Gloves 4 Troops has soldiers worldwide playing catch

With lot of help, Cardinals' Albitz provides slice of home to servicemen, women

JUPITER, Fla. -- The sailors aboard the USS Gonzalez, stationed in the Indian Ocean, have already begun to innovate. Golf balls wrapped in masking tape, they've found, substitute well for the baseballs literally lost at sea.

A shipment of two boxes, received from Torrance, Calif., recently stirred a ship-wide baseball phenomenon. In opening the packages, Lt. Cmdr. Kyle Gantt and others discovered eight baseball gloves and 10 baseballs. A moving ship and errant pitches have reduced the stock of balls -- hence the need for a golf-ball alternate -- but that has hardly sapped the fun.

Though in limited supply, the gloves are in near constant use. They are conversation starters -- one of the first men to grab a glove revealed that Tommy John surgery had ended his college pitching career -- and distraction providers. They are a reminder of home and of family, of summertime and of a time without worry.

The significance, however, runs particularly deep for Gantt.

His grandfather was Tommy Byrne, whose 13-year Major League career included 11 seasons with the Yankees and parts of another two with the St. Louis Browns. Eleven games into that career, though, Byrne voluntarily put it on hold. He enlisted in the Navy in 1943 and spent parts of the next two years on board the USS Ordronaux.

Many years later, Byrne shared the stories of his deployment with his grandson, telling him how he would pitch on piers when the ship docked and how he harnessed his control problems, which trailed him throughout his Major League career, in the process. Among Gantt's favorite stories was the one Byrne told about once sending Yanks manager Joe McCarthy a postcard from sea.

McCarthy, as the tale goes, showed reporters the postcard and quipped: "Tommy Byrne is finally throwing strikes. Too bad he's 5,000 miles from Yankee Stadium."

Gantt always loved the story. Now, though, there is something strikingly personal within it.

"I've been proud to follow in my grandfather's footsteps as a destroyerman," Gantt wrote in an email a week ago. "Last week, I identified in another way. As I stood on the flight deck of this destroyer, playing pitch, I realized the connection with my grandfather went beyond our shared experience in the Navy.

"I could barely hit the mitt. Wildness definitely runs in the family."

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The Cause

The impact of an idea born out of time Vance Albitz spent surfing the Internet has spurred games of catch at military bases around the world. It started in November, when Albitz read of a soldier who said the one luxury of home that he'd most like to have was a baseball glove.

Albitz, a Minor Leaguer in the Cardinals' system, figured he was in a position to help. He set his sights on collecting about 20 or 30 gloves, later bumping that goal to a couple hundred after friends and family reacted so enthusiastically to his idea. Then, he simply turned bold.

"I thought about how if I was in that situation, that's exactly what I would want," Albitz said. "It means more than just a game of catch. It's about relationships. So I decided to set a goal of a thousand to see what happens. I figured I would aim high and go for it."

The collection, Albitz decided, would continue until Feb. 21, an arbitrary date he set so that he'd have time to ship the donations before reporting to Minor League camp. Four days before that deadline, Albitz received his 1,000th glove.

Within the next two weeks, that total nearly doubled.

"I wasn't sure if I was going to get there or not," Albitz said. "But the thing was, as soon as the thousand hit, so many more kept coming in. I was overwhelmed with how much I ended up with. It was more than I ever expected."

The final count: 1,965.

Many of the gloves arrived carrying with them unspoken stories of significance. Now in new hands, the gloves are again the centerpiece of new memories, as well as the catalyst for stirring up ones of old. There are new stories forming, stories that best be told to understand the impact of one person and of sport. These are some of them, shared through email correspondence from military members around the world.

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Four gloves arrived at the U.S. Marine Corps base in Camp Leatherneck, located in the southern region of Afghanistan. The recipients received four baseballs, too, as well as letters, some from school-age children, others from the individuals who made the donations.

Brian Newsom, a combined joint movement control center chief and staff sergeant, was among those who read the letters. He also read a description of the Gloves 4 Troops initiative and connected immediately with Albitz, as St. Louis is Newsom's hometown.

A center fielder who lacked accuracy during his high school playing days, Newsom hadn't played baseball since joining the Marine Corps. Now, he has an excuse -- and the means -- to play catch again.

So, too, does Adam Schultz, another sergeant on the base.

"The reaction from me and my Marines was one of joy," said Schultz, who has been enlisted in the Marine Corps for seven years. "To think that there are people out there that care so much to provide service members with a little piece of home while they are deployed is an amazing feeling. The gloves are a big morale booster that we use every time that we get a chance. It's a big change from the training that we do."

Schultz made sure that one of the gloves ended up on the hand of Cpl. Michael Hopkins, who had turned down a college baseball scholarship to join the Marines.

"When I passed the glove to him," Schultz recalled, "he was excited and surprised that we were lucky enough to receive a gift so close to his heart."

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The Collection

The boxes of donations would all arrive at the corporate office building where Phil Albitz works as a financial advisor. In February, once several articles had spread word of Vance Albitz's program, the shipments became overwhelming. There were days when Phil Albitz would transport as many as 15 boxes a day from his office to his son, who, back at the family's home, would sift through and log the donations. The gloves were piled high in the garage.

A project initially designed to target local family and friends had gone national.

Vance Albitz received at least one glove from all 50 states. Current Major Leaguers, including Josh Beckett and Justin Masterson, stepped up to assist, as did Dean Kiekhefer and John Gast, both of whom were Albitz's teammates last season.

The Cardinals set up a drive at their January Winter Warm-Up, which brought in several dozen gloves. A few other teams promised Albitz that they would set out donation boxes in their Spring Training clubhouses this spring.

Then there was the support of several college baseball teams, among them Oral Roberts, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, University of California-San Diego, Drew University and Ancilla College. Albitz was especially moved when boxes came in from the Navy and Air Force baseball teams.

"It was to the point that when you open the garage, it was overwhelming," Albitz said. "Before we had the work day to put them in boxes, it was just piles and piles of gloves."

Monetary donations flowed in, as well, which assisted Albitz with the shipping costs (approximately $20 to send a box of four gloves), which he had initially been paying out of pocket. Albitz pooled the additional funds to purchase more gloves. The Veterans United Home Loans center in Columbia, Mo., wrote a check big enough to cover the cost of 300.

"I believe one person can have this big of an impact. But this wasn't just me," Albitz noted. "I just organized it. It was thousands and thousands of people who helped. But if one person can organize something that people can jump on and support, then yes, you can do something special."

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It was raining in Afghanistan the day Jerry McCarley, a 24-year army veteran, opened his box. He described his reaction to the contents simply that of shock.

"This is my fourth deployment," he added, "and I have not ever received something that special before."

Within minutes, a group had congregated around him, each passing around the gloves, finding the one that had the ideal personal fit. And in the rain, several on the base began to throw. The gloves have received near-daily use since.

For McCarley, the most moving reaction came when he presented a lefty glove to one young soldier, who was both a baseball player and homeless before joining the Army.

"He just went crazy," McCarley said. "You could see the pure joy on his face when I told him he could keep the glove for himself."

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The Community

Though the organization had been his brainchild, Albitz reached a point where he had to recruit help. The piles of gloves and balls and letters became too big for one to package alone, especially since he needed to stay dedicated to his offseason workout program.

What Albitz discovered was a California community antsy to assist.

His parents -- aside from lending their garage as a storage space -- were integral in helping Albitz box up and ship the donations. Albitz's brother, his sister-in-law, former high school teammates, his friends and friends of his parents all offered their time. The South High School baseball team, of which Albitz was once a member, even organized a work day at the school.

The packaging process was specific. Dropped into each box were four or five gloves, about as many baseballs, and several letters. Some boxes were topped off with Gloves 4 Troops T-shirts, which had been donated by a shirt company in Missouri. With almost every glove went an information card that identified the donator.

Albitz estimated that shipments went out to nine different countries; bases in Afghanistan received about 90 percent of the gloves.

"What was also cool to see was that once we boxed them up, there were boxes throughout my entire garage stacked on top of each other," Albitz said. "There were boxes stacked on top of each other in the living room. There were boxes stacked on top of each other in the backyard. There were boxes in the front yard.

"It was like a job. But it was worth it. It was so worth it."

* * * * *

Brooke Culler was stationed at a Texas military base when her hometown Cardinals advanced to the 2011 World Series against the in-state Rangers. She dutifully posted a "reserved" sign on one of the base's televisions in advance of Game 7, ensuring that it was clear what channel the TV would be turned to that night.

Once a regular in the stands at the old Busch Stadium, Culler now keeps tabs on the Cardinals from southwest Asia, where she is an adjutant for the 69th Air Defense Artillery Brigade. Her loyalty to the team runs deep, she said, but her pride in the organization was especially lifted when she found out that it was a Cards prospect who had shipped her a box of four gloves -- three brand new, one fit for a lefty (which suits one of the lieutenants particularly well).

"It was wonderful to know that people back home are giving their time and resources to make deployment life a little more normal," said Culler, who is in her second month of deployment. "To receive a box with toiletries is great, but to open a package and find baseball equipment was absolutely amazing. Everyone was smiling and laughing at that find, and the gloves were immediately tried on, punched and prepared to catch."

The Cardinals connection struck Jessica Lee as well. A native of Belleville, Ill., Lee was raised in a baseball family. Her younger brother has been a Redbirds season-ticket holder. Now a mother, living at the Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, a half a world away from her 19-month-old twins, Lee said she finds something comforting in the opportunity the Cards are tangentially playing in helping facilitate something as simple as a game of catch.

"It can get very lonely while you are in Afghanistan," she said. "You are deployed away from your family and any type of normalcy that you are used to having, so when someone takes time out of their schedule to send you a package or to put together an organization that supports troops, it is a great thing. Soldiers over here often feel like they are forgotten about. The soldiers thought it was really neat that a baseball player was doing something for them."

The box she received also included three letters, one from a father, the other two from the sons he was teaching about the principle of giving.

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The Continuance

The project, while on pause, hasn't ended.

Albitz has his attention on a Minor League season now, but he's already planning ahead -- and telling others to as well. Through his web site (www.gloves4troops.com) and word of mouth, Albitz is encouraging folks to start gathering gloves.

Indeed, he's going to dive into this initiative again. That is, once he gets through this season.

"Now people have six months to collect one glove," Albitz said. "If 1,000 people do that, it'll be a successful next offseason, too."

In the meantime, Albitz stays connected through correspondence. He gets regular emails from those who have been given the gift of a game of catch. Some of those letters give him chills, he said. Others come accompanied with photographs or personal stories or a clear desire to be connected to someone back home.

"I can show you so many new emails from people in Afghanistan or Korea or Germany or the United Arab Emirates, who just say it made them smile," Albitz said. "Each person says it differently. But that's what they say. It's been one of the best experiences I've ever been a part of."

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In her thank-you note back to Albitz, Laura Applewhite, a captain in the U.S. Air Force, wrote that the soldiers at Camp Eggers (Afghanistan) will be having their own Spring Training this spring. That training -- basic as it may be -- has become an after-dinner highlight, something that Applewhite said has allowed many on the base to reminisce of times at home, tossing a ball around with their children.

A New England native, Applewhite detailed a childhood defined by baseball, whether it be in rooting on the Red Sox, watching her brothers play or grabbing a ball and glove herself. A deep connection runs between baseball and family, one that has been rekindled by the generosity of strangers.

"Some don't realize what we face over in the war zone," Applewhite said. "We see things that are indescribable. We learn to appreciate life's little pleasures. Throwing a ball around to bring us back to our childhood, even for only a moment, is a huge deal."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.