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World Series trophy landed in an unlikely place

@RichardJustice
January 8, 2020

MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU AIR BASE, Romania -- Nationals right fielder Adam Eaton made his way off the stage the moment the show ended on Tuesday afternoon and turned toward a sea of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. They’d lined up to shake his hand and to tell him how much they

MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU AIR BASE, Romania -- Nationals right fielder Adam Eaton made his way off the stage the moment the show ended on Tuesday afternoon and turned toward a sea of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines.

They’d lined up to shake his hand and to tell him how much they appreciated him coming so far to see them and to let him know that these USO tours do wonders for the morale and spirit of United States service personnel overseas.

“It’s super cool that these guys would come all the way here to Romania to see us,” Sgt. Michael Jones of Blue Ridge, Ga., said. “It’s a very humbling experience.”

Funny how these things occasionally work out. Sometimes, the person who seems to benefit the most is on the other end of the thing. And that’s what Eaton had in mind when he began approaching service personnel before they could approach them.

He approached them one by one, grabbed their hands and said simply, "Thank you. Thank you."

“Being able to connect with our troops -- and support them -- means everything to me,” Eaton said. “I come from a military background. Just to be able to give back is important."

When one soldier mentioned that the Nationals were his favorite team, Eaton slipped off his jersey and handed it to him. By that time, he and teammate Aaron Barrett had given away dozens of hats and signed every poster that came their way.

Eaton finished the evening by cradling the World Series trophy in his arms and posing for photo after photo. In the end, he seemed at least as fulfilled as any of the troops.

“They weren’t able to go home for Christmas,” Eaton said, “and to be able to bring a little bit of the United States here to them, you can tell it’s touching and does a lot for them.”

Eaton and Barrett were part of a USO tour to Europe that -- in the best tradition of Bob Hope -- featured comedians, musicians and MMA fighters. In the first of two stops on Tuesday, they put on a raucous show that ended with the entire cast joining country music duo LoCash for a foot-stomping, hand-clapping finish. (In a reminder that Spring Training is approaching, Barrett did a long-toss drill to Eaton during LoCash's sound check before the show.)

“When I got the opportunity to come, I jumped all over it,” Barrett said. “It’s such a unique opportunity to be able to tell them thank you. It’s a blessing to be able to play this game, and if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be able to do so.”

And then there was the World Series trophy, perhaps the biggest star of all. In the three days since Nationals vice president for public safety and security Scott Fear rolled it in its protective case aboard a C-17 at Joint Base Andrews on Sunday, everyone from pilots to soldiers to USO staff have posed with it.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Fear said. "I’m so happy to be here with these troops. To bring it around the world to these troops has been such a joy. It’s great we have Adam Eaton and Aaron Barrett with us. Two great guys. You can see the troops light up. We’re really having fun.”

Apart from what the trophy means to Nationals and their fans about ending years of October disappointment with an amazing postseason run, the troops seem to see it as representative of something larger.

“We can learn a lot from those guys, and I hope they can learn a lot from us,” 1st Lt. Thomas Ritchie of Tulsa, Okla., a West Point grad, said. “It’s training, teamwork, goals -- there’s a lot of common themes between the military and athletics. It’s cool to meet them and hear a little bit about what they do as well.”

Since touching down in Romania on Monday, the cast has gotten VIP treatment, including an exhibition of Bradley Fighting Vehicles and a teeth-rattling trip in a pair Black Hawk helicopters. Eaton was so impressed by the experience that he hustled off the chopper and ran to fetch the World Series trophy so the crew could get an up-close look at it.

“That ride was pretty awesome,” Barrett said. “Just being able to talk to these men and women and to get to know a little bit more about them, that fires me up. It’s such a privilege to be here and be part of this. It was almost better than a roller-coaster ride. But I trust these guys. They’re professional. We were going about 120 knots, which is moving.”

With Nationals Park less than four miles from the Pentagon, the Nationals have a natural relationship with the United States military. Honoring service personnel is a staple of the Nats' game-day entertainment, and players and staff are frequent visitors to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and other facilities.

“The Washington Nationals have had a longtime commitment to the military and honoring the military at our park,” Nationals senior vice president Gregory McCarthy said. “Winning the World Series was the best thing that happened to us, and we wanted to bring that experience to the men and women overseas serving on the front line, protecting our country.”

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.