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BILL PLASCHKE

It's baseball that gives the military a united front

Team loyalties provide distractions for those overseas, and rhythms and traditions are similar to those of the military. The Dodgers hold a special place because Lasorda is the sport's best military ambassador.

November 10, 2010|Bill Plaschke

The mortars would be ringing his helmet, the gunfire would be climbing down his back, yet he would always hear the voice.

"In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.… "

In the middle of the mountains of Pakistan, Jesse Vizcarra would close his eyes and listen to Vin Scully.

"When you're laying there thinking about why you are fighting, your mind drifts back to the good things of home," said the former Army sergeant from Lancaster. "No matter what was happening, I could always hear the call of Kirk Gibson's home run."

The tiny naval ship would be rocking in waters so distant, on a mission so clandestine, the sailors had no idea where they were.

Then Petty Officer 2nd Class Salvador Flemate of East Los Angeles would pull on his Sandy Koufax jersey and come home.

"I would wear it around the ship, it gave me a sense of belonging, it gave me something to hang on to," he said.

Baseball may no longer be our national pastime, but for many of the brave souls in this country's military, it is still our national heartbeat.

It is still the small-town sport that binds the small-town soldiers. It still possesses the daily rhythms that distract soldiers from their daily dangers.

Baseball's sense of family tradition is similar to the one that breeds great soldiers, and past enemies have understood this; witness the battle cry from Japanese soldiers in World War II.

"To hell with Babe Ruth!" they would shout, knowing exactly how to get under a soldier's skin.

Nobody is cheered louder at a baseball game than recognized military folk. The San Diego Padres even honor soldiers by occasionally wearing camouflage uniforms.

"When things get complicated over there, you absolutely think about the simple things," said Cliff Carnes, a Naval Reserve officer who served in Iraq. "For me, it was a Carl's western bacon cheeseburger, a draft beer, and a Dodger game."

Carnes, who spent the summer of 2005 on a tiny base 30 miles south of Baghdad, said he was not alone.

"Baseball was something you could check on a daily basis, go on the Internet and get a score and start talking about it, bringing together all these different guys cheering for all these different teams," he said. "During some of the tougher days, baseball was a reason to get out of bed."

On this Veteran's Day, perhaps it's time to recognize forlorn baseball for being the sport that stokes the military fire. The Dodgers are certainly doing that, with Scully and Tommy Lasorda visiting a military hospital in the morning, then Dodger Stadium opening its gates to 80 veterans for everything from batting practice to clubhouse tours.

Last summer, the Dodgers attempted to honor the military with a discounted tickets program that, like seemingly everything else during the season, was riddled with errors. The day-of-game tickets were often not available and there were disputes over eligibility.

This year they are trying again, offering deep discounts for all active, retired and reserve military at several price levels with an increased allowance of eight tickets per veteran. They are also holding a half-dozen military nights while honoring one member of the military before every home game.

"It was kind of crazy last year, but they actually met with some of us and tried to work things out," said Vizcarra.

The Dodgers have a special place in the heart of all armed forces because they are the employer of baseball's best military ambassador. Lasorda speaks to countless military groups during the season, free of charge, and has been known to find an empty suite during games and invite any nearby military folk to come inside and hang out.

"If you're a Dodger fan in the military, everybody always ask you about Tommy," said Carnes. "They all know what he does for us."

For the many Dodgers fans who have fought overseas, it is Lasorda's face they see, Scully's voice they hear, and a simple blue that they crave.

When Flemate, 26, returned home after seven months of patrolling dangerous seas, one of his first outings was to Dodger Stadium, to the all-you-can-eat section of the outfield pavilion.

"'Two or three Dodger dogs, and I knew I was home," he said.

Vizcarra, now 33, experienced similar feelings while serving as part of the Iraqi invasion force in March 2003. As his division was bogged down in daily fighting, he was buoyed by memories of his childhood team.

"There would be a lull in the fighting and I would think about the time I took my grandfather to a Dodger-Angel game," he said. "I would think about how it made us both to be able to do something together."

In a country filled with daily unknown terrors, one of the only constants was the faded Dodgers T-shirt Vizcarra would wear to bed.

"Every night," he said. "I'll never forget how it felt."

One of his best bonds was forged with a fellow soldier who happened to be the fan of an opposing team.

"We would be arguing about our team every day," Vizcarra said. "A couple of mortars would go off, we'd pause a second, then we'd start back in arguing again."

He doesn't remember his fellow soldier's name. But he'll never forget that the guy was a Giants fan.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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