Aaron Barrett, 32, will not soon forget his first trip to Europe.
And it wasn’t an excursion through the streets of London or Paris — his view came from a United States military aircraft that took him to Belgium, Romania, and Poland.
Barrett, a right-handed pitcher for the Washington Nationals, was part of a United Service Organizations (USO) Tour that returned last week after visiting U.S. military personnel overseas.
“It was an experience of a lifetime, there is no doubt about that,” he said Saturday at Nationals Park, during the team’s annual WinterFest. “We got to take the World Series trophy with us.”
“On a personal level, to bring a little bit of home to the troops” was important, Barrett added. “It was neat to be able to tell them that and thank them for how much they mean to us.”
He was joined by Adam Eaton, the starting right fielder for the Nationals’ team that won the World Series last fall.
The two Nationals were able to play catch inside of an Air Force C-17 cargo plane while it was in the air at about 35,000 feet near the end of the trip, according to reports. Barrett had heard former NFL quarterback legend Dan Marino once threw a football inside a military plane and decided it was time for baseball.
“That was fun. This is a moment I will never forget,” Barrett said.
The trip got a little more intense after U.S. forces killed a top Iranian leader in Baghdad, creating major tension between Washington and Tehran. Then an Ukrainian plane was shot down by Iran, killing 176 people.
“When we landed in Romania, some things were going on,” Barrett said. “It was wild. Everything was happening in real-time, which was kind of crazy.”
The USO Tour capped a memorable few months for Barrett, who grew up in Evansville, Indiana and was drafted by the Nationals out of Ole Miss in 2010. He was boyhood friends with former minor leaguer Preston Mattingly, the son of former Yankees great Don Mattingly.
Barrett worked his way up through the minors with the Nationals, with a stop in Woodbridge in 2012 in the Carolina League, before making the majors for the first time in 2014.
Barrett pitched in 90 games out of the bullpen for Washington from 2014-15 but missed all of 2016 and 2017 with arm and shoulder injuries.
He returned to pro ball in 2018 in the minors in Auburn, New York, then led the Double-A Eastern League in saves this past season while playing for the Harrisburg (Penn.) Senators. Barrett took part in the Eastern League All-Star game that was held last July in Richmond at the home of the Giants’ affiliate.
Among those that were impressed with the comeback by Barrett were Washington assistant general manager Doug Harris, a former pitcher at James Madison University, and Paul Menhart, who became the pitching coach of the Nationals last May.
Menhart was the roving minor league pitching coordinator before that and worked a lot with Barrett in the minors.
“He is like a son to me,” Menhart said.
Barrett was promoted from Harrisburg and made his first appearance in the majors in nearly four years when he pitched in Atlanta last September. He had 31 saves with a 2.75 ERA in the minors last year and appeared in three games with Washington — posting an ERA of 15.43 in three outings.
Barrett was not on the post-season roster of the Nationals but was in Houston and able to celebrate when the Nationals won Game 7 of the World Series over the Astros in late October.
“It is surreal,” he said in the Nationals’ clubhouse that night. “Four years ago, I couldn’t even throw batting practice.”
Now he hopes to contend for an Opening Day roster spot when spring training begins next month in West Palm Beach, Florida.
“Now is the time to go pitch,” he said. “The comeback is over. It has been just an amazing experience, but it is time to get back to work.”