Love and sacrifice

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

All of them should be here.

They should be with their friends and families at a barbecue, music thumping, kids chasing each other, the feel of summer in their embrace, with baseball on in the background, because there's still nothing more patriotic in the sports world than a great baseball game.

Some are in Iraq fighting a war and others are in Afghanistan rebuilding a country and others have died. Nearly 2,500 United States soldiers in Iraq since 2003, to be specific. Plenty of them loved baseball, and baseball loved them back.

And that's the point of this story: To remember and honor and cherish the best memories during the time of year all the bad ones start to return. Baseball does that. It's a salve, an antidote, an answer.

It's a sliver of three soldiers' lives.

Dominic Baragona should be watching the Cleveland Indians play the Chicago White Sox today.

Any man named after Rocky Colavito is, after all, required to love the Indians unconditionally.

"I thought he was being named after his father," said Baragona's mother, Vilma. "His father is named Dominic, too, and I didn't even think anything of Rocco being my son's middle name. I learned later that Rocky Colavito's real name was Rocco."

Raised in Northeast Ohio, Baragona was the middle child in a family of seven, and no surprise a baseball lover was drawn to numbers. As a teenager, he participated in number-theory workshops, and after he graduated from West Point, he worked with Army logistics.

He'd do it for 21 years, the friend everyone called Rocky, the one who loved astronomy, the guy who, as one person wrote, "We all knew to look up when we needed to pass our numbers courses."

Stationed everywhere from Fort Bragg to Germany and Fort Sill to Korea – where he was one of the lead antiterrorism officers in charge of protecting the 2002 World Cup – Baragona still followed the Indians.

"Of all our boys," Vilma said, "Rocky remained the biggest fan."

Vilma sighed. She was looking at the back window of her The Villages, Fla., home, where an Indians logo hangs.

"The sad thing is," she said, "his dad was able to talk to him because he had a satellite phone, and the night before he had gotten killed, he said, We're almost at the Kuwaiti border. It looks like I'm home free, unless something stupid happens.' Something stupid happened."

Dominic Baragona died May 19, 2003, around Safwan, Iraq. A tractor-trailer hit his Humvee. He was 42.

Jonathan Reed should be eagerly anticipating the unveiling of the NCAA baseball tournament brackets this morning.

His greatest sporting memory came from the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., in 2000, when Reed went with his father, Webster, and his dad's friend Jay Templeton. Reed and his daddy had been there two years earlier when their team – Louisiana State, the two-time defending champions – lost. In 2000, with Jon watching, the Tigers won their fifth baseball title.

"I don't believe we stopped for gas we came back so fast," Webster said. "It was kind of like we floated back."

Which was the usual for Jon. Every so often he went with Webster to the Whiskey River Landing, where they danced to zydeco music.

"We did so much together," Webster said. "We tailgated. We cooked jambalaya in our pot. We hunted. We fished. We socialized. We drank a few beers. We put something on the pit. We watched baseball."

Over the last few years, the late nights became less and less frequent. Jon had a family, wife Desi and son Riley, and evenings sitting in the parking lot and talking about anything whittled away.

Instead, the Army sent Reed to the Middle East, where, in care packages, he asked for four things: beef jerky, hot sauce, Zapp's potato chips and the Baton Rouge Advocate sports section.

He needed to keep up on LSU, which, after a loss in the Southeastern Conference tournament, is not guaranteed an NCAA berth this year.

"They got beat," Webster said. "And I'm sure he's not too happy if he's watching down."

Jonathan Reed died Jan. 28, 2005, in Baghdad. An improvised explosive device hit his vehicle. He was 25.

Danny Varnado should be celebrating another excellent season for West Alabama baseball.

After a standout year at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Varnado signed a letter of intent to play at West Alabama. Before he could enroll, his National Guard unit was deployed to Iraq.

He didn't have time to truly break in the Wilson A2000 glove he'd coveted for so long and finally gotten with the help of his friend and pastor, Lowry Anderson.

"Somehow or another, we got to talking about that glove," Anderson said. "I told him, Let's go find one.' We looked it up on the Internet. I said, I'll order it for you, Danny.' You pay me when you can."

Two weeks later, Varnado brought the money to Anderson.

He was that type of person, Anderson said, full of integrity, imbued with character, unafraid to punctuate a yes with sir and a no with ma'am.

Varnado wasn't nearly as polite when pitching, as he fought through questions about his size and stuff by putting up excellent numbers.

"It brought the boy out of him like it did me when I was growing up," Anderson said. "It was the only game, and that's the way he approached it. He loved it. He reached heights that he probably never thought he could. He just kept going. He was a worker."

Came from his wife, Sharon, and his son, Kannon, and the rest of his family that survived Hurricane Katrina. They all helped clean up Gulfport, Miss., the city ravaged by the storm, and rebuilt the Bel-Aire Baptist Church. Varnado, no question about it, would have been there, too.

"He was just real," Anderson said.

Danny Varnado died May 23, 2005, in Haswa, Iraq. An improvised explosive device hit his vehicle. He was 23.

All of them should be here so we can appreciate them once more.

So Timothy Bell, the nephew of Kansas City Royals manager Buddy Bell and grandson of the late Gus Bell, could get a hug from his family, which knew he always wanted to be a Marine and never tried to force baseball on him.

So Jason E. Smith, the rebel from Phoenix who delayed a baseball scholarship to Glendale Community College to learn some discipline in the Marines, could get to play an inning of college baseball. He had straightened out and was talking with the coaches about playing once his military commitment was up. Then he died on New Year's Eve 2004.

Hopefully, Rob Ford will be home soon, so he can see all the ways he's appreciated.

Rob, a captain with the Nebraska National Guard, grew up a Royals fan and wanted nothing more than to meet George Brett. When Ford was last home on leave, in February, his phone rang, and the Caller ID read: BRETT, GEORGE.

"Honey," said his wife, Renee, "I think George Brett's on the phone."

They talked for about 10 minutes, and Brett invited Rob and his family to Kansas City during his next leave. Aug. 5 is Military Appreciation Day at Kauffman Stadium. They already set up a meeting.

They'll discuss the war in Iraq. That's what people ask military personnel about. They'll chat about Ford's role training the new Army in Afghanistan. That's another interesting subject.

When all the small talk is out of the way, they'll talk baseball, because it's the great unifier, the game that stole the hearts of Rocky Baragona, Jon Reed and Danny Varnado before their lives were stolen from us.

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