years, the league grew as Allvord piloted it into a de facto minor
league system for the military. More than 25,000 men and women have participated in
the program, including a few current minor leaguers like Padres' right-handed
pitcher Cooper Brannan, who San Diego signed even after a grenade blew several
fingers off the former marine's left hand during his second tour of duty in Iraq.
Brannan, 26, spent 2008 pitching for Rookie-level Eugene (Northwest League),
where he went 1-0 with a 6.33 ERA over 21 innings. The Athletics drafted catcher
Jonathan Johnston in the 42nd round of the 2007 MLB Draft out of the Naval Academy,
and he spent 2008 with low Class A Kane County (Midwest), where he hit .228 in 114
plate appearances. Outfielder Johnny Hernandez played in the Cardinals' organization
from 1999 to 2003 and the list goes on and on.
"We have guys that will serve their country and if they're good enough, we
will help them get to the next level," said Allvord, who has assisted 35 of his
former players to get drafted over the last two years.
The Military All-Stars took on the Boston Red Sox last year and only fell
2-0. The year before, Allvord said his squad beat the San Diego Padres and have
championed many independent professional leagues over the years.
"The quality of baseball is there," Allvord said. "It's just a matter of
transitioning it to these international tours."
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