ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) Sean Doolittle tugs gently on his bushy red beard and soaks in a history lesson as he strolls in silence along the 872-foot wooden flight deck of the USS Hornet. He checks out old war planes while gazing at spectacular views of San Francisco and the bay, then climbs dozens of stairs to take a turn in the ship's "air boss" seat.
At the USS Hornet Museum, the Oakland Athletics reliever hears all about then-Lt. Col. James "Jimmy" Doolittle and his lead role in the first attack against the Japanese home islands after Pearl Harbor, a daylight barrage on April 18, 1942.
The Doolittle Raid.
Doolittle the pitcher recently determined that the late Gen. Doolittle is a seventh cousin - and not an uncle far removed as he had long thought.
They never met. Jimmy Doolittle, an aviation pioneer, courageous combat man and one of the most-noted pilots of his time, died Sept. 27, 1993, at age 96, one day after Sean's seventh birthday.
"I'm still learning about him," said Sean Doolittle, a history buff. "Every new thing you learn about him, you're like, `Whoa.'"
It was Jimmy Doolittle who calculated that the 16 B-25 Army Air Force Mitchell bombers could be launched using "short-field takeoffs" - less than 500 feet of runway on the aircraft carrier - from the USS Hornet fully loaded with bombs, drop on Japan and have enough fuel to fly on to China in daring one-way missions.
During his visit Monday afternoon to the USS Hornet Museum at Naval Air Station Alameda, Sean Doolittle viewed a map of the attack sites and photos from that history-making day guided by Jimmy Doolittle.
"Even though it happened a long time ago, to be standing where it happened is a little surreal," Sean Doolittle said. "I come from a military family and I do a lot of stuff with the military now. I'm going to go to Walter Reed when we go to Baltimore. That's one of the main things that I get out of it, the perspective that it gives you on how fortunate I am to be able to do what I do when there's teenagers leaving the country with M-16s and they're going to the Middle East. And I get to play baseball every day. You start to look at things a little bit differently and you really appreciate the opportunities you have and some of these things other people do for you getting little or no recognition for it."
The military life indeed hits close to home for the pitcher, a first-round draft pick by the A's in 2007 who made a rapid rise through the organization after transforming himself from injury-prone first baseman to reliable reliever in less than a year. He is 4-5 with a 3.67 ERA this season.
Doolittle's father, Rory, is retired Air Force and teaches high school ROTC in New Jersey. He was deployed to the Middle East shortly after Sept. 11. His stepmother, April, is active duty Air National Guard stationed at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.
While the Hornet CV-8 was sunk at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands only six months after the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, Sean Doolittle still got an idea of how things went on the first ship during his visit to USS Hornet CV-12 on historic Alameda Point along San Francisco Bay.
"It all happened right here," Bob Fish, on the museum's Board of Trustees, explained to the pitcher. "Doolittle was possibly the best pilot of his day. He changed the whole industry."
"That's crazy," Sean Doolittle said. "This is amazing."
The original Hornet departed for its long journey through the Pacific from Naval Air Station Alameda, where a tribute to Doolittle was held last year to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the daring Doolittle Raid. On Monday, Sean Doolittle was presented a laminated poster from the event.
Fish and other supporters of the museum are campaigning to get the "Doolittle Tokyo Raiders" awarded with a Congressional Gold Medal.
Sean Doolittle's research project began in earnest during spring training with a photo of the Doolittle Raiders patch, a constant reminder to Sean Doolittle on his phone to finally figure out at last just how he is related to Jimmy Doolittle.
People around the Oakland Coliseum constantly ask him about the connection, and Doolittle had his own interest in the family history, too.
"What's special is that people of his generation are interested in history and their ancestry and all the accomplishments that their relatives made, especially in times of stress," Fish said. "We really have it really good right now and it's real easy to forget about all the people who sacrificed to get us here. It's just really special. That's the reason I do this, is to help pass those values on to the next generation. It really is neat that he cares, comes here and learns a little bit more."
Sean Doolittle tried going up from his family tree. He tried starting with Jimmy Doolittle and going down the tree. He used the ancestry sites online to no avail. Eventually, the pitcher connected with a Doolittle genealogist who was able to "connect the dots" with the Alameda-born Jimmy Doolittle. He attended the University of California in Berkeley.
"It's one of those things I always kind of wondered," Doolittle said. "I had some down time. It was mainly just curiosity and I had a bunch of people last year around the Coliseum ask me if I was related to him, how I was related to him. They kind of connected the dots with the street and my last name. I wanted to be able to tell them really what the relationship was, not, `I think he's a distant uncle.' I wanted to be able to nail it down. Being here, it's really cool."
Handwritten on Doolittle's cleats and under the brim of his cap are his version of a tribute to Jimmy Doolittle and the raid that did so much to boost American morale during World War II.
"The motto on the Doolittle Raiders patch that they wore, it's French, but it translates into English as `Forever Into Danger,'" Sean Doolittle said. "It's pretty cool. Obviously, the type of danger I come into is a little bit different than they had to deal with. To have it be part of your family history and then to be able to relate it to what you're doing is pretty sweet."