03/28/2004 1:55 AM ET
Yankees visit military base
By Barry Bloom / MLB.com
TOKYO -- Sonya Colao brought her 7-year-old son and her husband's New York Yankees cap to the Camp Zama gym on Sunday. She was hoping to see Yankees manager Joe Torre and get some autographs from the players who made the trip south from downtown Tokyo to the U.S. Army military base via Black Hawk helicopters.
Her husband, Dominick, is from Palisades Park, N.J., and is a big Yankees fan, but he has been out to sea since February and couldn't be there for the rare visit.
As fate would have it, Torre had met Dominick before. In 1999, Torre was invited to El Centro, Calif., to fly with the Blue Angels -- the daredevil crew that is considered a U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron.
"I remember him," Torre said hours before the Yankees were to play the Yomiuri Giants in the second game of an exhibition doubleheader at the Tokyo Dome. "He wasn't the pilot that flew the plane I went up in that day, but he was certainly part of the crew."
Sonya, a second-grade teacher from Kentucky with wavy blond hair, met with Torre and they spoke briefly about her husband and his love for the Yankees. Their oldest child, Alex, who is in the first grade and only recently lost his two front teeth, said he missed his father.
|Gabe White (left) and Joe Girardi look out from aboard a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter as team members headed for Camp Zama on Sunday. (Katsumi Kasahara/AP)
He was wearing a Yankees jersey with Jorge Posada's No. 20 on the back. The wait for his father's return was made a little brighter Sunday when Posada signed the jersey. Posada, Ruben Sierra, Gabe White, Joe Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman made the trip with Torre.
"It gives you an appreciation for how much you have in life," Posada said. "These people are making the ultimate commitment to us and our country. This is the least we can do for them."
The four-time All-Star catcher sat for an hour along with the other Yankees to sign autographs from a seemingly endless conga line that included military personnel, their family members, Japanese civil workers who man the base, and Japanese Little Leaguers invited for the presentation.
The day's journey began from a military heliport in central Tokyo. Out of a clear blue sky, a pair of dark green Black Hawk helicopters descended from the heavens to pick up a crew that included the Yankees and a few members of the media hand-picked for the flight.
Once in the air, the passengers were treated to a sweeping view of the urban sprawl that is Tokyo. The 30-mile flight to the base took all of about 15 minutes -- 90 minutes for those who travel to the 50-year-old Camp Zama by bus.
"It was an exhilarating experience," Cashman told the crowd of about 1,000 in the gymnasium. "The helicopter flight got us all going."
Torre has made these type of excursions before, but certainly under more trying circumstances.
In 1966, as the war was heating up, he went to Vietnam with a group of players. They spent three weeks, flying in open-hatched helicopters, meeting and speaking to the troops.
"It was the first group of baseball players ever to go over there," Torre said.
At the time, Torre was playing for the Atlanta Braves and the party included his teammate, Hank Aaron, Harmon Killebrew, Stan Musial and Brooks Robinson.
"Hall of Famers, all of them," Torre said.
With the Blue Angels, Torre went up in an F/A-18 Hornet and experienced the dips and spins at high jet speed that have made them famous.
"It was a rush," Torre said. "They do all the things to scare the (heck) out of you. They tell you what to do if you're heading for a crash. How to bail out and pull your parachute. They try to make the experience as frightening as possible."
But it was all simulated, Torre readily admitted. What Sonya Colao is experiencing is the real thing. She's not allowed to divulge where her husband is situated, but suffice to say he is not involved in any military action at the moment, she said. Through the long, lonely times, it is that knowledge that helps her pull through.
"We exchange e-mails," she said. "He would've have loved to have been here today."
Instead, she had his Yankees cap, emblazoned with the 2003 World Series logo, signed by all the Yankees present. Torre's signature, of course, was in a prominent position under the beak.
"The cap will be here for him when he comes back," Sonya Colao said.
Dominick Colao is due back to the base in May.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.