Triple play: Airman, athlete, ambassador
By Staff Sgt. Chuck Broadway, 4th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published October 05, 2012
SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. --
For many people slow-pitch softball is a recreational sport, it's a time to get together with friends, colleagues or church members for a few hours to have a good time. It's estimated that more than five million people of all ages, gender and races play the sport at some level around the world.
Most players are your average Joe, or Jane, enjoying an evening after work playing at the local parks and recreation facilities once or twice a week. For many U.S. Air Force Airmen who enjoy the game playing on their squadron intramural teams is as far as they go. For a few select Airmen, each year presents the opportunity to try out for a higher caliber team and represent the entire Air Force on the service's softball team.
While many Airmen hope to make the Air Force team once or twice in their careers, Master Sgt. Tony Patrick, 4th Equipment Maintenance Squadron NCO in charge of munitions inspections, has donned the blue and black uniform an unprecedented 10 times since 2000.
An avid baseball player through high school, Patrick began his softball career in 1993 while stationed at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. With a view of the softball fields from his dorm room, the urge to play led him to join his squadron's intramural team. His reputation quickly grew as an elite player and in the late 1990s, Patrick was playing for the U.S. Air Force Europe team when he was issued a challenge.
"A previous Air Force team coach told me it wasn't good enough to just play for the USAFE team," Patrick said. "He said I needed to go out for the Air Force team."
A spirited 25-year-old staff sergeant in the summer of 2000, Patrick flew from Germany to Kadena Air Base, Japan, for his first try out with the Air Force team.
"I had to fly thousands of miles just to tryout with the possibility of being cut in a few days," he said. "I was skeptical of not making the team but gave it a shot anyway. Once I made the team I was really excited."
That was the beginning of a long run for Patrick, who in 2012 was considered the wily veteran on a team of Airmen from the ranks of airman first class, to major. During his tenure, Patrick has helped his teams garner five gold and a third silver medal in 2012, at the annual Armed Forces Championships in September.
Each year approximately 50 men and women receive invitations to try out for the Air Force teams and compete in several tournaments throughout August and September. Tryouts are a week long and consist of two practices each day, followed by two games each night.
Patrick said absolutely everything you do during this time is evaluated by the coaches.
"You're expected to be ready to go when you arrive at tryouts," Patrick said. "The coach evaluates everything from how you stand in the batter's box, to your demeanor in the field. He rates you on a number system and fields the team using that proven system."
Once the team is filled, Patrick said an immediate bond is formed between the players. This bond comes from not only sharing an Air Force background, but the love of the game creates an instant rapport between perfect strangers.
"Softball has a different camaraderie between the guys. It's a much tighter knit group and it starts at the intramural level," Patrick said as he related the Air Force team to playing with his peers at the 4th EMS. "It builds better relationships and helps build a team at work."
In addition to advancing his playing skills, Patrick said softball gives him a chance to enjoy a relaxing time and get to know people a little better. From his years of softball, he said he's learned how to better organize an office team and get them to focus on one goal. Additionally, his skills have affected his peers both on and off the field.
"I have gained a lot of experience since I started playing alongside MSgt Patrick," said Tech. Sgt. Randy Wilhide, 4th EMS Precision-Guided Munitions crew chief, who has played on several teams with Patrick since 2003. "You can't help but play harder and better with him out there. Having him on a team gives you a leader on the field and he brings everyone around him up to a higher level. I have learned more about the game and become a better ambassador to the Air Force team from playing with him."
Patrick also considers himself an ambassador for the sport after 10 years on the Air Force team. He feels it's his duty to spread the word to his fellow Airmen regarding the opportunities of playing for the Air Force, as well as the benefits the Air Force receives from those opportunities.
"For the mission to be as successful as it is now, the Airmen have to be taken care of," Patrick said. "When we have the opportunity to step outside the military uniform, yet still represent the Air Force, it's a morale boost. Every single person wants to succeed at the highest level possible and we have to give them the opportunity."
During his career Patrick said he's received an enormous amount of support. His commanders and supervisers have understood what a privilege it is for him to wear the Air Force softball uniform. His family has also supported him, from local games and weekend tournaments, to the Air Force team, his wife Mandie, daughter Sabrina, 16, and son Chandler, 13, always enjoy cheering him on.
Patrick said he has two more chances to play for the Air Force team, and if plans fall into place, he will attempt to make appearances in 2013 and 2014 before retiring from the military. While he may hang up his combat boots, Patrick said he has no intention of hanging up his cleats and will play the game he loves for many years to come.