Robertson visits active naval warship
Hurler experiences taste of military life, meets with sailors
Nate Robertson isn't really a thrill-seeker. If he can save his adrenaline for when he takes the mound, he's fine with that. But as he looked out his airplane window, harnessed into his seat, he knew he wasn't exactly on an offseason cruise.
He was looking out the side of a U.S. Navy C-2 Greyhound transport plane, but because of the direction of the seats, he couldn't look forward. He figured the USS Theodore Roosevelt was somewhere out there waiting for them off the Florida coast, but he had no way of seeing it. He couldn't know for sure until he heard the orders for passengers to brace themselves.
"I'm looking out the window, and you see yourself getting lower and lower towards the ocean," Robertson said. "And you're like, 'My gosh. I can't see where I'm landing.' There's just this little tiny window, and you're just hoping that you're getting ready [to land]."
Seconds later came the jolt, but he'd been prepared for that. The plane caught the landing cord on the runway, taking it from 125 mph to zero in about two seconds and bringing Robertson on a ride no roller coaster could match. While his teammates were relaxing at home, he had just landed on a Navy Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.
When Tigers players gathered last month for the club's winter caravan and TigerFest, Robertson had the best stories to tell. The December visit was the highlight of his offseason, he said, and one of the bigger thrills of his life. Yet the interaction with many of the sailors probably topped that.
For Robertson, the trip had come together almost by luck. Chris Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, had inquired about the Navy's Distinguished Visitor Program after Red Wings vice president of finance Paul MacDonald took part in a trip over the summer. Schedule conflicts wouldn't allow a group of players to go, but since Robertson lives around Detroit, he didn't have to travel far to join in.
Robertson was one player who could make the trip. It ended up being a perfect match.
As much of an event as it is for civilians to visit an active warship, distinguished visitor coordinator Kristine Volk always cautions that it's more about thanking sailors, one factor she takes into consideration when interviewing candidates. Robertson grew up in a military family; his father served in the Army, and his grandfather served in the Navy on a destroyer during World War II.
Robertson knew plenty about military life. But no matter how many times he watched Top Gun, he couldn't fully brace for life on a carrier. He was overwhelmed.
"It's amazing how these sailors operate," Robertson said. "They're on 12-hour shifts. These kids, basically, they're out there operating a nuclear vessel at all hours of the night. And when it's all said and done, they're very respectful people."
The respect was mutual.
"First, I was tremendously impressed with the incredible expertise and sophistication of our Navy," Ilitch said. "Truly awesome. You hear the stories on TV, but then you go, and it's actually incredible. When you get on the ship, it's awe-inspiring just how advanced everything is. Second, I developed great respect for how hard the men and women of our Navy work to protect the freedom we enjoy. They work hard day in and day out, long hours and not a lot of time off."
They also happen to like baseball.
The USS Theodore Roosevelt, which returned from Operation Iraqi Freedom last spring, coincidentally has a strong Detroit connection with so many Michiganders among the crew. When the carrier -- coincidentally nicknamed America's "Big Stick" after one of the late president's famous phrases -- was celebrating its 20th anniversary last fall, sailors were also celebrating the Tigers' trip to the World Series. When they found out that Robertson and Ilitch were coming, word of mouth spread. They hadn't even left for the carrier when two officers at the Norfolk Naval Station gave them the flight jackets off their backs. Once on the ship, the crew gave them their own name patches.
With a crew on board topping 3,000, Robertson penned well over 500 signatures between two signing sessions and random autograph requests while he was walking through the ship. He also gave an autographed jersey during a presentation. And Ilitch brought along an SUV-load of gear, from baseballs to bobbleheads to caps.
"He signed an unbelievable amount of autographs," Ilitch said. "Longer than I've ever seen, and we've been in professional sports [as a family] for a number of years."
The most important thing they brought on board, however, was a sense of gratitude and a real curiosity. Robertson wanted to get an idea of how people lived on the ship, going about their lives on a floating vessel the size of the Empire State Building.
The more he learned, the more he admired.
"I could've signed all day long for these sailors," Robertson said. "I think the biggest enjoyment I had was to be able to look them in the eye, shake their hand and tell them thank you -- especially the Detroit fans, because Detroit fans let it be known. I was enjoying it."
As a tour guide warned him when to duck his head, Robertson made his way up and down the ship, getting a workout on what some sailors call the world's largest Stairmaster. He and Ilitch had the privilege of walking on the deck once flight operations had ended. After dinner, they traded stories with some of the officers -- Robertson talking about his journey, the officers about theirs.
After many had gone to bed, Robertson was still touring, talking and trading stories.
"The interaction with the sailors is just as cool as landing or taking off," said Volk, who coordinates the distinguished visitor program as a volunteer. "It's the stories that they share, seeing them in their working environment and seeing how hard and how dedicated they are. These sailors make such a small amount of money compared with others in the general public.
"Nate spent so much time [with the crew]. It was really a morale booster for them."
And a roller-coaster ride for the visitors. As much as the landing was a demonstration in physics for Robertson, no warning could prepare him and Ilitch for takeoff, a slingshot off the deck that takes the plane from zero to 128 mph in a few seconds and subjects passengers to four G's of force at their backs.
"You run through a whole range of emotions in a few seconds," Robertson said.
Mercifully for Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski, Robertson came through unscathed as Ilitch promised. The only injury was to Robertson's pride after doing his Top Gun impression of a shooter -- the men on deck who direct the pilots and warn them when they're about to be slung down the runway.
Robertson pointed to the plane, then the water, then to his hamstring -- half-jokingly. He could command a game, but directing a jet was a different challenge.
"It's amazing. These guys have to be pretty flexible on that deck," he said. "They've got jets coming down and they're giving these pilots the OK to go off these ships. I'm trying to imitate these guys, and I realized I'm not as flexible in some of these positions."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.