The Pittsburgh Pirates and Bradenton Marauders didn’t invent the idea of making baseball cards for military heroes.
Carley Paganelli, marketing and communication coordinator for both teams, said teams have been doing it for the past several years. The Major League Baseball parent club Pirates and the Class-A Marauders tried it for the first time Saturday as part of Military Appreciation Night at McKechnie Field before the Marauders defeated the Tampa Yankees 4-2 to earn a spliut of their four-game series.
The Marauders began taking nominations in Manatee and Sarasota counties in April. The criteria was someone serving the country now, having served in the past or even a deceased veteran.
“We had an overwhelming turnout,” Paganelli said.
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Paganelli and her colleagues picked 20 heroes from hundreds of nominations and gave away 1,000 card sets honoring them before the game to the first fans in the gate.
“A lot of them live here or are retired here but some came from all over the country,” Paganelli said.
All 20 heroes were in attendance Saturday or had representatives standing in for them if overseas or deceased.
There was U.S. Army Col. Benjamin Knisely of Sarasota, a medevac helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. His helicopter was shot down and he survived three days without food and water. He looked like Gen. Patton on his card. He didn’t know he was getting it. His girlfriend, Priscilla, nominated him.
“It was a gee-whiz moment,” he said, seeing his card for the first time.
There was Terry Willis of the U.S. Air Force who served in Korea and now is in the Honor Guard for Manatee County.
There was state Rep. Greg Steube of Bradenton who was a captain with the 25th Infantry Division during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Steube is now the state representative for House District 73.
Paganelli’s staff conducted a pre-game tribute along the first base side where each hero was called out and received a plaque and, their loved ones ran into their arms as a team photographer recorded the moment.
U.S. Marine Corps’ Steven A. Garcia of Sarasota, one of the heroes, grabbed a microphone on the field and proposed to his girlfriend, Katerina Pluhack. She said yes.
When asked what she thought the heroes and their families would feel about the cards, Paganelli predicted the shiny, professionally done cards would be viewed as a token of appreciation from the Marauders and Pirates for their service and something to give to their fans or to simply enjoy since having their own baseball card is really a youthful dream for many.
Based on the watching the heroes holding their cards, seeing them meeting each other and making new friends over the cards and seeing the tears in the face of a Bradenton father whose son is overseas and a mother whose son died in service may have convinced Paganelli the military cards and Military Appreciation Night meant a whole lot more than anticipated.
“This is definitely something we want to continue for the years to come,” Paganelli said.
Mercer’s name echoes
Each hero had his card read over the PA system, something Christopher Mercer, a senior airman in the Air Force stationed in Turkey, would have enjoyed, said his father, Bradenton’s John Mercer.
“This will be a big surprise for him,” John Mercer said as he held up the card of his son, a Bayshore High graduate who joined the Air Force in 2013.
Asked what he would say to his son if he could John Mercer said, “I’m here for you my friend. Miss you. Wish you could be here. Doing the next best thing for you. Love ya.”
Marian Olivas and her daughter, Bradenton’s Alexa Olivas, 27, who manages the bookstores and clearance centers for Manasota Goodwill, stood in for their hero, the late Nicholas Olivas, Marian’s son and Alexa’s brother.
“One of Nicholas’ friends nominated him,” Alexa Olivas said.
“They were on a mission in Afghanistan when he stepped on an improvised explosive device May 30, 2012,” Marian Olivas said.
Marian Olivas said Saturday was a bittersweet night, bitter to remember the visit at work from the U.S. Army telling her her son was gone, but sweet being able to see his card and talk about him, bring his name up, talk about his young son, Connor.
“He was gung-ho military from the time he could walk,” Marian Olivas said of her boy, who was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. “He had his sights set on doing good stuff.”
The mother and daughter were asked what they thought of Nicholas’ card.
“Awesome,” Marian Olivas said.
“He collected Pokemon cards,” Alexa said with a giggle.
“ Nick was humble,” his mother said. “He would have said I don’t want my face on a card. It’s very nice that the Pirates did this.”
Asked what her message would be to veterans around the world, Marian Olivas said: “I love them all. They have my support all the time. I pray for them all.”