Royals Caravan honors troops at VA hospital
Brett, Leonard and Chen pay visit to veterans on Friday
KANSAS CITY -- It was a cold morning outside the Kansas City VA Medical Center on Friday, but a Royals Caravan contingent did their best to warm up things inside.
Two members of the Royals Hall of Fame, George Brett and Dennis Leonard, and the 2011 team's Pitcher of the Year, Bruce Chen, spread some cheer among the military veterans at the hospital.
Some of the veterans came in wheelchairs and scooters or leaned on canes to visit with the players over coffee and cookies.
"I just want to thank everybody for helping our country become the country it is," Brett told the group. "I know a lot of times you don't get the recognition, but for someone that never served in the military ... we are very, very grateful for the sacrifices that you guys have made for our country, and I just want you to know that."
Leonard, wearing his Royals jersey, added his gratitude. He's visited with veterans at other sites as well.
"Sometimes you want to know about our stories," the former pitching star said. "But when you get around the veterans and they can tell you stories of the battles they went through, it's living history. Like George, I was never in the military, and to come out and see these veterans, it makes your heart pound a little bit. We played on the field but we weren't dodging bullets and bombs, just a baseball once in a while."
The players answered a few questions, then mingled with the vets to talk and sign autographs. Jeff Carneal, in a wheelchair, handed Brett a newspaper article that he'd saved for about 30 years for him to autograph. Others told Leonard about games they'd seen him pitch. Somebody asked Chen how the Royals would do this year.
Brett schemed with Richard Morehouse to pull a trick on Chen, who was called over to the veteran's wheelchair and told to press a button on his prosthetic leg. The leg popped up and kicked the surprised Chen right where it hurt, prompting gales of laughter led by Morehouse.
He lost his leg to a land mine in Vietnam.
Those were the kind of sacrifices that the visitors kept in mind as they went around the medical center.
Brett popped in to see a 93-year-old Air Force veteran, Sterling Bryant, who was a friend of Kansas City icon Buck O'Neil and a dining car waiter for Kansas City Southern. Brett took a moment to preach the gospel of good times ahead to the longtime Royals fan.
"They've got a lot of good young players and the thing about them is they really enjoy playing and they like each other," Brett told him. "And that's huge. That's like if you're in the military and you don't like guys in your command, you're not going to do very well. ... In 1985, when we won the World Series, that wasn't the best team but we had 25 guys that cared about one another and liked each other and hung out together and pulled for one another. As a result, we overcome the odds that nobody gave us a chance to."
Brett turned on his energetic personality as he charged from room to room.
"I'm wearing this jersey today so people would know who I am," he informed one patient. "Otherwise they'd think I was a doctor." He spread cheer with a little hospital humor. "I'm not a proctologist," he assured another patient.
Chen went into another wing of the facility with Leonard and noted that he was learning from him and Brett as they visited the recovering wounded and sick.
"Sometimes I don't know what to say, but they're so good when they talk to them," Chen said. "Sometimes I step back and watch these guys -- I can see why everyone in Kansas City loves them. I learn from them. They're great players and great people."
The VA stop was to be followed by an afternoon visit to personnel at Whiteman Air Force Base near Kansas City, home of the 509th Bomb Wing, as the Royals Caravan saluted the military.
"We're going to tell them what a great job you guys did," Brett told one of the vets before leaving the medical center, "and that they better do the same."
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.