Todd Jenkins grew up in the Tampa Bay area, going to Tropicana Field and watching Rays baseball games. He never dreamed one day he'd throw out the first pitch at one.
After July 16's matchup between the Rays and the Boston Red Sox, it's something the Marine veteran and Purple Heart recipient can "cross off his bucket list." Jenkins, as part of the Rays' American Legion Day festivities, threw the inaugural pitch in front of a crowd of around 30,000 spectators - all of whom were cheering for Jenkins as he fired a fastball down the middle to Tampa Bay catcher Kelly Shoppach.
"The andrenaline was going, but I scratched it off the bucket list," Jenkins said. "I loved it. It was a great experience. I was very happy to have the opportunity to do that."
Jenkins was one of around 55 wounded warriors brought to the game by the Department of Florida, which coordinates an American Legion Day each summer at Tropicana Field. A portion of the tickets sold benefit the department's Heroes to Hometowns program, and Legionnaires sit in the stands among former servicemembers who come from local hospices and VA facilities for the game.
This year, department officials wanted an actual wounded veteran to throw out the first pitch. They found someone who is literally a hero to his hometown in Jenkins, a Tampa native who incurred severe traumatic brain injuries during his service.
Fittingly, Jenkins received a hero's embrace from the crowd and the Rays organization. Before taking to the mound, he was greeted personally by Tampa Bay ace David Price, who signed a baseball for the young veteran and thanked him for his service. As Jenkins climbed up the concourse's stairs to his seat, spectators from all angles of the aisles extended handshakes to him, offering praises and expressions of gratitude.
"It was really an awesome experience to see the Heroes to Hometowns veteran throw out the first pitch," said William Fletcher Jr., Department of Florida commander. "It was indeed an honor to see him do that."
In all, the game raised about $3,000 for the department's H2H program, which is one of the most active in The American Legion organization. Florida Legionnaires, especially on the Gulf side of the Bay, are renowned for aiding returning veterans, whose needs range from monetarial to menial.
Department H2H coordinator Chris McCabe has thrown welcome home parties for Marines being released from Walter Reed, helped young veterans with families secure stable housing and taken them grocery shopping.
His ultimate goal is to raise enough money to purchase a foreclosed house to be rennovated into a Heroes to Hometowns home, which will give temporary residence to servicemembers who are fresh from war and their families.
"It's a project that nobody can say they disagree with," McCabe said. "How could you not support your local wounded veterans?"
The game also functioned as a therapeutic exercise for the post-traumatic stress veterans who were there with medical professionals, giving them an opportunity to experience a highly public environment.
"Some of (the veterans) actually went with their caregivers," McCabe said. "It's my understanding that they use it for the PTSD patients for part of their therapy so they can see how they react in the crowd and in a public setting. Plus, it just gets them out."
But perhaps most importantly, the game puts the wounded warrior cause and the H2H program into the collective conscience of those in attendance. For the publicity it generates alone, McCabe says American Legion Day with the Rays is invaluable.
"The big thing is awareness," McCabe said. "We got some awareness. The more we get the word out there, the better off we are going to be."