WHITING | Bill Palmer stood on the pitcher's mound at Oil City Stadium with more than 1,000 fans' eyes focused squarely on him.
As the American flag was presented to the Whiting resident and Army veteran during the pregame ceremony, the emotional environment that filled the stadium was evident.
“It was wonderful,” said Palmer, who served in the Army from 1972-76. “It was a very well done ceremony. It was inspirational being back there seeing how it was organized. It was joyful. Just seeing the flag out there really means something. They were right on cue, executing this perfectly. It's just good to see that.”
Monday night was about much more than a simple baseball game. It was about honoring the men and women in veteran and active military duty, as well as first responders, as the U.S. Military All-Stars were in town to take on the Oilmen in part of the team's Red, White and Blue Tour. The All-Stars drove 15 hours from New York City on Sunday to reach Whiting.
All-Stars player Chris Nollinger, who has been in the Navy for three years, caught the first pitch from his great uncle, Phil Bartolota, a World War II veteran and former guard for President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nollinger and Bartolota exchanged an emotional hug after the pitch.
“It's amazing,” said Nollinger, who was born in Tinley Park. “I just did back-to-back deployments, 21 of the last 24 months in the Middle East. I haven't seen any extended family. It's been close to five years since I've seen (Bartolota). To be able to catch a first pitch from him is absolutely amazing. I wish my mom and dad could be here to see it. My mom would be absolutely ecstatic.”
Nollinger, who now lives in Port St. Lucie, Fla., returned to the United States on June 3. He was stationed in the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation New Dawn and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“There were times that it seemed like (the deployment) would never end,” Nollinger said. “Now to be home and playing baseball, it's surreal. There's moments where I go back and can't believe I was just in the Middle East and now I'm here in America playing baseball again.”
Whiting mayor Joe Stahura was in attendance on a perfect night for baseball. He, too, was awestruck by the pregame ceremony and recognized the importance of the All-Stars coming to Whiting.
“It's great to see them come down here and do a ceremony and honor the (veterans),” he said. “At the same time, we get a good baseball game in, too. It's another event that brings the community together.”
Oilmen general manager Jim Taipalus was so busy, he could barely catch his breath. Prior to the pregame events, a free baseball clinic was held by the All-Stars for children ages five and older.
“We had about 50 (kids),” Taipalus said. “They're still running around. They got autographs from the military guys. They're more excited about the military guys than they are our guys. It's pretty neat."
Hours later, Taipalus had to print extra tickets due to a large amount of fans still waiting outside.
“We normally stop selling tickets after 1,300, but there were so many people outside the gate excited to get in, we couldn't turn them away,” Taipalus said. “They're here for the fireworks and they're here to meet the Military All-Stars. We're excited they're here and were so passionate about getting into the game.”