PORT CHARLOTTE — Zach and Seth Mitchell lined the fence, patiently waiting as various Tampa Bay Rays players signed memorabilia.

They felt honored that the players took the time to greet their fans.

“Especially if you want to be out there someday,” said Zach Mitchell, who attends Heron Creek Middle School in North Port.

Zach wants to be a catcher when he’s older, and his brother Seth, who goes to Atwater Elementary School, wants to be a pitcher.

The Mitchells weren’t the only ones who celebrated at the Rays’ first spring training home game of the season. This was also the Rays’ military appreciation spring training game.

“My grandfather was a vet,” Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Austin Meadows said. “They protect a lot of us ... it means the world to me.”

The Military Heritage Museum had a display at the game, inviting attendees to try on flight jackets, helmets and interact with hands-on artifacts.

“When you realize the bloodshed in order to fly the flag freely, it’s a pleasure to give back,” said CJ Metcalfe, who is on the museum’s Board of Directors.

The display was also promoting the museum’s soon-to-be new location at 900 W. Marion Ave. in Punta Gorda, which they are moving into in April.

“Every veteran has a story,” said the museum’s Executive Director Gary Butler. “Our museum is the keeper of those stories.”

Before the game started, the team had three veterans throw a pitch.

One pitcher was 92-year-old John Arens, who served in the military for 36 years, including 10 with the Navy SEALs.

“You notice you’re being noticed,” Arens said, but he feels really appreciated being a part of the museum.

“It’s an American pastime,” said Mark Houston, the Spring Training manager for the Tampa Bay Rays. “There’s a lot of American history in both baseball and the military. When you combine the two, it’s special.”

Being a veteran himself, Houston’s glad the Rays can kick the season off right. Houston served in the U.S. Army for 22 years.

Charlotte County Commissioner Stephen R. Deutsch, who also threw a pitch representing the commission, thought it was “so appropriate” to start the game off honoring veterans.

“We have a responsibility to young people to let them know the sacrifice these veterans made.”

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