- Rick Reilly, Columnist, ESPN.com
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The Afghanistan snow covered the tops of his boots the day U.S. Army Specialist Shaun Pelt, a medic, ripped opened a box from the States and found four baseball gloves and four balls.
"All of a sudden," Pelt writes, "it was Christmas morning."
He and his roommate immediately went out in front of the latrine trailers, in 20-degree weather, and played frozen-fingered catch for an hour, grinning like 8-year-olds.
"And this was the best thing: For that whole time, I forgot where I was," says Pelt, 34.
With 18 American soldiers and veterans committing suicide every day, any idea that might help soldiers relieve the unimaginable stress of combat is a good one. But this one -- to box up gloves in his garage and send them off to troops -- wasn't about that for Vance Albitz, a 24-year-old minor league shortstop in the St. Louis Cardinals' organization. It was just a way to say thank you.
"I read where the soldiers over there get lonely and bored," says Albitz, who spent time with the Memphis Redbirds (Triple-A) last season. "I feel that way sometimes, you know? New town, new team all the time. And I'm just playing baseball. These guys are putting their lives on the line for us. I just thought somebody ought to thank them for it."
Albitz read an article somewhere in which a soldier was asked what he'd most like to have sent to him. "Two gloves and a baseball," the soldier replied. And something clicked in Albitz's brain.
He's sent nearly 300 this offseason so far, all by himself.
"It helps not to have a girlfriend," Albitz says.
He does it out of his parents' house in Torrance, Calif. His dad oils the gloves and fixes the strings and Vance fills the boxes, adds a note and ships them off. Getting the gloves donated isn't easy, but getting the money to ship them (about $25 per box) is even harder.
His goal is to send 1,000 by the time he reports to Cardinals spring training on Feb. 23. "Then I've really got to stop."
What he loves are the emails he gets back.
You made our day when we got the gloves. We will be playing ball tomorrow afternoon thanks to you. I am a die-hard Red Sox fan. I wish they would pick up a guy like you.
-- SPC Dwight Gerhart
Coming back from a mission outside the wire and having the ability to wind down and play catch is a huge stress reliever.
-- Kyle Kent, U.S. Army Cavalry
Albitz has a website he designed called Gloves4Troops.com, where soldiers can ask for gloves and people can donate them. "Seems like every glove comes with a story, too."
One man sent a note:
"This is my dad's super-old glove. I took it to Cooperstown after he died and played catch outside the museum. Then I went to his grave and said, 'Well, Dad, you never got to Cooperstown, but your glove did.'"
And now it's going to Kandahar.
One old soldier from Vietnam wrote saying he would've loved to get some gloves back then. Not just for the games of catch, he said, but "just to know people cared about us. We didn't think anybody cared."
Albitz's buddies in baseball have sent a bunch of gloves (although new Colorado Rockies third baseman Ryan Wheeler emailed him and said, "Dude! I just threw out five!"). Rawlings Sporting Goods donated a bunch. The Virginia Tech baseball team sent a boxful, and balls, too. And a group called Veterans United Home Loans out of Columbia, Mo., says it's going to send hundreds.
What tickles Albitz the most is the idea of soldiers 7,000 miles away, in a place so foreign and forbidding, playing the most American game of all. Kicks the hell out of camel racing.
"So many things around baseball are changing," says Albitz. "All the money and all that. But the real reason we love baseball is just going out and tossing the ball around. I've had the best conversations with my dad just playing catch in the front yard."
He's so taken by it, he's even spending his own money to do it.
Me: Do you have it to spend?
Albitz: Uh, well, no, not really.
People have differing opinions on these two wars -- but I've always believed in the men and women who must fight them. I can't imagine the strain they're under. Pelt would like to forget where he is, but we can't. That's why I'll match the first $1,000 in donations that Albitz gets mentioning this column. Go to Gloves4Troops.com or mail Vance directly at 23133 Hawthorn Blvd, Suite 303, Torrance, Calif. 90505. (Hurry -- Feb. 23 approaches!)
If you don't have money, send a glove. If you don't have a glove, send a ball. If you don't have money, a glove or a ball, just send a letter to a soldier and Albitz will include it in a box.
Either way, remember this kid's name: Vance Albitz, a minor leaguer with a major heart. Someday, he's going to be very popular up there.
And who knows? He might even play big league baseball, too.