SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Barry Zito had one main goal in mind when he founded Strikeouts For Troops in 2005: to help wounded soldiers returning from war by increasing awareness for what they go through both when they're fighting overseas and when they come home, injured and looking to rebuild their lives.
In the years since Zito introduced the initiative, his vision played out well. Years ago, reaching out to troops wasn't a normal occurrence for ballplayers and their teams. Now, we see it in every ballpark, across the country. Zito didn't have a direct hand in the initiatives of all 30 clubs, of course, but he should be considered one of the pioneers of the awareness of wounded warriors.
But as much as Zito wants to continue to help the cause, there's one event very close to his heart that he prefers to maintain on a more intimate level. Every Spring Training for the past six years, Zito has hosted a group of soldiers at Frasher's Steakhouse in Scottsdale for dinner and a musical presentation. This is one party that will remain small, with hopes it will always maintain an informal, family-like atmosphere.
Approximately 75 guests gathered on Monday night at the Scottsdale landmark for what was categorized as a gift, not a fundraiser, for the wounded soldiers in attendance. This year, the honored guests were U.S. Marines from the Wounded Warrior Battalion in San Diego. All were Purple Heart Recipients, including Sergeant Nick Kimmel, a triple amputee who threw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 2 of the World Series in San Francisco last year.
"They're the real heroes," Zito said. "These guys are doing it all. To be able to meet them and see them and hear their stories, tell them thank you in person ... that means the most to us."
Several members of the Giants' upper management and field staff were in attendance, including principal partners Trina and Rob Dean, president and CEO Larry Baer and manager Bruce Bochy.
Player/coach participation included several musically gifted partygoers: White Sox pitcher Jake Peavy, Padres pitcher Huston Street and Giants coach Tim Flannery, plus a crew of non-musicians: Indians outfielder Nick Swisher, Giants reliever George Kontos, retired Giants infielder Rich Aurilia, Padres infielder/outfielder Mark Kotsay and former center fielder and current Dodgers announcer Rick Monday.
"Whether you believe in the war or not, you should support the troops, especially the guys coming home," Swisher said. "These men and women are over there fighting for what we have over here. Big Z, he's been putting this on for I don't know how many years. It's a great cause. I wouldn't miss this for the world."
Following dinner, Zito asked several of the soldiers to stand up and give a brief synopsis of their backgrounds and how they were wounded fighting overseas. The speeches were emotional, the stories powerful. Zito commented that the term "war stories" ballplayers use when exchanging experiences on the playing field is improper, given the actual meaning of war stories when they come from the men and women who fight in wars.
"You represent the U.S. Military all over the country and all over the world, and we like to let you guys know we're behind you," Zito said.
The group then moved to the bar area for the concert portion of the evening, beginning with a solo act by Flannery. Zito, nearly as famous for his musical talents as he is for his pitching, sang and played his guitar and was later joined by Peavy and Street, also skilled guitarists. The set was fortified with contributions from more mainstream musicians, including Kelley James, Steve Poltz and Renee Puente.
At one point, the musicians and a couple of the wounded warriors gathered on stage for a unique rendition of "Sweet Caroline." Stepping up to the stage wasn't an easy task for the soldiers, further driving home the message of Strikeouts For Troops.
"A lot of these guys came within an inch of their life," Zito said. "You can tell by seeing their injuries. It's a situation that really hits home with all of us and makes us feel so fortunate and so blessed to have all of our legs, let alone playing games for a career."
Bochy remembers Zito's passion for this cause when the then-free-agent lefty met with the Giants' brass in 2006.
"It was something he brought up before we even signed him," Bochy said. "He talked about Strikeouts For Troops and how much it meant to him. Sure enough, he's followed up on it; now it's getting really big. A lot of the ballplayers have backed him on this. To have these soldiers in here, to be here to tell their stories ... I love it. I'll never miss this event."
Strikeouts For Troops is designed to lift the spirits of injured troops and their families and also provide the comforts of home while they work to recover. Grants from the charity assist service members recovering at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas; Naval Medical Center in San Diego; Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and other care facilities, including Fisher House.
Zito's hope is for Strikeouts For Troops to bring as much normalcy to returning troops and their families as possible, as quickly as possible. Raising awareness is a key factor.
"So many times, back [in 2005], we would feel like we were the only ones bringing up some things with the troops, at least in baseball circles," Zito said. "Now, it's everywhere. Let 'em know how special they are. That means so much to us."