The Spokane Indians players know it now: Manager Matt Hagen has their back.
Their tour of Fairchild Air Force Base on Tuesday was marked not only by multimillion-dollar gadgets and some poignant moments on the tarmac, but by the bite marks administered to Hagen’s arms by a German Shepherd named Brenda.
“Way to go Coach,” several players cheered as Hagen – who actually volunteered for this – managed to stay on his feet while Brenda dug her fangs into his heavily-padded suit.
This was all in fun, and Hagen had reason to smile when it was over: His body parts were intact and so were the arms of his players, several of whom wanted to battle with Brenda until Hagen waved them off.
Indeed, this was team bonding at a whole new level. Time will tell how much it pays off when the season begins on Thursday, but everyone was a winner during the Indians’ seven-hour foray onto the flight line.
The Indians have tried for several years to make this happen, but tight schedules always got in the way. This year, players reported early; even then, it took two weeks of paperwork and vetting to get everyone approved.
“This was important for us … for 18-to-22-year old guys who play baseball to have some interaction with the 18-to-22-year-olds who save our lives,” said Otto Klein, the Indians’ senior vice president and also an honorary commander at Fairchild.
Apparently the Air Force feels the same way. According to Klein, base commander Col. Ryan Samuelson “doesn’t want the base to live behind its walls – he wants to share and celebrate what they do.”
The big celebration will be on July 29-30, when Fairchild opens its doors to the public. Tuesday’s affair was a small-scale dress rehearsal, with big smiles all around.
The day began with a demonstration of a flight simulator. As Air Force pilots trained inside, Indians pitcher Grant Zawadzki mused whether the G-force inside was anything like “Top Gun.”
Not quite: Fairchild specializes in aerial refueling, and a 45-degree bank is as steep as it gets on a KC-135 Stratotanker.
However, the learning curve on a KC-135 is plenty steep, as the Indians learned inside a simulator that replicates midair refueling. Everyone got a turn.
Described by a Fairchild airman as a “$4 million video game,” the simulator allows the operator to maneuver the KC-135 into position to refuel a B-2 bomber. That wasn’t terribly difficult – until the airman ratcheted up the difficulty level.
“Uh, oh,” exclaimed a player as he lost “control” of the refueling boom. Others laughed. Later, players got to play with robots that are employed to dispose of bombs.
But for all the eye candy, this was about connecting with fellow youth who wear a different uniform – the uniform some Indians have seen on a father, uncle or brother.
“A lot of our players appreciate what veterans are doing,” said Chris Duff, the Indians vice president and general manager. “But to actually see what they do on a daily basis is very gratifying.”
Actually, it was more than that for second-year pitcher Clay Middleton, whose father served for 22 years and retired as a Master Sergeant.
“I wanted to enlist coming out of high school,” said Middleton, who instead went to college on a baseball scholarship.
“But this is always special,” Middleton said.
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