Rangers' Baker salutes Wounded Warriors
Son of Army colonel displays a great admiration for the military
MILWAUKEE -- The memorial outside a Navy barracks simply consists of a soldier's boots, rifle and helmet. That's pretty much all that was left after the Navy SEAL fell on a grenade that had been tossed into a room amid him and four buddies.
The four other SEALs walked away, and the man who saved their lives is memorialized at the Navy SEAL Training Center on San Diego's Coronado Island. Jeff Baker, Rangers utility player and strong supporter of the Wounded Warrior Project, viewed the memorial a few years ago when he and other members of the Cubs were given a private tour.
The image remains vivid in his mind and is not readily forgotten.
"People say they would fall on a grenade, but those guys really mean it," Baker said. "For those guys, it is second nature, there is nothing more honorable. I have so much respect for them. I'm beyond baffled and honored by those guys."
The memorial is especially profound for a "military brat." Baker's dad, Larry, spent 22 years in the United States Army, retiring as a colonel. Col. Baker served in air defense, which included nuclear weapons, and taught at West Point. Jeff was born in Germany, and the family lived all over the world, from El Paso, Texas, Key West, Fla., and Norfolk, Va., to Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Egypt.
Jeff Baker was also a star baseball player at Woodbridge (Va.) Gar-Field High School, winning Virginia State Player of the Year in 1999, and an All-American at Clemson University, so his career path took a straight line to Major League Baseball rather than the military.
But he still has great admiration for those who serve their country, and that's why Baker has become involved in the Wounded Warrior Project. Through various programs and fund-raising efforts, the Wounded Warrior Project is an organization dedicated to serving soldiers wounded in the line of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Over 32,000 soldiers have benefited from the work of the Wounded Warrior Project in helping them get back to living normal lives, and often Baker wears the group's shirt in the Rangers' clubhouse before putting on his own uniform.
"I think people have an appreciation for the military and understand what they do," Baker said. "But I think the military is also looked at almost as a mythical, magical unicorn. I don't know if people truly understand what the military is really all about or what those guys through. It's not the most high-profile position or the highest paying. A lot of it is just men and women who have great respect for their country and want to do something for it.
"So many have gone overseas, put their life on the line and come back banged up and beaten, their bodies in pieces. People forget about that part, but I wanted to get involved and see what I could do to help."
Baker still makes his offseason home in Woodbridge, just outside Washington D.C., and his involvement started out with simple visits to wounded soldiers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Fort Belvoir Community Hospital.
"It's just mainly a meet and greet, just go in and talk to them, for five, 10, maybe 15 minutes, try to lift up their day," Baker said. "Just tell them how much we appreciate what they do. On the flip side, I probably get more out of it than they do. You hear their stories and what they went through. ... It grounds you and humbles you, keeps things in perspective.
"We as athletes complain about things, like the travel or whatever. ... These guys have lost an arm or leg, or they're going through post-traumatic stress disorder, struggling trying to get through their day mentally. These men and women do what they do so we can live the life we love. You have to honor and appreciate that.
"You just walk in, see somebody and just start talking with them. You hear the stories. ... There are fascinating stories of what they went through. I saw guys who lost arms or legs and they're wearing their prosthetics, and all they want to do is get back over there and be with their buddies and back in their platoons. They don't regret it one bit. If I had my leg blown off, I'm not sure my first instinct would be to want to go back. It's definitely an eye-opener."
Baker prefers to keep a low profile with his involvement, but he has gradually begun to do more with the Wounded Warrior Project. Some of it is fund-raising and donations, or simply providing basketball tickets to Washington Wizards games.
The Wounded Warrior Project's mission is to raise awareness and enlist the public's aid for the needs of injured service members, to help injured service members aid and assist each other, and to provide unique, direct programs and services to meet the needs of injured service members. The vision is to foster the most successful, well-adjusted generation of wounded service members in United States history.
"I'm thrilled that somebody stepped up and took the initiative to get the word out, and the Wounded Warrior Project has done that," Baker said. "Some of these men and women come back beat up, banged up and scuffling. It would be easy for us to just turn the page on them, but the Wounded Warrior Project makes sure that doesn't happen.
"Other companies and other businesses have started to get involved. I'm really excited about the progress we are making and how big it is getting."
Baker signed with the Rangers in the offseason and had to make the team in Spring Training. He is still getting adjusted to his new home and has not had a chance to get involved locally in the Wounded Warrior Project. He is eager to do so when the schedule allows him the time.
"I know how much Texas supports the military," Baker said. "A lot of people have mentioned that Texans are some of the most hardcore guys out there. There is a lot to do."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.