The people who throw out the ceremonial first pitch before baseball games can range from celebrities to company executives to contest winners. For their Grapefruit League home opener against the Atlanta Braves on Saturday, the Nationals arranged for a special guest. Melvin Morris, a retired sergeant first class in the U.S. Army and soon-to-be Medal of Honor recipient, stood on the mound and delivered a high throw to Livan Hernandez.
Morris, 72, who lives in nearby Port St. John, will receive the nation’s highest commendation for combat valor from President Obama on March 18. The honor comes after a 12-year review ordered by Congress into past discrimination in the military. Twenty-four veterans who were passed over because of their Hispanic, Jewish or African American backgrounds will finally be honored. Only three of them are alive, and one of them stood on the mound at the Nationals spring training stadium on a sunny Saturday morning with his 6-year-old grandson, Javone.
“It’s great,” said Morris, a former high school baseball player in Oklahoma, after throwing out the pitch. “I wasn’t nervous about it. I was more concerned about my grandson getting that honor.”
After his throw to Hernandez, Morris shook hands with every Nationals player and coach. They formed a line near the dugout steps to greet him. Before his pitch, and after his introduction, the crowd at the stadium stood and applauded.
“It’s a pretty special day here,” Manager Matt Williams said. “Local guy to the area. It was nice that the organization honored him and we were happy to be out there for it. You don’t everyday get the chance to shake the hand of a Medal of Honor recipient. Pretty special day.”
The Nationals arranged the ceremony after Harolyn Cardozo, special assistant to General Manager Mike Rizzo, read a news report about Morris and how he came to be honored for his service in Vietnam. She asked military officials if Morris could throw out the first pitch. The permission took time. The Nationals received approval from the Pentagon late Friday night and on Saturday morning Morris was invited to Space Coast Stadium with his family.
Morris was part of a Special Forces A Team carrying out search-and-destroy missions in South Vietnam when they were ambushed on Sept. 17, 1969, on a jungle patrol. His company commander was shot through the mouth and throat, his operations sergeant was severely wounded by a land mine and his master sergeant was killed. Morris led a group of soldiers to retrieve his master sergeant’s body, said last rites over his friend and then was shot himself through the chest, arm and ring finger. He also retrieved a strategic map, keeping it out of enemy hands.
After recovering from his wounds in the United States, Morris returned to Vietnam for another tour and received the Distinguished Service Cross. He didn’t think anything of not receiving a Medal of Honor, not knowing racial and ethnic discrimination played a part. “I had the nation’s second-highest declaration for over 40 years and I thought that was it and that was enough for me,” he said.
Last May, Morris received a phone call from the Army telling him he would receive another phone call from a high-ranking official the following day. Morris was worried, unsure of the reason for the phone call. The next day, he answered the phone. He was talking to President Obama.
“He got on the phone and he said, ‘This is President Obama and I want to apologize to you for not receiving your honor 44 years ago,’” Morris recalled on Saturday. “Man, I almost fell out. I was down on my knees. I was in shock. I said, ‘Be cool, be cool.’ And I got myself together and I said, ‘Thank you.’ I don’t even remember what else I said.”
On Saturday, the Nationals got a chance to thank Morris. Denard Span gave him a signed ball, Morris said. His family, including his wife Mary, were treated to seats behind home plate. His grandson also got to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. And Morris got to flash his old baseball arm.
“I practiced out back and it was all over the place,” he said, smiling. “I threw maybe two, three strikes but I was throwing much harder. I’m 72. I’m lucky to get it to the mound.”