Richard Justice is a respected, walking encyclopedia of baseball columnist with MLB.com. Before that, he was the lead sports columnist with the Houston Chronicle. But most important, and undoubtedly the highlight of his career, Justice was my midday co-host during ESPN 97.5’s stone age as 1560 The Game.
Earlier this month, Justice had a unique and inspiring experience: he was invited to tag along with Washington Nationals stars, country singers, MMA fighters, comedians, and the 2019 World Series trophy on a USO visit of U.S. troops in Poland and Romania.
Justice was picked for the trip because the Nationals wanted press coverage of their players and the trophy. Justice and I sat down for lunch last weekend (chicken tenders at Fuddruckers) to discuss the USO tour. Of course, I threw a few Astros questions his way, too.
CultureMap: Who was on the USO tour?
Richard Justice: We departed Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. There was a C-17 for me, USO and military staff, and a C-32 for Air Force Gen. John Hyten and the VIPs: Washington Nationals players Adam Eaton and Aaron Barrett; country music duo LoCash; three MMA fighters; comedians Scott Armstrong, Matt Walsh, and Brad Morris; and Nationals security chief Scott Fear and the World Series trophy.
CM: I didn’t know we had U.S. troops in Poland and Romania.
RJ: There are joint U.S. and NATO bases in those countries. Originally, the tour included two stops in the Middle East. The World Series trophy had never been in a combat zone, and still hasn’t because the Middle East stops were canceled for security concerns. The USO had shows in Romania and Poland. We stayed at a Ramada in Constanta, Romania the first night, and a Sheraton in Poznan, Poland the second night.
CultureMap: What instructions did the USO give you before you left?
RJ: I could not photograph the tail of our plane, flight lines on bases or exit and entrance areas. Originally, I couldn’t report on the trip until we were in the next country, but since Afghanistan and United Arab Emirates were dropped from the schedule, we were free to report when we landed.
CM: Describe the visits.
RJ: This was the best part, the life-changing part. Afterwards Adam Eaton said, ‘I promise this won’t be my last USO Tour.’ We had meals with the servicemen and women, mingled with them before and after shows, etc. They were so impressive: disciplined, focused, young. The players could not have represented MLB better. They posed for every selfie, listened to stories, gave them t-shirts, jerseys, Georgetown Cupcakes (in pink boxes at back of the C-17). Every single member of the traveling party was touched by the soldiers’ commitment and seriousness.
In Romania, there was a Bradley Fighting Vehicle exhibition and rides on Black Hawk Helicopters. Adam jumped off the copter and ran over and got the trophy for the pilots to admire. In Poland, Polish Army did a pistol exhibition, then handed the entertainers pistols to fire off a thousand rounds.This was one of the great experiences of my life.
CultureMap: What did you think of Army chow?
RJ: It was very good. We had Mexican food, chicken, vegetables, etc. Nothing out of the ordinary, but really good.
CultureMap: What did you think of the punishment handed to the Houston Astros?
RJ: Appropriate. Commissioner [Rob] Manfred warned teams in wake of Red Sox Apple Watch scandal in 2017 that he was going to hold the people in charge accountable and that the punishment would be harsh. The Astros kept doing it anyway, and because they thought they’d never get caught, their every accomplishment is tainted.
CM: Who will be the next Astros manager?
RJ: Will Venable probably is the favorite, but Buck Showalter and [Astros bench coach] Joe Espada are in the mix. Espada would be a slam dunk if he can convince Jim Crane he’s not tied to the 2018 cheating. Pete Putila is acting GM and even though he’s 30, has a great chance to get the job.”
CM: When the Oakland A's are scheduled for Minute Maid Park this year, will the booing for Mike Fiers be record levels?
RJ: Probably. Whistleblowers pay some kind of price when they’re not anonymous. Fiers did the right thing.