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O's honor military, including first pitch

O's honor military, including first pitch

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BALTIMORE -- On a holiday normally reserved for backyard barbeques, fireworks and general celebrations of all things "American," the Orioles and Major League Baseball put their Fourth of July festivity focus on paying homage to those who have helped to ensure that each July 4, Americans across the country can enjoy themselves: U.S. Veterans.

Standing on the field behind a red, white and blue Major League baseball logo, nine military members from the Walter Reed Army Medical center were given a standing ovation by Orioles fans prior to Friday's game with the Rangers.

"This is their day," said Orioles pitcher Garrett Olson. "This is America's pastime and we are playing a game, but we wouldn't be playing it if it wasn't for their sacrifice. They're a huge part of what we do out there and it's easily overlooked. But whenever they come into the stadium, they're always well liked and recognized."

With America's pastime honoring Veterans in ballparks across the country, the Orioles welcomed the military members from Walter Reed and honored Major Paul "Max" Moga, an Air Force F-22 Demo Pilot, with the ceremonial first pitch. The ceremonies were part of Major League Baseball's Welcome Back Veterans program, designed to raise awareness, support and funds for returning veterans.

"It's overwhelming," said Sergeant First Class Timothy Webster of the ovation. "A lot of times as a soldier you sit back and say people don't care. But when something like this comes back, you realize they do. ... It's different than what you see on the news and all the negative stuff, it lets you know that people truly care about what goes on with their soldiers."

As the engines blared from the four-plane flyover and the Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 965 presented the colors, the Orioles got set to take on the Rangers -- getting into the Independence Day spirit by sporting blue Orioles hats with an "O" made up of stars and stripes.

"Everyday they should do that, I think," said Orioles reliever Jamie Walker of the team's altered uniforms. "I think instead of black-shirt Fridays, we should have camo Fridays here in Baltimore in honor, because we are at war."

Honoring the veterans is something that hits close to home for Walker because his own father was a World War II veteran. Walker has always tried to incorporate tributes to Veterans into the game any way he can. The reliever is the one who organized the team's trip to the Walter Reed Center on June 27 when the team was in Washington, D.C.

"To me the veterans are the heroes," Walker said. "There's a lot of people who have lost their lives for this country, even our forefathers, so that's one thing I've never lost grip of. The old saying is, 'If you can read this, thank a teacher; if it's in English, thank a veteran.' So I think Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, they should be our biggest holidays."

Moga, a Minnesota native, has been with the Air Force since 1995, racking up over 1,800 fighter hours and over 250 combat hours over Yugoslavia. Moga is also the host of the Military Channel's Showdown: Air Combat and has garnered several awards for his military service. His ceremonial pitch was a strike to Walker.

The Orioles are just a week removed from their trip to Walter Reed, a trip the military members said did not go unnoticed by the patients there and offered their thanks to the Orioles for taking the time to make that trip and for inviting them to be honored on Friday.

"I joined the Military 16 years ago and when you sign up, it's because you're going to serve your country," said Staff Sergeant Gary Brown. "You think about, 'I may one day be out on the battlefield,' but you never think about, 'I'm going to be out on a baseball field with professional baseball players.'

"It gives you an exhilarating feeling knowing that actually happens," Brown continued. "It's a sense of gratitude. People feel a sense of gratitude when they see the soldiers and it's the same feeling for us. It's a sense of gratitude that they actually care about us and know that we're out there protecting them and their families."

Amanda Comak is an associate reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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