© 2010 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.

02/24/10 2:30 PM EST

Yankees Universe begins '10 campaign

Fan club offers merchandise discounts, fast-track entrances

NEW YORK -- Twenty soldiers in all stood on the palace steps in Tikrit, Iraq, their beige uniforms the standard issue -- save for one minor detail.

Affixed to each combat helmet was an interlocking NY. One soldier held a Yankees logo in front of his face. Another displayed a team pennant, and two others held up a sign with the words "GO YANKEES" written in bright blue across the top.

If not for the assault rifles strapped across the shoulders of several of the men, the picture may have taken on a celebratory tone. Instead, it was another reminder of the sacrifices that members of the United States military make on a daily basis. And it was largely for those reasons that the image, submitted by Bill Rochelle of Brick, N.J., won the 2009 Yankees Universe Photo Contest.

The contest was just one of the benefits available last summer for members of Yankees Universe. This Wednesday, Yankees Universe will launch its 2010 program.

"I really think it's great," Rochelle said. "It was really a big surprise for me. I'm thrilled."

Among other things, the team's fledgling official fan club offers access to exclusive content on Yankees.com, merchandise discounts at participating Yankees Clubhouse shops and a fast-track entrance at Yankee Stadium and the Yankees Museum. Standard membership to the club costs $19.95.

In addition, this year's new Pinstripes Pack membership, available for $99.95, offers a 2009 World Series DVD, Yankees hat and mug, portable speakers, a Yankee Stadium tour and a flash drive containing exclusive team content.

A portion of all proceeds go towards the Yankees Universe Fund, benefiting pediatric cancer research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Last year, one of the benefits of Yankees Universe was an exclusive photo contest. Contestants were asked to submit photos of themselves wearing Yankees gear in unique locations -- just as the winner, Rochelle, did in Iraq. Submissions were judged on creativity and image quality, and Rochelle received two tickets for a 2010 regular-season game at Yankee Stadium.

The submissions in the photo contest were varied, creative and, in Rochelle's case, quite meaningful. Along with 19 other members of the 42nd Division Support Command, a New York-based division of the U.S. Army and National Guard, Rochelle stood in front of the palace in Tikrit, displaying his Yankees pride in the middle of hostile territory.

During his stint in Iraq, Rochelle would regularly wake up and go to the gym at 5 a.m. in hopes that the Yankees, in a time zone eight hours behind, would be playing on the Armed Forces Network.

"If I went over there and I was on the treadmill and I was watching the game, I'd stay on the treadmill until the game was over," Rochelle said. "There were times when it extended my run a little bit longer than I would have liked."

Rochelle opted to submit a photo picturing only the Yankees fans from New York and New Jersey.

"We had some shots with the Red Sox fans in there, too," Rochelle said. "But we really enjoyed the shot of just our unit. It was a little more meaningful."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.