As 13-year-old Kyle Smerer waited for the Seattle Mariners' home opener against the Oakland A's to start April 13, he was hoping that his dad, 1st Sgt. Steve Smerer, of 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, was watching the game from Afghanistan.
Kyle was to "Steal-A-Base" after the fifth inning, a promotion done throughout the season, where a kid runs from center field to second base, picks the base up, and runs back. Unbeknownst to Kyle and his 16-year-old sister Kayla, their dad was at Safeco Field, waiting to surprise Kyle at second base dressed as an umpire. Steve, home on mid-deployment leave, helped plan the surprise with help from his father, Ron Smerer, and the Mariners marketing team.
"A buddy of mine was trying to do something in Chicago, he had heard about someone doing (a surprise homecoming) at a sports game," Steve said. "I decided what the heck and emailed (the Mariners) to see what would happen. To my surprise they emailed me back."
Steve, a longtime Mariners fan from Fife, has played baseball with his kids since they were little and when he's home, he helps coach their teams. He said he and Kyle love going to games together and with his current yearlong deployment they're unable to partake in their favorite pastime.
After receiving Steve's email, Camden Finney, Mariners marketing manager, worked with a few members of her staff and Ron to pull off the surprise.
"We've wanted to do (a surprise homecoming) for a long time," Finney said. "The challenge was how to do the surprise. We wanted to make sure everyone's attention was on it."
Steal-A-Base is one of the Mariners' most popular contests throughout the season. Kyle was a little nervous before running out but he remained confident that he'd be able to steal the base. Steve and Ron were worried that he'd be so focused on stealing the base that he wouldn't see his dad. And focused he was.
Kyle ran out quickly, but when he saw an umpire walking towards the base, he ran faster thinking time was running out. He was turning around when Steve ran to catch him before Kyle ran all the way back to center field to rejoin the rest of his family.
"When I grabbed the base someone grabbed me and it took me a couple seconds to realize it was him," Kyle said afterwards. Kayla was just as surprised when she heard the announcer tell the crowd that the umpire grabbing Kyle was their dad. Tears rolled down her face as she waited for her brother and dad to walk back and join her, her mom Trina, 1-year old brother Colton and grandparents Ron and Sue Smerer. The hug Steve and Kayla shared at the outfield wall was "the best hug I've ever had in my life," according to Steve.
"I wanted to go out there but it was Kyle's thing," Kayla said.
Steve quickly added, "It was for both of you."
The hardest part for Steve and Trina, was not telling the kids that he was coming home for leave months before they thought he would. Kayla almost found out when she saw a text on her mom's phone from Steve that he was in Kuwait. Her mom made up a story about traveling there for a deployment-related task and was relieved that Kayla didn't figure it out.
For Steve it was even harder to not see his children for the days he was here at Joint Base Lewis-McChord leading up to the surprise.
"Anticipating this has been crazy," Steve said. "I'm used to them being there when I get off the plane."
But the surprise was worth it. And in the end, everyone was happy to be reunited for his leave. Smerer had just over a week of leave left before returning to Afghanistan for the rest of his deployment, his fifth in a 17-year career. He expects to be home again in early December.
"I just have a flutter of emotions being able to see them again," Steve said. "It's amazing to be home with my family."