By Pete McQuaid
Finally, there are some actual heroes on the front of baseball cards. The Lowell Spinners gave away 1,000 sets of cards at the LeLacheur Park gate on Sunday, but they weren't filled with statistics -- unless you count Purple Hearts or Silver Stars.
Included among the cards was Marine Corporal William Woitowicz of Groton, killed in Afghanistan on June 7, 2011, and a recipient of the Silver Star.
The 34-card set featured veterans from all five branches of the U.S. military who hail from the Merrimack Valley. The veterans and their families were invited onto the field during the second inning of Sunday's game, where they received a two-minute standing ovation as pictures of the cards rotated on the video board.
"This was the first year, but it will definitely be an annual event," said Jon Boswell, director of media relations for the Spinners. "The military is such a big thing for us and we wanted to find a way to say thanks."
Each card has a picture on the front of the veteran in uniform, along with the veteran's branch seal and the years he or she served. The backs of the cards feature short biographies that include combat distinctions, details about where the veteran served and stories about his or her post-war life.
"I think it's a good idea," said Chelmsford resident Dean Contover, a Vietnam Army veteran featured in the card set. "Hopefully they do it every year. There are a lot of veterans out there that deserve to be recognized."
The 34 veterans fought in all different wars, from World War II all the way up to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where some still serve. The Spinners, in conjunction with Lowell Five Savings Bank and The Sun, solicited the public for nominations online. They received 100, so they picked 34 at random with the hope that they'd be able to focus on different subjects next year.
Lowell resident Josh Hill nominated two veterans that ended up in the card set. His wife's grandfather, Romeo Godin, served in the Navy during World War II. Godin came with his family to the game without knowing about the card, so he was in for a surprise when he saw himself in the deck and later found himself out on the field.
"He's not really a guy that shows much emotion, but you could tell when he got out there that it meant a lot to him," Hill said. "It was an awesome day, really touching."
Hill also nominated his former roommate as Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Travis Fuller, who died in Iraq in 2005 when his helicopter went down in a sandstorm. Fuller's family represented him at the game on Sunday.
"It's tough because I've been trying to find a fitting way to commemorate him," Hill said. "I had met his parents at graduation, but I didn't have a way of reconnecting with them until this."
Ray Toupin, a Lowell Army veteran who was also in the card set, was at the park on Sunday with his wife Claire and was blown away by the response.
"I got more thank-you's on Sunday than I have in the 40 years since I left Vietnam," Toupin said. "It was flattering, it was an honor -- it was a beautiful thing."
Toupin, who turns 69 this month, served in the U.S. Army Special Forces Group during the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1968. He said he talked to some of the other veterans at the game, but they didn't talk much about their war experiences.
"It was a joy," Toupin said. "We didn't talk much about what we did, we just sort of looked at each other and we could figure it out."
Boswell said he goes to a minor-league baseball promotional seminar every year, where representatives from all the clubs come together and tell each other about what new promotions they ran in the past season. He hopes other clubs will follow in the Spinners' footsteps and use the veteran trading cards to commemorate veterans in their own communities.
"Last summer we did the POW seat and then talked about it at the seminar, so we'll likely talk about this at the upcoming seminar so that hopefully everyone starts to do it," said Boswell.
Follow Pete McQuaid on Twitter @sweetestpete.