MANATEE -- Only in America can a boy come to his first baseball game, get a new baseball at the turnstile and be invited to yell the traditional "Play Ball" to start the game before 3,000 fans.
That's exactly what happened to Bradenton's Cash Fogg,, 4, Tuesday night at the Bradenton Marauders' July 4 Celebration Night at McKechnie Field, which featured postgame fireworks and a concert by David Nail.
The Marauders lost 5-2 to the Fort Myers Miracle in the game. But the patriotic display at McKechnie was what one of 50 World War II veterans in attendance said he had in mind when he trekked overseas 70 years ago.
"I'll tell you what, I know I am honored to be a part of this," said U.S. Navy First Class Petty Officer Yarrick Conner of MacDill Air Force Base, who traveled from Tampa to Bradenton to sing a rousing "Star Spangled Banner" as part of the occasion. A recording of Toby Keith on the loudspeakers singing "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" added to the U.S. fervor.
The Marauders went all out in their American tribute. Everyone got a new baseball with an American flag on it. The ball also bore a Marauders logo and the phrase, "Legacy of Valor -- Patriot Plaza," which relates to a campaign created by The Patterson Foundation to honor veterans, inspire patriotism and pass freedom on.
The Patriot Plaza is a a glass-covered complex scheduled to be dedicated next year at Sarasota National Cemetery.
Patterson volunteers ask for no donations since the project is totally funded by the Patterson family. They handed out brochures at the game, showing what the complex will look like.
The Marauders also handed everyone through the gate a small American flag to proudly wave or put in a baseball cap, as some fans did.
The stadium was adorned in red, white and blue bunting. The Marauders were cloaked in special patriotic red, white and blue uniforms.
In his dress whites, Conner, who has a reputation for putting his whole heart and a touch of soul into performing the national anthem, drew the crowd into the song.
"I have a rule to sing what I feel," Conner said.
Veterans on the field and in the stands saluted and non-veterans put hands over their hearts during the anthem.
Thinking of every detail, the Marauders shot a rocket high over right field at the precise moment Conner sang, "....and the rocket's red glare," bringing goose bumps.
The minor league team invited the World War II veterans, most of whom never really had a parade or an official welcome home 70 years ago.
"They don't really understand why we are making such a fuss over them now," said Didi Ewing, 33, a member of a volunteer group honoring veterans called Bomber Girls.
The veterans were brought to the game in collaboration with Honor Flight of West Central Florida, which has flown 782 veterans free to Washington D.C., since it started two years ago.
On the trip to the nation's capitol, veterans see these memorials in one hectic day: Iwo Jima, Air Force, U.S. National World War II, Korean War Veterans, Vietnam War and Lincoln's.
On the plane flight back during "mail call" the vets are handed hundreds of letters from schoolchildren, said Leonard Black of Honor Flight.
The Bomber Girls raise money for the Honor Flights by selling American pins and other items.
The Bomber Girls are often mistaken for the Andrews Sisters in their mid-1940s uniforms of U.S. Navy Waves and Women's Army Corps. Their uniform includes chocolate brown skirts, tan blouses, garrison caps, red lipstick, makeup and mid-length hair cuts with pin curls, said Bomber Girl Natalie French.
Cash got to come to his first game because Bob Litwiler, co-owner of Auto Go Mobile Service of Lakewood Ranch, gave tickets to Cash, his mom, Brandy, and brother, Elvis, 13.
On top of everything, it was Lakewood Ranch Night where residents got a special offer.
"We paid $5 for tickets, got a meal plan, fireworks, a concert and a baseball game," said Summerfield resident Lorrane De Sanctis, who attended with her husband, Joe.
Josh Courson, 18, a 2013 Southeast High School graduate and his friend, Jerry Dawson, 19, of Manatee School For the Arts, were both typing away on their cell phones just before the game in contrast to the elderly veterans, who grew up with black-and-white TV.
Courson was on Facebook posting a picture from McKechnie Field and asking if anyone he knew was at the game. Dawson was on Instagram.
Courson and Dawson said the game was "cool" and want next year's Marauders' concert to feature Beyonce and the Steve Miller Band.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, Ext. 6686.