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01/17/10 2:06 AM EST

Marlins excited to show gratitude to troops

Skipper Gonzalez, players gearing up for Iraq, Kuwait trip

MIAMI -- Fredi Gonzalez doesn't recall any family members who ever served in the military, but the Marlins' manager holds a deep admiration for those who fight for his freedom.

A week from Sunday, that admiration will be on display in an unprecedented manner.

Gonzalez will join his reigning National League Rookie of the Year, Chris Coghlan, his catcher, John Baker, and his boss, president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest, on a one-week trip to Iraq and Kuwait that is the first of its kind by a Major League franchise since the most recent war in the Middle East began, a news release announcing the venture stated.

The Marlins' skipper said he recently got a call from Beinfest about the renegade idea, and he never thought twice.

"I jumped on the idea of going because I support the troops, the soldiers over there, and what they do for us, how we live here in the United States," Gonzalez said in a recent phone interview "You can't take that kind of stuff for granted, and those guys are putting their lives on the line for us to be able to play baseball and go to school and do whatever we want to do.

"Those guys are special guys who do that every day -- put their lives on the line for us to be able to play baseball."

Gonzalez, Coghlan, Baker and Beinfest -- along with senior director of team travel Bill Beck, director of marketing and promotions Matt Britten and four members of the Marlins' "Mermaids" dance group -- will be paying the special overseas visit to U.S. military personnel from Jan. 24-Feb. 1.

"You have no idea besides playing 'Modern Warfare' video games what's really going on [in the Middle East]," Baker said. "You see clips on the news, but it's just a great opportunity, I think, for me to actually experience it and see it with my own eyes."

The Marlins will be making the trip in association with Armed Forces Entertainment -- which provides entertainment to U.S. military personnel overseas and currently hosts more than 1,200 events around the world each year -- and will be providing daily blog updates and photos from the trip on marlins.com.

Plans are still being finalized, but Baker heard that the Marlins will go through an entire day of processing in Kuwait before crossing over to Iraq on Jan. 26 to begin an arduous tour through several different army bases.

But before any of that gets going, they'll first have to take a 12-hour flight from Washington, D.C.

For much-needed in-flight reading, Baker plans to take Jon Krakauer's book, "Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman."

"At this point, that's all I'm really worried about is how I'm going to last in an airplane that long," Baker joked.

Where the Marlins are headed, however, is still a pretty hostile environment, and no joking matter. But Gonzalez said he isn't too concerned.

"I'm trusting those guys," he said.

"I'm not going to go out and do any patrols with them or anything. ... I think where they're going to keep us at, I think we're going to be pretty safe. As safe as you can be, you know? It's still a place where there's some bad things going on."

Gonzalez, who was born in Cuba and has a cousin and brother-in-law in the police force, recalls spending time at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., heading to Coronado Island in San Diego to visit the U.S. Navy Seals and attending the Army-Navy college-football game in December.

Etched deepest in his memory, though, is a visit he paid to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., a few years ago, one that made him realize just how harsh the tolls are for fighting in the military.

It taught the Marlins' skipper about perseverance.

And it gave him a lesson on teamwork.

"You see how young they are," Gonzalez said. "You have a team yourself that they're the same age. Our guys play baseball, their guys are fighting for our freedom. But the same age group, and I think I appreciated it more as I got older -- what they do for us and also the teamwork. They all want to be a team. We went to the Walter Reed, and we went to these guys' hospital rooms, and some of these guys had blown-up legs and arms and some guys were beat up pretty bad. But every single one, they wanted to get back to their units and wherever the units were. Afghanistan, Iran, wherever -- they wanted to get back."

And for reasons like that, Gonzalez and other members of the Marlins want to go back, too.

Back to where the soldiers defend a freedom that's constantly taken for granted. Back to where young men like Coghlan's brother and Baker's two cousins, who all serve in the U.S. Marines, put their lives on the line.

And back to show that, even if just for one week, the troops have the Marlins' support.

"We should use the ability we have as Major League Baseball players to try to affect people in a positive way," said Baker, whose two grandfathers and uncle served in the U.S. Air Force. "When it's all set and done, maybe if we're lucky, we play baseball for 10 years. But we're people for the rest of our lives. I'm just hoping that I could be a better guy throughout 2010, and this was a good way to start it off."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.