The United State Military All-Stars, who made a stop June 24 in Winter Garden, keep the traditions of barnstorming and military baseball alive.
Standing next to Bodacious Ball, the head coach of the United State Military All-Stars baseball team, Winter Garden Squeeze coach Jay Welsh had a question.
Ahead of the exhibition game between the two teams June 24, Welsh had noticed that, in place of last names on their jerseys, the players for the USMA — players who are predominately active-duty members of the different branches of our nation’s Armed Forces — instead had military-related phrases across their shoulders.
They read “Desert Storm,” “Infantry” and “Marines,” among others.
It was the phrase on the jersey of shortstop Daniel Vargas, though, that caught Welsh’s eye — Vargas’ jersey reads “ST-1 Echo.”
When Welsh asked Ball what that meant, Ball replied that Vargas is a U.S. Navy SEAL and is a part of SEAL Team 1. He told Welsh that a unit like the one Vargas is a part of is one that would be called in to take out targets that could be considered the worst of the worst.
Later, when Vargas came over to the Squeeze’s dugout in search of his bat weight that someone had borrowed, the team made sure it was located quickly and returned promptly.
“We couldn’t do enough to scramble and say, ‘Let’s get that guy his bat weight back,’” Welsh said with a smile.
The USMA practices the old art of barnstorming, and this past Friday, it was Winter Garden’s turn to play host.
In sports, barnstorming is the act of a team or athlete going from place to place to stage exhibition games or matches. It’s most famously associated with baseball teams from the Negro Leagues during segregation, but the practice has not been lost to the tides of time just yet — thanks in part to the USMA.
The USMA’s “Red, White & Blue Tour” takes them across the country, playing 35 to 60 exhibitions annually. The USMA plays varying degrees of competition, from college summer teams in leagues like the Florida Collegiate Summer League to semi-pro ball clubs to college and professional teams in the spring.
The USMA go from town-to-town, performing their famous “Passing the Flag” and “Walk of Honor” ceremonies before each game. They play hard and afterward they are available for pictures and autographs.
The team comprises players from the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines, all of whom pass through an extensive application process to make the team.
Even once a player makes the team, it requires a secondary approval process from the command chain. More than 90% of the players who have suited up for the USMA have been in active duty.
Players often come and go as their deployment schedules dictate — just as the case was with Cody Stack, a Leesburg native who is on the team and serves in the Army. After playing first base in Winter Garden on Friday, and in his hometown against the Leesburg Lightning on Saturday, Stack was to ship out for deployment — but not before his parents and family at least got to see him play.
“When I saw on the schedule we were playing Leesburg, it was a dream come true,” Stack said. “I’ve been in the service almost five years now, and I haven’t been back home, really. So to come back for baseball is incredible.”
At this point in the tour, the USMA is particularly low on players — Ball even came in to pitch in relief before the game against the Squeeze was called because of inclement weather. The Squeeze were leading 8-1 when the game ended.
It’s an adversity Ball and Tank Stone, the team’s vice president of development, take in stride. Win or lose, these veterans usually receive cheers from the large crowds.
Plus, although they often meet at the ball field, they also have one another.
“The camaraderie is more than I can even begin to explain,” Ball said. “We’d never even met each other before … (and) it’s a brotherhood — whether I’m talking to a Marine, or a Seaman or an Air Force guy.”