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Yaz joins cause as MLB pitches in for veterans

Medal of Honor recipients invited on field; fans waving U.S. flags to help with donations

BOSTON -- Carl Yastrzemski threw out the ceremonial first pitch on Wednesday night before Game 1 of the 109th World Series between the Cardinals and Red Sox -- "almost in the dirt," he said with a little relief -- and he vividly recalls his historic Triple Crown season of 1967 that ended when this same matchup of clubs produced a seven-game St. Louis victory over Boston.

And the great Yaz remembers what America's relationship was with its military at that time.

"In '67, you had a very anti-war thing," Yastrzemski told after bringing the Fenway crowd to a roar. "Not right now where they're supporting our troops and things of that nature. So it's very different times. It was almost like things like baseball weren't important in '67, with so many protests going on and things like that."

How different life was on this night in Boston and in the United States of America. Major League Baseball is dedicating the first four games of the World Series to important community initiatives, and the theme of Game 1 was helping military veterans and their families, specifically raising awareness of Welcome Back Veterans.

As part of this effort, Yastrzemski was joined on the mound by three Medal of Honor recipients: Salvatore Giunta, Clinton Romesha and William Swenson. It is the highest honor America can confer upon its own.

"They sure have accomplished more than I have, I'll tell you that," the Hall of Famer said, humbly. "It was a great honor: Game 1 of the World Series. I told them, 'Why don't you throw out the first pitch?' They said they couldn't reach home.

"I was very happy to meet the three Medal of Honor winners, and it was my pleasure."

Yastrzemski, 74, came back with a flourish to his masses.

"Doesn't he look great?" one fan asked behind the dugout.

Indeed, this legend is in fine fettle, and Yaz said he was extremely heartened by the ovation -- soaking in every moment of it, like it was old times beside the Green Monster.

Was this as much a thrill for him as it was for the crowd?

"Yes, it is," Yastrzemski said. "And I'm glad it's happening in this way, with this special occasion being the first game of the World Series."

Yastrzemski watches the Red Sox closely, and he said it was good to put 2012 behind as an aberration in what otherwise has been a long string of success in Boston.

"I'm just happy for the turnaround that Boston made this year," Yastrzemski said. "Last year wasn't fun watching. This year, they remind me of the '67 team. Except they have better pitching. They pull together, they play together, and I look for them to win this thing."

Yastrzemski said this feels more like that 1967 series than the 2004 Fall Classic, where the Red Sox steamrolled St. Louis in four.

"They're two good teams," Yastrzemski said. "I expect it to go six or seven games -- probably seven."

Before the first pitch, the three Medal of Honor winners spent time together in the Red Sox Family Room, sharing stories and mutually appreciating what this night meant.

"I feel super privileged to be here," said Giunta, now a converted Rockies fan who has gone back to school at Colorado State. "I mean, ultimately, all of us represent the men and women who are still in uniform, still over there kicking butt on our behalf. We're here watching a baseball game while they're working for us.

"To see a country standing behind its troops the way America has stood behind us -- particularly in this combat zone, in this theater of the global war on terror, and how different it is from the Vietnam veterans -- I couldn't be any more excited. I think 12 years of war is a long time, and to have MLB, in an ultimate showcase, be able to showcase and say thank you to our returning veterans, it warms my heart."

Welcome Back Veterans was launched in 2008, and since then, MLB and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation have committed more than $28 million. To date, a total of $15 million in grants has been awarded to nonprofit agencies and hospitals supporting returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans' and their families' greatest needs, focusing on treatment and research of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). The Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital Home Base Program is supported by Welcome Back Veterans.

On Thursday, MLB and the Red Sox will send a delegation to a local V.A. Hospital in further recognition of the nation's military veterans.

Game 2 will focus on two longtime MLB charitable partners in Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Habitat for Humanity. The series then shifts to St. Louis, and for Game 3, MLB will highlight its commitment to youth from underserved communities through Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), the importance of education through the Breaking Barriers program, and celebrate community service through the announcement of the winner of the Clemente Award winner. Game 4 will look to inspire fans worldwide to join MLB and Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) in advancing the fight against cancer.

Bank of America, the Official Bank of MLB, provided American flags for fans at each Fenway entrance, and asked those in attendance to wave the flag during "God Bless America" (before the bottom of the seventh inning) as an expression of thanks to U.S. troops.

Bank of America will donate $1 on behalf of each participating fan to Welcome Back Veterans and the Wounded Warrior Project in an effort to reach a total donation of $1 million, which will go toward helping service members and veterans succeed here at home. Bank of America's "Express Your Thanks" initiative aims to help support members of the military and veterans across the country by donating $1 for each expression of thanks. Fans can visit to learn more about this program and how they can express their thanks.

In November 2010, Giunta became the first living person since the Vietnam War to receive the Medal of Honor. He was cited for saving the lives of members of his squad on Oct. 25, 2007 -- at a time when these Red Sox were sweeping the same Rockies club he now follows. Giunta left the Army in June 2011. Romesha and Swenson made similar sacrifices that defy belief.

"In the early 2000s, I wonder if America knew what they were asking their 18-to-23-year-olds to do on their behalf," Giunta said. "And that was one year or two years or three years into a war that we've now been doing 12 years. My heart always goes out to them. I guarantee you they're not warm, they're not happy, and if they're watching a baseball game, they're only watching it before they go out on guard or go out on a mission. They're fitting it in between their day.

"Today for us, it's become our event, and it's awesome. And I hope they see the appreciation of the American people, because we get to feel it, and I hope they appreciate it, because they will come back to a country that is grateful. I think MLB is stepping up to the plate, and we are recognizing our men and women in uniform."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of Read and join other baseball fans on his community blog.
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