03/25/12 8:00 AM ET
A's visit troops at U.S. air base in Japan
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
Airmen from the nearby Yokota Air Force base descended in the UH-IN "Huey" helicopters that would fly eight Oakland players, team president Michael Crowley and other club officials to the base for a visit. The A's contingent was ready for an adventure of a lifetime.
So were the airmen. Their eyes sparkled as they saw Jemile Weeks, Jonny Gomes, Brian Fuentes, Seth Smith, Cliff Pennington, Jerry Blevins, Josh Reddick and Collin Cowgill standing on the asphalt in their home white jerseys, and they were quick to thank the A's for making the trip.
No, the A's assured them. The thanks were reserved solely for the troops and their families, and they couldn't wait to spend some time with them on what was sure to be a memorable day.
That day started with a smooth liftoff and a spirited 20-minute flight to the base. It was a sunny morning and the players were rapt, staring out of the windows, snapping photos and making home videos with their smart phones. They soaked in what, for quite a few of them, was their first real ride in a chopper.
"That was my first one," said Weeks, the A's second baseman. "To go up and ascend [over] Japan and see the country -- there's places everywhere, there's no unused space or anything like that -- it was a wonderful thing."
The helicopters touched down at the base, which is in the nearby city of Fussa. The traveling party was whisked away through the impressive grounds, which can house up to 14,000 troops and personnel. When the players arrived at the baseball field, the Air Force members and their families were already there, many with gloves in their hands and already playing catch.
Fuentes and Blevins organized a pitching clinic while Weeks and Pennington worked with the infielders. Cowgill, Smith, Reddick and Gomes entertained the outfield prospects and members of the Yokota high school team in conversations about baseball and life before signing autographs.
"It's pretty special," Gomes said. "I'm biased to the military ... I actually thought I was going to go [into the military] in 2001, but I ended up being drafted [by Tampa Bay], so that kept me from going. I definitely don't take any of this for granted. I'm appreciative of all our servicemen."
Three of the A's have direct ties to the military, so it was special for them, too. Smith's brother-in-law was a member of the Navy, Cowgill's childhood friend is an Iraq veteran and member of the Army Reserve, and Reddick's grandfather is a retired member of the Air Force. Crowley came from a military family and was born on a Marine base in California.
"It's a tremendous honor to come out here and see these folks," Crowley said. "They work so hard to defend our freedom and the things we enjoy back in the States. The players are excited to be here, and it's a great opportunity to interact with the children and the men and women of the military here."
The interacting went on for the better part of an hour, and it continued in the Samurai Room -- the cafeteria for officers. The players lined up for their lunch, and once their trays were full, they sat down at the dining room tables to chat up more airmen.
The troops continued to remark to the players about how meeting and socializing with Major League Baseball players was an honor, and the players kept shaking their heads, telling the airmen that the real honor was meeting these brave patriots.
"The troops and their families have been such a big part of our lives and a part of our country and a part of all the countries," Weeks said. "For us to do our little part, it's just us trying to give back in whatever way we can."
After lunch, the players bid farewell to the base and got one heck of a ride: a 40-minute scenic tour in the helicopters that took them over the coastline under the watchful eye of Mt. Fuji. The trip also covered the city of Kamakura, where the famous Great Buddha -- an enormous, almost 900-year-old bronze statue -- resides, and back to the grandeur of Tokyo.
The players awarded their pilots with autographed baseballs and were on their way back to the hotel before departing a few hours later for the Tokyo Dome and their Sunday night exhibition game against the Yomiuri Giants. Yet, the day's events would surely live in their memories for a long time.
"It means a lot," Fuentes said. "Everyone's telling us thank you and really, the shoe's on the other foot because we're just privileged to be here, with as much as these guys sacrifice, being this far away from the States for years on years and jumping around, moving their families.
"We definitely know how that is ... so it's our pleasure, and we had a great time."