Special homecomings for military dads
According to the calendar, Father's Day is Sunday. But for four men who recently returned from overseas tours of duty with our armed forces, the holiday came early this year thanks to their favorite Major League Baseball teams.
The reunions took place at Mariners, Braves, Twins and Diamondbacks games this season. EspnW talked to the teams, the servicemen and the family members to bring you an inside look at how these special homecomings happened.
In each case, the teams came up with a plan, but executing the surprise with so many moving parts wasn't easy. It took planning, some luck and, of course, some deliberate misdirection, requiring the assistance of friends, family members, team mascots and, in some cases, the umpires working the games.
The serviceman: U.S. Army First Sergeant Steve Smerer: 17-year Army veteran, Tacoma/Fife, Wash., native, Mariners fan, husband to Trina, father of three children (Kayla, 16, Kyle 13, Colton, 1). Smerer has been deployed to Bosnia, the Sinai Peninsula, Iraq (three times) and has been stationed in Afghanistan since December 2011.
The idea: Smerer received word in January he'd be returning to the Seattle area for two weeks in April. He wondered if he could combine baseball and a homecoming for his 13-year-old son, Kyle. "I thought how cool would it be to do a surprise homecoming at a baseball game. As I thought a little bit more about it, I figured "Why not? I'll email the Seattle Mariners considering that's where I'm stationed, and the fact that I grew up in Tacoma/Fife, and see if it's something they would entertain."
The team's response: Camden Finney, Seattle Mariners marketing manager: "We've always wanted to do something like this and we obviously got very excited about the opportunity. We said 'Yes, absolutely, let's do this opening night.'"
The plan: Take the Mariners' Steal A Base contest -- where a child is selected to steal second base and take it home with them -- and convert it into a surprise reunion between father and son. "We thought this would be the perfect opportunity for Kyle to steal a base," Finney said. "Then on the other side, we thought we can bring the dad out dressed as an umpire because there's umpires out there and the fans wouldn't necessarily notice the umpire right away until he ran up to Kyle and gave him a big hug."
The decoy: Smerer's father Ron (Kyle and his sister Kayla stay with Smerer's parents during the week while he is away) told Kyle that he had entered him in a Mariners' contest and he had won. The Mariners went the extra mile and sent Kyle a letter on Mariners letterhead notifying him that he'd been selected to participate in the contest. To further defray any suspicion, Smerer texted Kyle the day of the reunion to say good luck and that he was sorry he couldn't be there.
The close call: Smerer sent his wife Trina a text to notify her he'd arrived in Kuwait from Afghanistan. "My daughter saw it before Trina had the chance to read it. Kayla was sure I was coming home, but Trina was able to fend off the curiosity by telling her that I was there for some sort of work-related mission."
The surprise: With over 50 family members and friends at Safeco Field for the game and the big event, Smerer hid in the press box for the first four innings before he went down to the field to surprise his son in the fifth. Meanwhile, Kyle headed to the field, nervous and excited, escorted by the Mariners' promotion team. When the Mariners Moose gave him the sign, Kyle dashed out from right field to second base. That's when Steve, dressed as an umpire, grabbed Kyle for a hug.
The reaction: Kyle: "I was so focused on the base when my dad grabbed me. I was wondering why some guy was grabbing me. Then I was kind of shocked since I didn't expect my dad to be there. The first thing I asked him was 'What are you doing here?' and he said, 'I'm here to see you.'" Smerer: "It was easily one of the most emotional moments I can recall having. Although stunned, the smile that appeared on Kyle's face the moment that he realized it was me was something I will always carry with me. When I first saw Kayla and the emotion she had on her face at that moment as she walked towards me with her arms stretched out for a hug, we both lost it."
Behind the scenes: Because the Mariners planned for Smerer to be disguised as an umpire, the team needed to get permission from the umpires working the game against the A's. When the group heard the Smerers' story, they gave their blessing and expressed excitement at helping him get set up for the big event.
What it meant: "I am so glad that we were able to share such a great experience like this on opening night in front of all the fans," Smerer said. "I would most certainly like to thank the men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice so that something like this could even be possible. There are so many that will never get to have a homecoming they are the real ones that make things like this continue to happen in our great country."
The serviceman: Master Sgt. David Sims, Air Force reservist from Warner Robins, Ga., Braves fan, husband to Robin, father of four children (Brittany, 13, Dustin, 12, Roman, 11, BreeAnna 10). Sims is assigned to Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command's Communications Directorate at Robins Air Force Base and had been deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan for six months.
The idea: Before the season, the Braves worked with DVIDS (Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System) to discuss military "shoutouts" and other ways the team could honor servicemen and women as part of their Homecoming Heroes initiative. The team wanted to do a family reunion if possible. DVIDS sent out a request to the field in search of a deployed serviceman or woman who met specific criteria: a Braves fan from "Braves Country" with a family, who was returning home around Memorial Day. Master Sgt. Sims fit the bill and was thrilled to participate.
The team's response: "Because of all the appreciation and recognition we were already doing for the military members, we thought it was a good thing to recognize the military families as support functions that the military members overseas have, and recognize the sacrifices that they also make supporting that husband or wife that's serving overseas," said Scott Cunningham, the Braves' director of game entertainment.
The plan: Take the Braves' Hometown Heroes segment -- where a local serviceman or woman is honored during every Sunday game and on holidays -- and convert it into a surprise family reunion. "It would be a perfect fit where we could bring Master Sgt. Sims' family out to be recognized. Then as the surprise, we could bring Master Sgt. Sims out and reunite him with his family," Cunningham said. "We wanted to do it in a way that our fans would be surprised and wouldn't know what was happening until it actually happened, and we wanted to make sure that the family wouldn't suspect something weird happening either."
The decoy: Sims needed a good story to get his wife to make the trip to Atlanta with four children without him. "I told her that I had entered us in a contest and that we had won the contest and they would be honored as the Hometown Hero at the game if they would go," Sims said. "I constantly had to urge my wife, 'Please go, please go, don't let the kids miss this opportunity. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the kids.'"
The close call: "My replacement who was taking over my duties when I was supposed to leave Afghanistan was delayed," Sims said. "But because my boss out there was aware of what we were trying to do with the Braves, he let me leave a couple of days before my replacement got there, so we could pull off the surprise."
The surprise: As Master Sgt. Sims looked on from just off the field, Robin Sims and their four children walked onto the field in the middle of the fifth inning to be introduced to the crowd as the team's Hometown Heroes honorees. Braves' PA announcer Casey Motter then directed the Sims family to watch Braves Vision for a special message. As the family and nearly sold out crowd at Turner Field watched, the video board played a message from Master Sgt. Sims which DVIDS had recorded in Kabul. "I just wanted to say hi and I love you, I miss you. I can't wait to be with you again. In fact, wait one minute." Master Sgt. Sims then disappeared off screen. To the surprise and amazement of everybody in the ballpark, he then emerged onto the field. The family ran towards each other, met in front of the Braves' dugout and had a heartfelt embrace as the crowd stood and applauded.
The reaction: "When the moment finally came and up there on the screen I say 'Wait one minute' and I came out I thought, 'This is it! I'm finally going to be back with my wife and kids,'" Sims said. "And they finally saw me, and we all ran to each other -- it was just very emotional, and I was so glad to be back with them because I missed them all so much."
"I had a number of people -- fans and acquaintances that were here at the game -- contact me and say that this was the most special moment they've ever experienced at a Braves game," Cunningham said. "This was one of those moments, even for me, I've been here since 2005 that I don't think I'll forget during my time here at the Braves."
Behind the scenes: Typically when the general manager from a visiting team attends a game, the home team offers him an empty broadcast booth or an available suite. The Braves needed to hide Master Sgt. Sims in the empty broadcast booth until the fifth inning of the game before he reunited with his family. When the Cardinals asked if they could use the booth for General Manager John Mozeliak, the Braves had to decline the request. "We told them it was occupied by another VIP," Cunningham said. "On Memorial Day, Sergeant Sims got preference."
What it meant: "We realize that it wasn't just about us," Sims said. "It's about all military families out there and we're thankful that we were able to just stand there and be representative of all military families. And I hope that people remember that there are thousands of military families out there just like us who have a loved one deployed and they're waiting for that loved one to come home. Every military family deserves the kind of welcome and appreciation we received. I feel tremendously honored that we were able to be a part of that on behalf of all military families."
The serviceman: Master Sgt. Robert Buresh of Kasson, Minn., an aeromedical evacuation technician with the 109th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron of the 133rd Airlift Wing, Minnesota Air National Guard. Husband to Julie, father of two daughters (Annie, 11 and Alex, 8). Buresh has been deployed six times, including his latest deployment in January, to Afghanistan where he managed two medical aircrews and two critical care teams flying medical missions.
The idea: Buresh found out on May 18 that he'd be returning to Minnesota on May 27. His family and several members of his squadron had tickets to that day's game against the Detroit Tigers. Buresh sent an email to Patrick Klinger, the Twins' vice president of marketing. In the email, Buresh wrote: "My wife knows I am coming home, but my two children do not. I have two daughters aged 11 and 8. They are both Twins fans, and my 11-year-old is absolutely infatuated with Joe Mauer! What girl isn't? I was wondering if there was anything that we could do at the game to surprise my children. It is a long shot, but without asking, the answer is a definite no. Please let me know if this could be possible."
The team's response: Klinger immediately forwarded Buresh's email to Julie Okland, senior manager of promotions for the Twins, with a note: "I'm supportive of doing something special."
The plan: With less than a week's notice, the Twins had to act fast. Okland worked with the team's senior director of game presentation to convert the Twins' popular Kids Race the Bases contest -- where kids dress in the players' gear (put a helmet on at first, cleats on at second, uniform on at third) and try to beat each other to home plate -- into a surprise homecoming where they would meet their dad at the finish. "When I found out that he had two girls ages 8 and 11, I just thought it was a perfect fit," Okland said.
The decoy: The team has a strong relationship with the military community in the Minnesota area and had donated tickets so servicemen and women and their families could attend the game on Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. With that as the backdrop, Okland had Rob's wife Julie tell her daughters the Twins found the girls because they needed two daughters from a military family to participate in a contest. The girls were excited and agreed. At Target Field, Okland kept up the charade by congratulating the girls on being selected.
The close call: Any delays during the nearly 7,000 miles of travel from Afghanistan could have thrown a wrench into the plan. Okland needed Master Sgt. Buresh at Target Field by 12:20 p.m. He arrived in Minneapolis from Baltimore on Sunday morning and had to stay away from the ballpark so none of his friends and family would spot him before the game.
The surprise: In front of a near sellout crowd at Target Field including at least 10 family members and many more members of the Minnesota Air National Guard, the girls took the field and began their race around the bases. Master Sgt. Buresh remained off the field until Annie and Alex had reached first base, when he walked to home plate and hid behind the Twins' mascot, T.C. Bear. The girls rounded third base, struggling to keep their giant uniforms on, and Buresh stepped out from behind the giant bear to greet his daughters, wrapping them in a giant hug. The Target Field public address announcer declared, "Ladies and gentlemen, you've just seen a reunion returning from his sixth deployment overseas in Afghanistan." The crowd stood up and gave the Buresh family a lengthy standing ovation. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire and several players came out of the dugout to shake his hand.
The reaction: "I was surprised at how nervous I was," Buresh said. "I knew this was a big moment. It was overwhelming. Annie's eyes just got big and Alex didn't see until she got closer. I couldn't hug them enough. There really aren't words." Annie said: "I didn't realize it was him because I was looking down trying to keep my pants on and keep my helmet from falling down over my face. And I look up and I see him and I think, 'Huh?' and then I cried out, 'DADDY!' When I saw dad, it was almost like everything just blacked out."
Behind the scenes: Alex and Annie Buresh weren't the only ones to get a surprise that day. "When I went back to meet Rob before bringing him out onto the field I thought, 'Oh my gosh, he thinks he's going to surprise his girls. I'm going to surprise him,'" Okland said. "So I brought his wife up to see him first. When [Master Sgt. Buresh] was coming up the walk, he wasn't expecting to see her, and they just had this amazing moment. I, of course, lost it at that point."
What it meant: "I asked for it because I wanted to have a really good memory coming home from deployment for my kids. It wasn't about me," Buresh said. "But [in our unit] there's always somebody deployed. And when that person's deployed, there's always family at home struggling to make it without him. That's where the biggest focus needs to be. I get all the help I need. But there isn't enough of that at home. Watch out for those families who are still home waiting for their loved ones to come back."
The serviceman: Lt. Col. Paul Aguirre, Arizona Air National Guard. Aguirre, a Phoenix native, had not missed a Diamondbacks home opener in 14 years until a seven-month deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan last fall. It's a tradition he shared with his two children, Jackson, 6 and Alanna, 5.
The idea: Aguirre received word in April he'd be returning home in early May. "I'd seen surprise reunions, so I sent out an email to the Diamondbacks community relations department and said, 'Hey I'm in Afghanistan. I've been here for almost seven months, and I haven't seen my kids in almost eight because I had to come to combat training before that. I'm hoping that we can do something special at the ballpark with my kids as a reunion."
The team's response: The Diamondbacks have a long-standing relationship with the military community in Arizona. "We immediately knew we wanted to do something," said Diamondbacks CEO and president Derrick Hall.
The plan: The team had orchestrated surprise reunions before and targeted May 7 against the Cardinals. "We thought of the old "hiding catcher" trick which we've used in the past [where the kids throw out the first pitch and dad is disguised as the catcher]," Hall said. "It's always a great way to surprise the family, and it's very emotional, and we knew that this would be perfect. When we asked him if he would be willing to do it, he loved the idea and it was a go from there."
The decoy: The team suggested that Aguirre tell his children they had been selected to throw out the first pitch in honor of their dad, representing other children whose fathers are serving overseas. "I told them I won't be there," Aguirre said. "But before that, I'll give you a video message that will be on the scoreboard."
The close call: Aguirre's travel had no hitches, but keeping his emotions in check before the reunion proved to be a challenge. "When they hurried me out, the kids' backs and sides were to me, but their eyes were focused on the screen," Aguirre said. "I was going to home plate behind them, and when I saw them just for a split second, I really thought I was going to start bawling right there."
The surprise: Aguirre's son and daughter are introduced to the crowd at Chase Field. As Aguirre crouches at the plate in full catcher's gear, the children look up at the video board and watch their father deliver a special message recorded earlier that day. "Alanna and Jackson, I love you guys so much. Sorry that I'm not going to be able to be there for when you throw your first pitch for the Diamondbacks," Aguirre said. Jackson threw out the first pitch, followed by Alanna. They had no idea that the man in full catcher's gear at home plate was their dad. That's when Colonel Aguirre stood up and removed his mask. "Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome home Lt. Col. Paul Aguirre," declared the public address announcer at Chase Field. The crowd of 26,447 stood and applauded as he and his children hugged, cried and kissed.
The reaction: "[Jackson] didn't say 'Hi Dad,' he just sort of waved like he was shocked that I was there," Aguirre said. "Then he gave me a hug, and then Alanna behind him throws her hands up on top of her head like she can't believe it. I'm talking to them, and they're just trying to look at me like it's not registering with them at all. I kissed them about 50 million times." Hall said: "My favorite part was the lifting of the masks to reveal that it was him and our PA announcer telling the crowd, 'Please welcome Paul Aguirre.' You hear the crowd just sort of sigh, and then the applause lasted a good two to three minutes, and that to me was just the highlight. Here I was all teary on the field myself. I don't think I'd be human if I wasn't."
Behind the scenes: Before the game, Colonel Aguirre recorded the decoy video message to his children at the ballpark in his uniform. After taping the message, he saw Hall in the lobby. "I asked him what's been the toughest part," Hall said. "He said the toughest part was that, 'I got in yesterday, and I wasn't able to see my kids last night ,and we needed to wait for today's game.' That to me -- I've got three children -- that really touched my heart."
What it meant: "Between that and the National Anthem and being in uniform and the unbelievable generosity and graciousness of the Diamondbacks, I'll never forget that," Aguirre said. "It's one of the best highlights ever, and more than that as much as it was for me, my kids now have a memory that's so unique that they'll have forever."