ATLANTA -- Since his parents brought him from Cuba to the United States just before his third birthday in December 1966, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has developed a strong sense of patriotism. But it's safe to say that this Veterans Day will provide reason for him to be even more reflective than he has been in years past.
While still serving as the Marlins' manager in late January, Gonzalez was among the members of that organization who visited military personnel in Iraq and Kuwait. The eye-opening and enriching experience led him to return to his native land with even more reason to appreciate the unselfish sacrifices being made by those men and women who risk their lives to preserve the freedoms enjoyed within the U.S.
"I think it was good for us as well as for the soldiers," Gonzalez said. "It was a tremendous experience. You can have your opinion on the war, whether we should be there or not, but keep that fight with the politicians. When you see our soldiers in an airport or anywhere, you approach and thank them for what they do for us. They are the ones who are allowing us to do something as simple as play a baseball game."
While in Iraq, Gonzalez had the opportunity to take multiple flights in Black Hawk helicopters, while wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet -- a pair of tangible reminders of the daily dangers experienced by the young soldiers, many of whom accept this responsibility just months after receiving their high-school diploma.
"I was amazed at how young these guys were out there," Gonzalez said. "We've got kids playing [Class] A ball who are older than some of these kids. These guys could be guarding a tower or a base and just a few months earlier they were in high school."
Gonzalez vividly remembers a day when he scaled to the top of a tower and was introduced to a baby-faced soldier holding a machine gun. The soldier proved to be just a couple years older than Gonzalez's 17-year-old son, Alex, who is currently a senior at suburban Atlanta's Lassiter High School.
"When the kid told me that he had just graduated high school in May, I kind of laughed and said, 'I have a tough time getting my son to brush his teeth and comb his hair every day,'" Gonzalez said.
A non-commissioned officer standing nearby responded, "Give him to us, we'll take care of that."
About six weeks earlier, Gonzalez and his son had flown to Philadelphia to enjoy the patriotic splendor created by the Army-Navy game. While the pageantry certainly proved to be memorable, the father-son duo walked away from the game impressed by the genuine love the players showed for the game, their respective academies and the country that they soon could be protecting in battle.
"When we were leaving, Alex said, 'You know, dad, none of those guys are thinking about being on ESPN or the NFL Draft,'" Gonzalez said. "It was very true what he said. For many of those guys, they were taking the helmet and shoulder pads off for the last time. It was a great feeling of honor watching those kids compete and knowing that they would soon be the ones protecting our country's freedom."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.