Tales From a Cardinals Fan Veteran

With tonight’s Fox Sports Midwest’s annual “This One’s For You” telecast to U.S. troops throughout the world, interviews with the Missouri National Guard’s 1-135th and their family members in attendance at Busch Stadium, those who serve our country are on our minds.

This one's for youWith that, it seemed like a good time to get the perspective of a military veteran — which we have here from Michael, occasional contributor here at Aaron Miles’ Fastball. He was in the Navy for 20 years, and it just fueled his Cardinals and baseball fandom.

Here are Michael’s recollections.

“You know, this Navy thing is getting in the way of me watching baseball.”

So there I was, in a darkened basement American Forces Network control room booth around 8 o’clock at night, squinting at a tiny screen, hunched over in a hard plastic chair, watching Ken Griffey Jr., in his new Reds uniform, stepping in to face the Brewers on Opening Day 2000 at Riverfront Stadium. I was in Frankfurt, Germany, awaiting a flight that would take me to a rural base in Hungary, and ultimately, to a barbed-wire surrounded camp in Bosnia, where I would help run the AFN radio station providing news and entertainment (and as far as I was concerned, mostly entertainment) for more than 100,000 troops. It was an afternoon in Cincinnati, nightfall in the middle of Europe.

But it wouldn’t be the most exotic or foreign place I’d ever watched a game.

See, I didn’t join the Navy more than 25 years ago to see the world, although I’d certainly do that. I didn’t join the Navy to learn a skill, although I certainly learned how to be the Howard Stern of AFN – I’m pretty proud that I was relieved of my radio duties four times in my career for what I said on the air.

One must have a job to purchase a place to live, a TV to watch games and a VCR to tape them for later viewing. And the Navy would help make sure I’d always have a job.

Great thing about the Navy is that you can have a wide latitude when you pick your career, and the time you decide to ship out for boot camp – or at least, before this Iraq and Afghanistan business started, you could. Having worked at a newspaper as a part-time sports writer when I was in high school, I chose journalism as a Navy career field. Then, I turned to the day to ship off. I looked at the recruiter and said quite clearly and confidently, “I’d like to ship out Aug. 4.” He looked up at me, quizzically, and said, “sure, we can do that. But why that specific date?” I replied that boot camp is eight weeks long, and this will permit me to be done in time to be able to watch the playoffs. He nodded knowingly and, pointing to his Kansas City Royals banner on his desk, said, “I completely understand.”

The ball through Buckner’s legs? Yeah, I watched that in a spotless barracks room at journalism school.

My next stop was a cold, windy island in the Atlantic: Newfoundland, Canada. My first time dealing with a weird time zone for baseball – 2-1/2 hours ahead of Central Time. So it was strange to work as the nighttime DJ on the AFN radio station there, and yet be home in time to watch the final few innings of the Cardinals in the playoffs and World Series. There was that one night when I had a black and white TV in the radio booth getting ready to watch a World Series game from San Francisco. One moment I was watching the pre-game show as a Motley Crue song finished up and, after going on the air for a couple of moments to do my usual silliness, I turned back to the TV to see the “ABC News Bulletin” slide.

Oh, great, I thought. So much for watching the A’s and the Giants in Game 3 of the World Series during my shift.

After Newfoundland, I packed off to the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk and a later trip around South America, serving as the ship’s tour guide for our ports of call and writing stories for the shipboard newspaper. Was I concerned with enjoying the sights when the ship stopped off in the Virgin Islands on a cruise? Did I want to sip a pina colada? Well, yeah, sure. But come nighttime, I checked into a resort motel to watch the World Series. With a tropical breeze through the window and ocean waves competing with the TV, I watched the Braves and the Twins.

Clearly, I’m a nut.

About halfway into my career, I moved to D.C. to be part of a unit that would deploy to augment AFN radio and TV operations overseas. Between deployments, there wasn’t much to do … except … we had the AFN sports feeds on the cable throughout our building. And the great thing about AFN by then was that they had a channel devoted entirely to sports. And many games were taped delayed for the overseas audience, meaning there always would be a game on in the middle of the day. In our office.

“Hey, I’m just monitoring the sports feed.” Heh.

About a year after I checked into D.C., I was deployed to Europe. Which brings us to that night watching Ken Griffey in a basement in Frankfurt. Don’t think I just sauntered down and plopped in front of a monitor, oh, no. I asked a sergeant, who asked a captain, who checked with a colonel to make sure it was okay that I would be allowed to sit down to watch that game. Did it matter to me that my request to watch the game had to go all the way up the chain and involve a flurry of e-mails and phone calls? Do you wonder why letting a Navy guy watch a baseball game in a control booth required such deployment of bureacratic resources? You must not be familiar with the Army.

Hey, I didn’t care. I wanted to watch Griffey with the Reds on Opening Day.

From Frankfurt, I eventually shipped out to Bosnia, sleeping 50 feet away from an active minefield, I’m overseeing the radio operations for the entire six country theater, I’m making sure visits from rock bands like Tonic go smoothly, but what am I concerned with? “Okay, it’s 1 o’clock, I’ve got an hour to grab lunch, and then there’s the replay of last night’s Cardinals-Giants game. Oh, the colonel is on the phone wanting an update? I’ll just turn the volume down, say ‘yes, sir’ a lot, and still follow Garrett Stephenson’s adventure on the mound.”

From then until the rest of my career, I had enough rank behind me so that I could make up my own excuse – for the most part – to leave the office early to go watch a game at home. There were exceptions when the Navy would again get in the way.

There was this one time when I was the public affairs officer for the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, who needed me on a trip to Newport, Rhode Island. In October. During the NLDS. My job was to take notes during a question-and-answer session with students at the Senior Enlisted Academy – but was my mind on that? As Game 1 between the Cardinals and Padres was available in the building’s break room just down the corridor? Have you not been reading? So I leaned over to the assistant director and mumbled, “I’ll be right back.” I tried not to run down to the break room, I really did. However, I skipped back to the auditorium with a big grin on my face. The Master Chief wouldn’t let that one go. He pointed at me and asked in a loud voice, “So what’s the score, shipmate?” I smiled, sheepishly, “8-0, Cardinals.”

When he retired, he grabbed a bat presented to him by the crew of the submarine USS Louisville on display in his office, and signed it for me. That was the best and most appropriate going-away present he could think of for his public affairs officer.

As my career was winding down, one of my junior ranked co-workers aware of how devoted a fan I was asked me: Would you trade a promotion for a Cardinals World Series win? I turned slowly toward him and said, “That you even have to ask …”

Four years later, and I finally retired after 20 years in the Navy and moved with my wife to Omaha. That Master Chief, why, he settled in Omaha too. And one night, I get a call from him: how would you like to go to St. Louis with me? I have a business trip there, a room at the Millennium, and tickets to the Cardinals and the Tigers.

See, the last game I’d seen in person was in 1984, old Busch, new Astroturf. So here I was, 25 years later, in the stands at New Busch, watching Ryan Franklin strike out Curtis Granderson to end a win. He was taking cell phone video of me pumping my fist and generally acting like a little kid (or a big ol’ goof, take your pick) which he promptly posted on Facebook for everyone to see.

The one constant, from choosing when to go to boot camp, journalism school, a lonely cold island 2-1/2 time zones away, an aircraft carrier, time spent in the tropics and Europe, my service in D.C. … the one constant has always been baseball.  Still is.

Don’t think in my civilan job anything’s changed. If it’s a day game, you better believe I’ll have a window to MLB.com open, and if the Cardinals are the free game of the day on MLB.tv?  I’m guessing it’s going to be a light work day.

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