U.S. Army SPC David Michael Paul, pictured delivering the game ball Thursday at Comerica Park, arrived back in the states this week after a 20-month deployment in South Korea. His next stop is Fort Bragg, N.C. (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)
Detroit — It started with a conversation on Skype, evening here, morning in Waegwan, South Korea. It was a bad connection, so while my baby brother could see me, I couldn't see him. Still, I could sense the nervousness.
"I'm going to throw out the first pitch?" asked David, a specialist in the U.S. Army.
"No," I clarified, "you are going to deliver the game ball to the mound."
And with that, I heard a deep exhale.
My brother joined the Army about two years ago, and, fresh out of boot camp at Fort Sill, Okla., was deployed to South Korea. He spent 20 months overseas, before this new assignment finally brought him — and his wife, Erica, expecting their first child this summer — back home.
David arrived back in Michigan late Wednesday night, eager for two weeks with friends and family.
But his first request, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, was to see a Tigers game. With the team out west the next two weeks, Thursday was his only opportunity before moving on to his next stop, in Fort Bragg, N.C. So, upon hearing this, the Tigers got busy planning a day he won't soon forget.
And just before first pitch, while dressed to the nines, David shoved off the first step of the Tigers dugout, strolled across the third-base line — making sure not to touch the chalk; you can't take the superstition out of the former baseball player — and delivered the game ball to the mound.
A hearty crowd on a miserably soggy day offered a touching ovation as he arrived at the center of the diamond, placed the baseball down, smiled widely and saluted the fans.
Over the P.A. system came a message from the team: "The Detroit Tigers thank you for your service."
Honored to thrill
The Tigers, like many professional sports teams, take their relationship with the armed forces seriously.
Before each game at Comerica Park, at least one service member — and sometimes more — is honored in a ceremony. David, 22, the youngest of my four siblings, was thrilled to be a part of this week.
Tigers ace Justin Verlander also uses his ballpark suite to host service members injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as their families, every time he pitches at home. This is the third year of "Verlander's Victory for Veterans" program.
And this will be the fifth year Fox Sports Detroit play-by-play man Mario Impemba will offer free copies of an Opening Day DVD to service members and their families. He's been wrapping up voiceover work recently; the 2013 DVDs should be ready to ship by early May.
Impemba doesn't have any direct family ties to the military. The idea came from a Tigers caravan stop in Lansing, where he met with soldiers ready to ship out. Many were baseball fans, and they told Impemba the thing they'd miss the most was not being able to attend Opening."
"So," said Impemba, "we started thinking of ways to bring Opening Day to them."
A DVD quickly came to mind, and after researching costs, the program was born. Interestingly, the Tigers have won every home opener since he came up with the idea — the latest last week's 8-3 shellacking of the New York Yankees.
"We've been lucky," Impemba, who personally funds the entire project, said with a laugh. After all, it's tough to figure how much of a hit the DVDs would be featuring the broadcast of a Tigers blowout loss.
Also, one Monday a month this year, Impemba plans to host a military group at the ballpark.
For more information on Impemba's endeavors, visit http://tigers.com/operationopeningday.
Having a ball
As for the game-ball delivery, it proved the perfect start to a fantastic reunion with my brother.
The Tigers were helpful and gracious, throughout the process. I followed standard protocol, available at tigers.com. They have few guidelines. First, they prefer service members who have been deployed. They also request you make sure the soldier is comfortable participating; some, it turns out, are not. And they ask the service member participate while in uniform; formal or combat, it's up to each individual. (My brother chose his dress blues, at the not-so-subtle urging of my mom.)
Each honored service member receives four tickets. If, like the Pauls, you need and buy extras, the Tigers make every effort to get the entire party seated near each other in the stadium. Occasionally, depending on availability, this includes a nice upgrade.
Our party, including my dad and older brother, arrived with David about a half-hour before first pitch, enough time for him to change into uniform. (If you want to change back afterward, Tigers security is happy to watch over the uniform during the game.)
Garnet Conerway, in her second year as community affairs coordinator for the Tigers, met us in the ballpark's lobby, handed David a bag of nice Tigers goodies, and went over the particulars. Mostly, don't call out for autographs or pictures; if any of the Tigers come over on their own, and they often do, then that's perfectly fine.
"Love it!" Conerway, a bubbly young woman, said while talking about her job. "Each day is different."
And, to those like U.S. Army SPC David Michael Paul, each day is oh-so special.