copyright Joe Palladino – Waterbury Republican-American 8/11/2010
Bobby Wilcher was in uniform again Wednesday night, only this time he was not in fatigues and not in harm’s way, although anyone who has tried to hit one of Dan Connelly’s curveballs might disagree with that. At Fuessenich Park on Wednesday, Wilcher traded in his government-issue Army uniform and instead pulled on his Waterbury Wild uniform to play in a Tri-State Baseball League playoff game. It was a one-night-only opportunity for Wilcher, who is home from Afghanistan on a two-week leave. Wilcher is a 2007 Kennedy High grad where he was an All-State baseball player and a football quarterback. In 2008, he signed up to serve his country, and five months ago he shipped off to Afghanistan for his first duty in the war against terror.
Wilcher had played one season of Tri-State ball with the Wild. Wednesday was his first time swinging a bat or tossing a baseball in, “I don’t know how long,” he said. “I am very nervous,” he added prior to the first pitch. “Hopefully, I won’t embarrass myself.” A man who puts his life on the line in hostile territory is an All-Star in my baseball scorebook. Give credit to Tri-State commissioner Ed Gadomski and Winsted Whalers manager D.J. Reese for allowing this to happen. When Wild manager Tom Van Stone presented this idea to the league, Gadomski was enthusiastic. “I made one phone call, and the league said, ‘We’ll do anything we can do; don’t worry about,’” Van Stone said. “Technically, he’s not on the roster. They said, “Do whatever you want to do; he’s in the game.’”
“I called D.J. to ask him if he would object,” Gadomski noted, “and I didn’t even finish the question and he was saying yes.” Unbeknownst to Pfc. Wilcher of the 630th MP Company, the league had a surprise for him. Van Stone had Wilcher bring the lineup card to home plate, then both teams assembled on the baselines. An announcement was made explaining his current military duty, and every player on both teams lined up to hug him, shake his hand and say thank you. “I knew there were going to be some tears tonight,” said an emotional Wilcher.
He didn’t embarrass himself either. He reached on a fielder’s choice, flied out and struck out twice. The swing was rusty, but still quick. In right field, he had one adventure, but we don’t need to go into detail about that. Winsted (15-10) won the elimination game, 8-3. Joel Castillo stroked a single, a double and a solo home run, while Chris Davidson and Charlie Putnam added two hits in support of Connelly, who earned the victory. Waterbury (10-12) had two singles and a double from Fraz Kader. Those were the baseball numbers. There were more important issues in this game. When Wilcher arrived at the field just before 5 p.m., the first thing he noticed was the flag in center field. Most ballplayers check it to see if the wind is blowing out. Wilcher was stirred simply by seeing the Stars and Stripes.
“There are no words to describe this,” he said before he dashed off to hug some teammates. “It is baseball, and I am excited.” The Wild players were happy to open up a playing slot for Wilcher, and Van Stone explained that Bobby has been a part of this team throughout the season, even if he was half a world away. “I gave them a history lesson all season long,” said Van Stone, whose family all but adopted Wilcher during his high school years and helped guide him through school. “If the team ever got down, I talked about Bobby. On Memorial Day, I made a point to say that your friend is fighting so that we can have this holiday. Bobby was never far from our minds and hearts. They are honored to play with him tonight.”
The Whalers won. They move on in the playoffs. The Wild lost. They collect the uniforms. No one likes that moment. But remember, guys, in eight days you are not going back to Afghanistan. Bobby Wilcher is. You all helped send him off with an evening that he will likely never forget.
And before I forget: Bobby, thank you.
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