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Bradenton’s reluctant hero throws strike

ST. PETERSBURG

Saturday was Superhero Night at Tropicana Field, and one of them stood tall on the pitcher’s mound.

It wasn’t David Price, though Tampa Bay’s heralded lefty is expected to be nothing short of Superman before he calls it a career.

No, our man wore the dress blues of the Bradenton Fire Department. Pinned to his chest were the Bronze Star and the fire department’s Distinguished Service Medal for his actions in Iraq.

You want a Superhero for Superhero Night, we present Don Wendt.

“I don’t know about that,” Wendt said.

Wendt is a reluctant hero.

The 44-year-old Bradenton resident was glad for the chance to throw out one of the ceremonial first pitches, because Saturday was also Bradenton Night, but Wendt anxiously awaits the day when he’s back to being Don Wendt, fireman, and not Don Wendt, war hero.

“I’ve been trying to let it die,” he said. “I can’t wait until this whole Bronze Star thing is done and over. I see it different. I don’t see myself as a hero. I was over there like everyone else, just trying to make the most of a bad situation.”

Isn’t that what superheroes do? Make the most of a bad situation?

“To me,” Wendt said, “the heroes are parents of the guys who died.”

Wendt, a Staff Sergeant in the Army National Guard, spent 13 months in Iraq. While on patrol one day his convoy was attacked by a suicide bomber. A fellow soldier was pinned under a vehicle that had flipped during the explosion. Wendt and Sgt. Charles Norris attached chains to the burning vehicle and pulled it off the soldier.

The soldier didn’t survive his wounds, which is another reason Wendt doesn’t consider himself a hero.

“Maybe if he lived ...,” he said.

Wendt flipped a baseball from one hand to the other while he talked before his moment on the mound.

He’d rather talk about the pitch.

“An awesome honor,” he called it.

The 1982 graduate of Manatee High played shortstop for the Hurricanes and later second base on the fire department softball teams.

Wendt spent the past few weeks pitching to a metal box set up at Station 2. He estimates he threw about 500 pitches. Half were strikes.

He was just hoping to get the ball across the plate on the fly. He did, firing a strike to Rays rookie pitcher Dale Thayer.

Saturday was Superhero Night at the Trop, and a few fans dressed for the occasion. The guy with the Bronze Star pinned to his chest just wanted to be a fan and, for a brief moment, to look like a big league pitcher.

“They can use some pitching,” Wendt said, motioning toward the Rays dugout.

The Rays could use a shortstop, too, he was told.

“Yeah, but I’ve moved over to second base,” he said.

The Rays could use one of those, too.

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