Every kid who’s ever laced up his cleats for a Little League game dreams of one day feeling the rush of the major league experience from the other side – that of a big league ballplayer looking up into the eyes of that awestruck kid in the stands where they once stood.
Barry Zito, starting pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, is living that dream. Zito began his professional career in 2000 with the Oakland A’s, spending eight seasons with the team and earning the Cy Young Award in 2002. Zito was also an American League All-Star in 2002, 2003 and 2006.
“I realize how blessed I am to still be playing the same game I did as a kid for a career,” Zito said. “Since I was 6 years old, all I wanted to do was play baseball.”
Recognizing how blessed he is, Zito decided he wanted to give something back. In April 2005, Zito and his family decided they wanted to honor the selfless sacrifice and service of the brave men and women of the U.S. military, and Strikeouts for Troops (SFT) was born.
“Strikeouts for Troops is simply about Americans helping our fellow Americans in need,” Zito said. “I never want an American Soldier to think that his or her sacrifice goes unnoticed or unappreciated. The real heroes in our country are the women and men in uniform who make the ultimate sacrifice on a daily basis keeping us safe and free.”
SFT is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to providing the comforts of home and lifting the spirits and morale of wounded service members receiving care at military hospitals nationwide. SFT has raised nearly $2 million since its introduction from contributions by baseball players, fundraising events, fan donations and corporate partnerships from USAA, Fox Sports Radio and Choice Hotels.
It began simply enough as Zito making a donation for each strikeout he threw. Through Zito’s leadership, more than 60 other major league baseball players, including some of the biggest names in baseball like fellow Giant Tim Lincecum, Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia of the New York Yankees, Jake Peavy of the San Diego Padres and Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals, joined the cause. These players have pledged that with every strikeout they throw, homerun they smash or RBI and hit they collect, they will donate to SFT to help recovering American service members and their families.
“The support we’ve received from fellow major league baseball players, and you the fans, has been tremendous,” Zito said.
Contributions to the Strikeouts for Troops keep wounded troops’ loved ones near during the most difficult of times. Donations also provide individual grants to help with immediate needs, and they pay for air flights and lodging, purchase adaptive equipment for easy transitions at home and help fund other charities that assist the troops. SFT also provides backpacks filled with toiletries and other necessities to those who arrive at the hospital with often just the clothes on their back. The group supports morale-building events nationwide, purchases holiday gifts for military children, provides Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners to wounded troops and their families, supplies telephone and gift cards and has even paid for baby-sitting.
“Being a part of Strikeouts for Troops has been an indescribably rewarding experience and has introduced us all to some of the most incredible and brave Americans,” Zito said. “The money we’re raising is beginning to make a difference in the lives of thousands of our service members, and you can read some of the stories on the testimonials page (www.strikeoutsfortroops.org/testimonials.htm). We try to assist wherever we can to help ease the mind of our wounded so they can focus on their recovery.”
For the past two seasons, Zito has treated wounded Marines rehabilitating at Balboa Naval Hospital to a trip to spring training games. He covers the airfare and lodging to fly the Marines to Scottsdale, Ariz. as a way to help their recovery. He also buys them tickets to Giants games and this year he hosted a dinner at Fraher’s Restaurant.
Elmer Ugarte, one of the Marines at the dinner that included Zito’s teammates Randy Winn, Brian Wilson, Jack Taschner, Alex Hinshaw, Matt Cain, Orlando Hudson, Noah Lowry and C.J. Wilson, thought he was dreaming.
“Pinch me,” Ugarte said. “I can’t call this amazing because amazing is something you think might happen. Unbelievable is something I thought would never happen.’’
G.I. Jobs talked with Barry about what it’s like being a major league ballplayer and why he and so many other major league baseball players made a commitment to give back to those who’ve served.
GIJ: Everyone dreams of being a major league ball player. What’s it really like?
BZ: Well sometimes it’s my job and it’s also my dream. It’s all in how you look at it.
GIJ: Why did you decide to form Strikeouts for Troops?
BZ: My family and I decided to form SFT because at the time it seemed like the public wasn’t really supporting the brave and selfless Americans that were volunteering for the toughest job in the world – to keep us safe and protect our freedom. Baseball and the military are two of the largest institutions in our great country. We are honored by all who have joined with us in the effort to help and support our heroes in need of a little extra care.
GIJ: Have you ever spent any time with military families?
BZ: I’ve spent personal time with Soldiers, Marines, Airmen and Sailors over the last few years on the field and in the hospitals. I enjoy sitting with them and listening to their stories. I continue to be amazed by their courage, strength, selflessness, honor, and love for the American people and their country.
GIJ: How did you get so many other professional ballplayers to join the cause?
BZ: I’m friends with lots of players, but I didn’t need to convince anyone of how important it was to get on board. Many have friends or family in the military and are happy to be a part of it and support our troops stationed around the world.
GIJ: Did you ever think about joining the military?
BZ: I wanted to be in the FBI or CIA when I was growing up, which is a form of getting the bad guys.
GIJ: If you could say one thing to those who are serving and those who have served, what would it be?
BZ: The gratitude I feel in my heart for your efforts and courage is beyond attaching to words.
GIJ: What would you be doing right now if you weren’t playing baseball?
BZ: I’d be in the FBI or CIA probably.