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November 11, 2011

Wezen-Ball

Honoring Veterans' Day

by Larry Granillo

This is a piece that I originally wrote and published (on the Wezen-Ball blog) two years ago, while my brother was stationed in Iraq as a captain in the Army. Thankfully, my brother is home now and celebrating his second Veterans' Day as a true, retired vet. It's something we're grateful for everyday. But that only underscores to me just how important our veterans truly are. On this Veterans' Day, I'd like us to take another moment to recognize who these fathers/mothers, sons/daughters, and husbands/wives really are. Hope you don't mind the repost.

Today is Veterans' Day, and I wanted to take the time to thank every veteran out there for all that you have done for us and for all that you have sacrificed for us. It is a tough, seemingly-thankless job, and we all appreciate what you do. So thank you.

I also wanted to take the time here to explore baseball's ties to the military and to war. We all know the tales of Ted Williams and Bob Feller and all the other major leaguers who went off to fight in World War II - books upon books have been written on those guys - and so I was hoping to find something a little more rare, a little different. I spent all yesterday evening browsing through old newspapers, magazines, books, and photos, just looking for the right one to use as inspiration. One that would be entertaining and intriguing, and that would remind us just how important military veterans are to our lives. In this day and age, the hundreds of thousands of soldiers overseas can sometimes be an afterthought. This wasn't always so, and I thought that, by finding the right story to tell, I might be able to remind a few people of that.

You see, Veterans' Day is important to me. Much of my family has been in the military at one time or another (one uncle just finished a 25+ year stint in the Air Force, for example), and my brother is currently a captain in the Army. He is serving his second tour of duty in Iraq as we speak (Camp Taji, about 20 km north of Baghdad). Not only does that mean that he's been in harm's way for 24 of the last 36 months, it also means that his wonderful family - his wife and three daughters - has been without him as a father and husband for that period. And, believe me, that's a huge sacrifice.

After spending a few hours looking through all those different sources for just the right story, I still couldn't find it. I don't know - maybe I just didn't know how to search for the story I wanted, or maybe I didn't know what it was I was looking for well enough. Whatever the case, when I went to bed last night, I didn't know what I was going to write about today. But then it occurred to me: today is important to me, as it is to millions of other people out there, because of my family - because of my brother. So why not tell a quick story about baseball, him and me? Sounds good to me...

My formative years, in terms of my love for baseball at least, spanned ages 8 through 11. At that time, my family (with five kids) was quite poor, and we lived in apartments. I don't know the exact reasons - I would guess the annual rent increases - but we would move from one apartment complex to another about every two years. In fact, until I was 15 or 16, I don't think I ever celebrated more than two Christmases in a row in the same home. Not that I'm complaining. I knew we were poor, of course, but I rarely felt it. Which, for a kid, is great.

My two older brothers and I had plenty to keep us busy, but what we came back to most often was baseball and baseball cards. This was the late '80s, so packs of cards were still only 50 cents, affordable(ish) even to a bunch of poor kids. We'd make the trek to the Payless Drug Store around the corner every chance we could to pick up a pack or two of the beautifully blue-bordered 1988 Donruss, with it's Warren Spahn puzzle pieces and wonderfully illustrated Diamond Kings (Kal Daniels! Scott Fletcher! Tommy John!), or the still-classic 1988 and 1989 Topps (how many Gregg Jefferies' "Future Stars" cards could a kid get?!). Of course, "every chance we could" to us was maybe twice a month. Fifty cents wasn't a lot of money, but it's not like quarters were falling out of the sky either.

One of the best birthday presents I ever remember getting was in 1989. Casey, the brother currently in Iraq, was only 11 at the time, but he had had a paper route all summer, delivering the Fresno Bee to the entire complex (easily 200 units). For my birthday that October, he spent some of his paper-route money on a present, which was pretty special in itself. We weren't exactly in the habit of buying each other birthday presents. When I opened it, my jaw just about dropped to the floor. He had gotten me a full wax-box of the 1989 Topps set! That's 36 packs. I probably didn't even get 36 packs of cards all summer, and now I was getting them all at once! These things were expensive - a small fortune, I imagined - and I was ecstatic. I doubt I hugged him or anything, but I'm certain I stammered "ThankYouThankYouThankYou!" and then spent the next few hours opening packs and admiring and sorting my new stack of cards. I still have detailed memories of those cards because of that one box.

But what I remember most about that time was playing baseball with my brothers. The three of us would take our bat, ball, and glove and hike out to the vacant lot past the set of apartment complexes. It was a nice, mostly green field. To the left was a rarely-used back-street and a big, concrete wall separating the neighborhood from the freeway down below. To the right was the edge of the apartment complex, including the two complex pools. We'd often play ball while listening to everyone swim on a hot summer day. Straight-ahead of us, and what seemed like 1,000 feet away, was the wooden fence that marked the rearline of the neighborhood houses. There was also a chainlink fence/gate deep down the rightfield line. Both of those fences were way out-of-reach for a small kid like myself, though, on a good day, one of my brothers might be able to get close.

The games played out as one might expect a baseball game between three kids would. My two older brothers would represent the opposing teams, and I would float between them. I would usually be "all-time pitcher" so that whichever brother was currently on defense could play the outfield, though I do remember being "all-time batter" occasionally (but I have no idea how that worked anymore). We had a system worked out for when a ball would be an automatic out or when it would be in-play. We ran the bases ourselves on the hits, but resorted to ghostrunners after the end of each play ("One out, ghostrunner on second, four-to-two!"). It was a fantastic time, and I don't remember ever turning down an offer to play.

Eventually, we moved away from that apartment complex to a house in the country. It was nice to finally live in a house, no matter how old and creaky it was, but leaving that field really put a kink in things. We still played ball in the new yard, but it was a pretty different experience. Plus, my brothers were getting a little too old to put up with their little brother in a silly kids game. Eventually, we stopped playing.

A few years ago, my brother and his family were stationed close enough to everyone in California that we three brothers got to hang out one Christmas. One morning that week, the three of us took a bat, some balls, and a couple of gloves to the ballfield on base. We weren't playing the same game that we had as kids - no ghostrunners that morning - but it was still a blast to once again have a little batting practice together. I can say with certainty that, if it weren't for those ballgames and our collective love of baseball cards when we were young, I would not have the love of the game that I have today. And it took all three of us to make that happen.

On this Veterans' Day, I hope you take the time to remember all of the men and women in the armed services around the world. Whether they're stationed abroad or at home, in an active military-zone or at a base far from the fire, these are fathers/mothers, sons/daughters, and husbands/wives who are doing what is best for their families and their country and who are sacrificing a lot - more than we can imagine, really - to do so. Please thank them and honor them. And to my brother, Capt. Casey Granillo, we thank you, we love you, and we can't wait to have you home. Stay safe and we'll see you soon.

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