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02/01/10 11:12 AM EST

Marlins' mission to Iraq a big success

Contingent carries lifelong memories from goodwill trip

MIAMI -- Around 6:40 a.m. ET Monday, representatives from the Marlins returned to the United States carrying more than a week's worth of luggage and a lifetime of memories.

The group of nine team employees, including outfielder Chris Coghlan, catcher John Baker and manager Fredi Gonzalez, completed a successful and rewarding visit to Kuwait and Iraq to support the military troops.

The Marlins were the first MLB team to make such a trip since the Iraq war began in 2003.

After extending heartfelt goodbyes, the contingent departed Kuwait about 12:40 a.m. (local time), and they spent 14 hours in the air, before landing in Washington D.C.

From there, Baker boarded a plane and returned to his Northern California home. Coghlan took a flight back home to Tampa, and Gonzalez headed to Atlanta to see his family.

The rest of the group, which included president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest, director of marketing and promotions Matt Britten and four members of the Marlins Mermaids dance squad, are headed back to South Florida.

In cooperation with Armed Forces Entertainment (AFE), the Marlins began planning this trip nearly eight months ago. Based on how well received the visit was, club officials are already brainstorming what to do for the troops next year.

"This will be the first step of our continuing program to entertain and visit troops around the world," Marlins president David Samson told MLB.com.

Asked if the Marlins intend to make a similar visit in 2011, Samson replied: "There is no question."

As an organization, the Marlins embraced the trip to provide a diversion for those serving in the armed forces.

"It's been better than we had ever planned," Samson said. "Having Chris Coghlan and John Baker there, along with Fredi and Larry, the troops had a chance to meet them, talk with them and spend significant time with them.

"They were able to talk about baseball. Talk about the team, and sports. It really shows that baseball is the national pastime because so many troops, they knew the Marlins. They knew the players. They knew that Chris was Rookie of the Year. They knew that Chris has a brother who has served."

Coghlan's brother, Kevin, served two terms with the Marines in Iraq. And Baker has generations worth of family members who have been in the military.

"We were really able to bring a distraction to the troops," Samson said.

In the process, the trip generated international acclaim.

"We received so many calls every day from people who had seen the articles, and seen the news on TV," Samson said. "People are just thankful. They were thankful that we would take the time to go visit the troops. We're not there to do anything other than to put a smile on people's faces.

"It was received so well, and we got so much attention. But we didn't do it for attention."

Yet, attention followed them every day overseas.

In Kuwait, the Marlins were approached by a Kuwait Little League program. Later that night, team representatives were at the baseball complex, signing autographs and answering questions.

"We didn't realize we would see a Kuwait Little League program," Samson said. "It was not on the agenda. They found out we were there, and they asked if we would please come by and visit the kids. Of course, we did. It was great to see kids wearing Marlins gear in Kuwait."

Much of their time, however, was spent on military bases. They traveled in Black Hawk and Apache helicopters. They wore flak jackets and military helmets -- reminding them of the potential danger in the region -- and they shot guns.

For a week, they were given a glimpse into the lives of those they were visiting.

The idea to see the troops was hatched during a meeting that included team owner Jeffrey Loria, vice president of marketing Sean Flynn and Samson.

Step 1 in getting the ball rolling was taking advantage of the organization's strong relationship with the United States Southern Command, based in Miami. The Marlins have long had a solid relationship with the troops. The club offers a ticket deal, with which those with military ID can attend home games for free.

"We have a special place in our hearts for the troops," Samson said. "Our management philosophy has been the same. We're an entertainment company. We're not curing diseases. We're not protecting homeland security. We're here to entertain people.

"We've always said, 'Wouldn't it be great if we can thank those people in person?' Sean started having conversations with the U.S. Southern Command. It went to the Pentagon. Then, this trip came together. The timing worked out. It just all worked out perfectly. It was not difficult to convince people to go. More people wanted to go than we had spots for on the trip."

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