The sixth stop on the team’s trip started outside the Army’s 63rd Signal Battalion headquarters, where white jerseys were at the center of a camouflage huddle. Smartphone cameras captured wide grins on soldiers’ faces as they collected autographs from right fielder Jason Heyward, pitcher Julio Teheran, manager Fredi Gonzalez and Braves alumnus turned sportscaster Brian Jordan. The parallel between two teams that work in uniform was further illustrated when the Braves’ mascot, Homer, posed with the iron lion that serves as the battalion’s mascot.
After 30 minutes of signing the bills of Braves caps, the group boarded the tall tour bus and made a quick drive over to the battalion’s motor pool. They were greeted by three soldiers who gave them a crash course on the mobile satellite dish that forms the heart of communications for soldiers overseas.
“Think of us as Comcast,” Sgt. 1st Class Samuel Cortijo explained to the players ringed around the array of technology embedded in the rear of the satellite. “Any way you need to talk, we got it.”
The members of the Braves listened attentively and asked questions about the equipment, then took on the more familiar role of taking questions from the media.
The big story coming out of the Braves’ 2011 season is the September meltdown that cost them an eight-game lead and a spot in the playoffs. Gonzalez has already fielded questions about the collapse, and it’s sure to be the buzz when spring training starts in two weeks. He was ready Wednesday.
“As an organization and a team, it was disappointing because our goal is to win,” Gonzalez said about his first season as Braves manager. “But the good thing is … everybody that went through September has somehow gotten closer to each other.”
Standing beside him was Colombia native Julio Teheran, who rose in two years from the cellar of the minor leagues to starting this season as Major League Baseball’s top-ranked right-handed pitcher. What’s his advice for young baseball fans dreaming of stardom?
“Take advantage of every opportunity you get,” Teheran said through Gonzalez as a translator.
The group was then ushered over to the garage, where soldiers stood five deep and peered over shoulders to hear Jordan express his gratitude for the soldiers’ service.
“We play baseball, but we can do that because of what you do for our country,” Jordan said.