Strikeouts For Troops: Media

Giants pitcher Zito’s charity aids war-wounded

Christopher Hill counts himself lucky. The retired Marine staff sergeant suffered spinal cord injuries in the rocket attack that ended his fourth tour in Iraq, and his post-traumatic stress was so severe that he spent months of rehabilitation as a recluse.

But Hill was fortunate enough to make it home with his fingers and toes intact, and he was able to make his way to a microphone Tuesday morning at City Hall with the help of a cane inscribed “U.S. Marine Corps O.I.F.,” for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Though he has seen death and known demons, Hill’s goal on this day was to express gratitude for the ballplayer who helped speed his recovery.

“I met Barry Zito two years ago,” Hill told San Diego’s City Council. “I was in pretty bad shape, actually. For him to extend his hand in friendship the way he did really made some significant changes in my life. Two years ago, this would be an impossibility for me to stand in front of you like this.”

Hill had driven in from Las Vegas to pay tribute to the San Francisco pitcher, whose Strikes for Troops program has distributed more than $2 million to help defray costs incurred by the families of wounded veterans. The occasion was the Council’s proclamation of Barry Zito Day — San Diego continues to claim the Giants’ left-hander as a University High product — but the brief ceremony belied the lasting impact of Zito’s largesse.

“When a Marine has his leg blown off, there are multiple surgeries and multiple skin grafts,” said Richard Williams, coordinator of the Injured Marine Fund. “The Strikeouts for Troops organization allows me to tell the families, ‘It’s going to be OK. We’re going to pay for your hotel. We’re going to pay for your meals. We’re going to get you a rental car. It’s so comforting to me.’ ”

Zito’s charity fills a noteworthy niche, reimbursing the families of wounded soldiers for those travel expenses the Department of Defense doesn’t cover. Yet the $126 million pitcher’s involvement extends beyond check-writing and photo-ops. He hosts an annual spring training trip for wounded warriors, stages benefit concerts at which he performs on guitar, and has helped recruit dozens of major league players to the cause.

At the risk of mixing a baseball metaphor, Strikeouts for Troops has been an unqualified hit.

“Our expectations were to help the Marines and whoever else wanted to be recipients,” Zito said in the hallway outside council chambers. “Other than that, we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.

“It’s not about (being) pro-war or anti-war. It’s about helping our fellow Americans who are out there. I felt that so much of the anti-war stuff that was going on, we were forgetting that these people were putting their lives and their limbs on the line for us. So it’s really just making a statement to say, ‘Listen, you can feel however you want politically, but baseball is behind the men and women that have the courage to go out there.’ ”

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