Former New York Met Bud Harrelson was recalling on Friday a tour he took with the USO during the Vietnam War following the Miracle Mets victory in the 1969 World Series.
“I went with [Major League] pitchers Sam McDowell and Jim Rooker to the Philippines, Guam and Japan,” Harrelson said. “We walked into hospital wards with guys who had lost limbs. We walked into burn wards. We were there to cheer them up, and they wound up cheering us up.”
Harrelson, Hall of Famers Tom Seaver and Ralph Kiner and others with the ’69 Mets were on hand at a luncheon at Citi Field on Friday as the Mets and Citi Bank honored Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the largest nonprofit group in the country dedicated to assisting its 2.2 million veterans and their families.
The luncheon took place a day before the country learned of the deaths of 31 men, including 22 Navy SEALS, when a helicopter was shot down by Taliban forces in Afghanistan.
Other panelists included Ed Kranepool, Ed Charles and coach Joe Pignatano.
All served active duty or in the military reserves with exception of Kranepool, whose father was killed in World War II three months before he was born.
“As a sole surviving son I was exempt,” he said.
But he, like others, made numerous trips abroad with the USO, one time going as far as Greenland.
“We would walk up to these soldiers who had been wounded, who lost limbs, and I didn’t know what I would say to them,” Charles said. “But we were lucky. They were lying there and all they wanted to talk about was baseball and winning the World Series. That was how we connected.”
The luncheon, followed by a question and answer session with the players, took place in the Ceasars Club. Mets radio broadcaster Howie Rose served as master of ceremonies. He began by apologizing to the veterans and active duty personnel on hand.
“People in my profession sometimes throw the term hero around loosely to describe a great play in a game,” Rose said. “The people in attendance here today are true heroes.”
The Mets also honored IAVA volunteer Maria Canales on the field in a pre-game ceremony prior to Friday’s contest against the Atlanta Braves.
Also present were executives from Citi’s Military Veterans Network and its Veterans Initiative program, aimed at helping and recruiting returning veterans.
“We want to them get hired, mentor them, help them in any way we can,” said Christopher Page of Citicorp. “And we want to help get some of them into the financial industry.”
Army Maj. Paul Island grew up a huge baseball fan in St. Albans, and now serves as a public information officer.
He also served two frontline tours in Iraq as an artillery officer.
“I’d love to get some autographs today,” he said. “And I want to get Yogi Berra’s someday.”
Island, 37, said Iraq and Afghanistan veterans such as himself are being treated far better than the stories he has heard from the Vietnam era.
“It’s something to come home and walk through the airport and have people applauding,” he said.
Seaver was the first player introduced.
“United States Marine Corps 1902265, Sir!” he shouted at Rose, eliciting laughs from the crowd, and cheers from present day Marines.
Kiner, the Hall of Fame slugger, has been a Mets broadcaster since the team’s inception. He enlisted in the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor, and became a pilot “though I was never shot at,” he said, echoing a comment of Seaver’s.
Harrelson, who was born on D-Day, June 6, 1944, drew sympathy from several of the Army personnel present when he reminisced about basic training.
“Anyone here ever been to Ft. Polk, Louisiana?” he asked to knowing laughs. “I never thought a place like that existed on Earth.” He denied receiving preferential treatment for being a ballplayer, saying he got kidded, ribbed and razzed by his drill instructors as much as the next guy.
Charles, who along with Pignatano served in Germany during the Korean War, had his doubts about that.
His favorite story was about serving on KP duty and being assigned to clean a kitchen grease trap (“You’re not a soldier until you’ve cleaned a grease trap,” Pignatano said).
“I had permission to go to baseball practice every day at noon,” Charles said. “I left before I cleaned it. The next day I was asked why I hadn’t done it, and I said I had to leave by noon. They let it slide. And I never did clean that grease trap.”
“I don’t know what happened with Harrelson.”
Pignatano’s brother was in a combat unit in Korea.
“One time he was on a sentry post and a friend came and told him to get something to eat and come back,” Pignatano said. “When he came back to relieve the guy who had relieved him, my brother found him dead.”
Another time, Pignatano’s brother returned to base from a patrol to find his bunker had been destroyed.
“I used to say he saw all the horror and I got all the glory,” he said. “And when I got home I had already been signed by the Dodgers, and they called me to spring training.”
He informed the club, then in Brooklyn, that he would be a little bit late reporting that year.
“My brother was coming home soon, and I was going to wait until I saw him,” he said. “Then I went to spring training.”
Seaver and others said the ’69 club did not talk or think much about the Vietnam War “and certainly not when the games started.”
But he also said the Marines, particularly his drill sergeants, were responsible for giving him the focus, drive and discipline that were so important for all he would achieve.
“I’ll never forget my graduation from basic training, standing next to my mother who I adored,” Seaver said.
“I didn’t know I could ever stand that tall.”