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Of age

Claire Heininger | Tuesday, March 30, 2004

“Score!” The cadet’s face lit up as he held up seven-dollar cup of Bud Light. “They said they’d give out free beer for a man in uniform!”He trotted proudly back up the bleacher steps, showing off his alcoholic badge of appreciation to the 60-odd soldiers who had accompanied him to this Detroit Tigers-Cleveland Indians spring training game in Lakeland, Fla., and urging them to go cash in on the deal for themselves.”That is,” he added with a smirk, “if you’re of age.”Sitting three rows down at Joker Merchant Stadium, savoring peanuts with the shells still on and avoiding the swatting arms of would-be foul ball snatchers, his comment snapped me out of my lazy Sunday haze. Of age. Here were soldiers dotting the third base line grandstand with their black hats, lace-up combat boots and full-length camouflage, worn proudly if damply in the 83-degree sun. Here were soldiers taking a day off from training, from preparing to fight for their country, so they could watch career minor leaguers take a swing at clearing the advertisements – from “Ballpark Franks: A Hot, Steamy Love Affair” to “CBS Fantasy Baseball: We built it, come”- that covered the outfield fences. Here were soldiers shrugging the weight of the most powerful country in the free world off their shoulders, if only for an ugly three-hour, five-error slugfest.And here was that country telling them they couldn’t handle a beer. These were not indignant 17-year olds begging for booze, nor were they devious twenty-year olds wielding shoddy fake ID’s to enter an even shoddier bar. These were men and women who wake up before the crack of dawn to train for a war that major politicians are contesting and half of Americans don’t believe in. These were dedicated, sacrificing professionals, “of age” to join in heated combat on the battlefield – but underage to take a sip while watching the action on the infield.Though it didn’t seem to concern them at the moment – taunts of “you know I could play third base better than that!” and “balk! balk!” reverberated off the metal stands above me – the biting contradiction of the situation hit me hard.I was bound for five nights of break in Miami Beach, but the peanuts suddenly made me feel sick to my stomach, and I let the bag crunch under my feet. I doubt the men in uniform knew where they were headed, but for the at least half of them who were clearly under 21 – hell, they didn’t even need to shave – it sure wasn’t to the concession stand.”Game time,” read the final sign, a cursive “Budweiser” scrawled across six feet of dead center field.Who, exactly, is responsible enough to play?