FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (Jan. 19, 2023) — Five current and former St. Louis Cardinals baseball players spent time on Saturday meeting some of their Fort Leonard Wood fans, during an event in the Engineer Regimental Room at the John B. Mahaffey Museum Complex.
As part of what’s called the Cardinals Caravan — which brings players, alumni and broadcasters together with fans outside of St. Louis each year during baseball’s offseason — players Gordon Graceffo, Lars Nootbar and Zack Thompson, as well as former pitchers Alan Benes and Randy Flores, were on hand to sign autographs and take pictures with about 50 service members, Defense Department civilians and their families.
Caravan emcee, and sports director for St. Louis radio station KMOX, Tom Ackerman thanked everyone for attending and introduced the players, noting the 30-plus year relationship between the Cardinals and Fort Leonard Wood — celebrated each year during military appreciation night at Busch Stadium.
“We have a pre-game tailgate party; we have a great ballgame; and we love seeing each and every one of you in St. Louis each and every year,” he said.
For Ackerman, the Fort Leonard Wood caravan stop this year was “incredibly touching” on a personal note.
“My father trained here in 1957, and I have never been here,” he said. “So, it’s an emotional and very big moment for me personally.”
First in line for the event was Malia Nemetz, Army Substance Abuse Program Specialist here, and her daughter Nicole, both ardent Cardinals fans, who have even travelled to Florida to watch the team play during spring training.
“It’s nice in the off season to have this one-on-one chance for fans of all ages to get a signature from their favorite players,” Nemetz said, noting they were most looking forward to meeting Nootbar during the event. “Let’s hope we have more of these events in the future. Bringing the community out and sharing the love of sports always gets people together.”
Sitting next to the Nemetz family was Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Wells, from the NCO Academy, and his daughter Layla, both donning powder-blue throwback Cardinals jerseys. Describing themselves as lifelong fans, St. Louis-native Wells said this was a nice perk to being stationed closer to his hometown.
“It’s a great opportunity, especially all the fans in Missouri — it is Cardinals’ nation,” he said.
While the Fort Leonard Wood attendees might say they were the lucky ones to get to meet some of their favorite players in such an intimate setting, the players said the chance to meet and thank service members was the real honor.
“My grandfather served in the Army back in the ‘40s,” Thompson said. “It’s really humbling to be here with you guys. If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t be here doing what we’re doing.”
Fan-favorite outfielder Nootbar — the cheer, “Noot!” was shouted in the room when he was introduced — said the visit was “definitely special.”
“My best friend growing up, he’s overseas serving right now in the military, so it’s a pretty cool moment for me to be able to be here,” he said. “Like Zack said, we play baseball, we shake hands, sign autographs, but you guys are really the ones who help us do what we do. You guys are the heroes, so for us to be able to be here with you, it means a lot more to us.”
Graceffo, who was named the Cardinals minor league pitcher of the year in 2022, mirrored what his fellow players said.
“It’s an honor and a blessing to be here with you guys,” he said. “We thank you for your service.”
While none of the current players have participated in the caravan events before, the two former players — Benes and Flores — have met plenty of fans at events like this over the years.
“I just feel honored and blessed to have this opportunity to visit with some of you,” said Benes, who, as a pitcher, won a combined 22 games for the Cardinals in the 1996 and 1997 seasons. “We thank everyone always for their service, and I’m honored to be a part of this today.”
Flores — who won the World Series as a relief pitcher with the Cardinals in 2006, and is now the team’s director of scouting — said there’s a fraternity in baseball, and he was grateful “to join your team today.”
“I’m actually just in awe and appreciate everything that you guys do for our country, so thanks for having us here,” he said.
About Fort Leonard Wood
Fort Leonard Wood is a thriving and prosperous installation that has evolved from a small basic training post more than 80 years ago to a premier Army Center of Excellence that trains nearly 80,000 military and civilians each year.
Fort Leonard Wood is home to the U.S Army Maneuver Support Center of Excellence and three U.S. Army schools: the U.S. Army Engineer School; U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear School; and the U.S. Army Military Police School. In addition to training engineer, CBRN and military police specialties for the Army, Fort Leonard Wood also provides gender-integrated in-processing and Basic Combat Training for new Soldiers.
Fort Leonard Wood also hosts and trains with the largest Marine Corps Detachment and Air Force Squadron on any Army installation as well as a large Navy construction detachment.
More information about Fort Leonard Wood is at: https://home.army.mil/wood/index.php/about/mission