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Barry M. Bloom

Visit with wounded veterans has big impact on O's

Club travels to Walter Reed Medical Center before earning victory over Nationals

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Visit with wounded veterans has big impact on O's play video for Visit with wounded veterans has big impact on O's

MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

WASHINGTON -- It's not as if the Orioles needed a harsh lesson in life's perspective, manager Buck Showalter said on Monday, but they were given one anyway.

With a makeup game at Nationals Park in the offing on Monday night, Showalter, his wife, Angela, and nine players left Baltimore at 10 a.m. ET to take a one-hour bus trip to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in nearby Bethesda, Md.

There they spent two hours visiting with wounded veterans, most of them having returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, some of them trying to sufficiently heal enough to rejoin their buddies in battle.

"One guy was walking for the first time with his new leg, so to speak. It was kind of neat to share that with him," said Showalter before his club came from behind to beat the Nationals, 7-3, with three runs in the seventh and two in the eighth. "He said he wanted to be there standing for his brother's wedding. I didn't hear one complaint. The next time I complain about anything, somebody slap me."

The facility is the largest military medical center in the U.S. and is usually the first stop for wounded soldiers and sailors when they return home. It was established in 2011 -- when the medical facilities for the Army and Navy were merged -- and has long been named after a turn of the 20th century Army physician who confirmed the theory that yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes.

In the O's traveling party on Monday were catchers Nick Hundley and Matt Wieters, second baseman Ryan Flaherty, starting pitcher Miguel Gonzalez and five members of the bullpen -- Brad Brach, Zach Britton, Darren O'Day (and his wife, Liz), T.J. McFarland and newcomer Andrew Miller.

Brach and O'Day would have a hand in the win, and make no mistake about it, Showalter said, the veterans watch their Orioles on TV and were thrilled to have a good portion of the team visit.

Showalter added that it was his fourth visit to the Medical Center, and each time it has a profound impact.

"It's hard to describe until you've done it," he said. "It's an emotional tug. You don't need things like that to keep things in perspective, but it's just an honor to be around them."

Showalter is 58 years old and has gone through the gamut in his life, having weathered his share of disappointment, not making it to the big leagues as a player. This is his fourth managerial job and success soon followed his departure from the first three. His Orioles are 11-6 since the All-Star break and lead the American League East by four games over the Blue Jays and five over the Yankees. But then, there are the realities of real life, which Showalter says he remains attuned to by watching the news headlines shortly before the start of every game.

His late father, Bill, survived the invasion of Normandy near the end of World War II, and Showalter said one of the most significant trips in his life was visiting the battlefield and cemetery where many of the soldiers and sailors killed that day -- June 6, 1944 -- are buried. His father was in the second wave of Americans that came ashore under a hail of German bullets. Those in the first wave drew the short straw, Showalter said.

After having seen the wounded so many times in his life now, Showalter said he finds himself questioning the validity of going to war.

"I mean, I understand why we do it," he said. "But you see what happens to these guys and really, is it worth it?"

For the players, who are much younger and less circumspect, the visit to the Medical Center evidently offered some perspective to their lives. Hundley, now 30, may have suffered his greatest disappointment hitting .157 for the Padres in 2012, the season during which he was sent back to the Minor Leagues to work out the problems. That paled in comparison.

"They call us heroes, but I met really heroic guys who are fighting, struggling to get better," he said. "I think we get more out of it than any of them do. Just to see their perseverance and sacrifice is unbelievable."

Miller scoffed at any pain he's gone through as a player. Last year with the Red Sox, Miller, now 29, tore a ligament between bones in the middle of his left foot as he awkwardly tried to cross the mound covering a play at the plate. He underwent season-ending surgery and missed Boston's romp through the playoffs and World Series.

Small potatoes compared to what he saw on Monday during his second trip this season to Walter Reed, having visited with the Red Sox before they traded him to Baltimore at last Thursday's non-waiver Trade Deadline.

Miller said he watched a wounded soldier use a similar piece of equipment to one he utilized last year, rehabbing after the surgery -- with one major difference.

"His leg had been cut off about six inches below his waist," Miller said. "I had to use it for a couple of months and I'm fine. He's going to be dealing with this for the rest of his life."

Talk about perspective, that soldier had stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED).

"It's so far and away different than what I have to deal with in everyday life," Miller said. "It's pretty scary. We saw a guy put on a new pair of prosthetic legs and walk at full height for the first time since he had been wounded. Another guy was trying out a prototype hand. His fingers and thumb had been lost in battle.

"They're trying to get back to as normal a life as possible. It's just hard to imagine what they've been through. It certainly humbles you a little bit and makes you realize how good you have it."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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