SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- While many airmen who play the sport avidly hope to make the Air Force softball team once or twice in their careers, Master Sgt. Tony Patrick has donned the blue and black uniform an unprecedented 10 times since 2000.
Patrick, noncommissioned officer in charge of munitions inspections for the 4th Equipment Maintenance Squadron here, played baseball through high school and 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, he said, 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 Forces in 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 tryout with the Air Force team.
"I had to fly thousands of miles just to try out 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 spanning the ranks of airman first class to major. During his tenure, Patrick has helped his teams garner five gold medals over the years, and a third silver medal at this year's armed forces championships in September.
Each year, about 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 the coaches evaluate absolutely everything the players do during this time."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 selected, Patrick said, an immediate bond is formed among the players, not only because they share an Air Force background, but also because their love of the game creates an instant rapport.
"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 here. "It builds better relationships and helps build a team at work," he said.
Patrick said softball gives him a chance to enjoy a relaxing time and get to know people a little better. It also has helped him learn how to better organize an office team and get them to focus on one goal, he added, and his skills have affected his peers both on and off the field.
"I have gained a lot of experience since I started playing alongside Master Sgt. Patrick," said Tech. Sgt. Randy Wilhide, 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 said he also considers himself an ambassador for the sport after 10 years on the Air Force team and feels it's his duty to spread the word about opportunities to play for the Air Force and 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," he 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."
Patrick said he's received an enormous amount of support from commanders and supervisors who have understood what a privilege it is for him to wear the Air Force softball uniform. His family also has supported him, he said, 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, he added.
Patrick - who usually pitches, but also plays shortstop -- said he hopes to play for the Air Force team in 2013 and 2014 before retiring from the military. While he may hang up his combat boots, he said, he has no intention of hanging up his cleats and will play the game he loves for many years to come.