FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- When Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred landed at Fort Bragg on Sunday afternoon for that night's game between the Marlins and Braves at newly constructed Fort Bragg Field, he hit the tarmac at the same spot from which our troops deploy overseas.
He was met by Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, commanding officer of Fort Bragg and the 18th Airborne Corps. The two thanked each other profusely, both then and in their official news conferences later on.
"I want to thank General Townsend and everyone at Fort Bragg for providing Major League Baseball with the opportunity to say thank you to our military men and women for the great service that they provide for the United States of America," Manfred said. "It is our honor to be here. I know our players are excited to be here and I personally could not be more excited."
"I want to thank Major League Baseball and the Players Association for helping to bring this game to reality," Townsend said. "This is an historic occasion. They brought baseball to these soldiers, and I can't think of a better place to have it than at Fort Bragg. Fort Bragg is America's largest military installation, and it is the home of America's airborne and special operations forces. With our All-American Division here, America's rapid reaction forces here and America's favorite pastime, I can't think of a better event for Independence Day."
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The Marlins won the game, 5-2, but Braves manager Brian Snitker had no problem looking at the bigger picture of his day.
"It was unbelievable," he said. "The whole day was outstanding, from when we woke up at the hotel until that [last] out was made. It was first class. We were treated so well here. It was an unbelievable experience. The bad part is we lost the game. The good part is it's something I'll never forget for the rest of my life. It was an unbelievable honor and privilege to be a part of this day."
Both Marlins manager Don Mattingly and pitcher Adam Conley declared Fort Bragg Field the best venue they have ever played in.
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"It was an honor that this game fell on my day and I got to start here," Conley said.
With the historic game a success and now in the past, seating at the new stadium will be removed, but the playing surface, along with the foul poles, dugouts and bullpens, will remain. There are plans to convert the site into softball and multipurpose recreational facilities for use of those on the base.
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Before the main event -- the first Major League game played on an active military installation -- Manfred made several other stops around the base.
First, he was taken to "Iron Mike," Fort Bragg's iconic statue of a World War II U.S. paratrooper. The statue stands 15 feet tall and is a symbol of the strength, courage, tenacity and initiative of the U.S. soldier. Later, Townsend presented Manfred, MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark, Atlanta Braves chairman Terry McGuirk and Miami Marlins president David Samson with miniatures of the statue to commemorate their time on Fort Bragg and the services they have provided to the military.
Manfred, Clark and MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre also visited Fort Bragg's Fisher House at Womack Medical Center, which provides military families housing close to a loved one during hospitalization for an illness, disease or injury. There, the trio interacted with servicemen and their families, and presented Fisher House manager Lorie Southerland with team-autographed and framed Braves and Marlins jerseys as commemorative gifts. Clark posed for pictures with children while Torre allowed them to try on his 1996 Yankees World Series ring.
"Shaking hands with our troops, having the opportunity to be able to spend a little time at the Fisher House this afternoon, it's an opportunity to connect, and very rarely do you get this opportunity," Clark said. "Being able to come down and spend time, talk and swap stories has been an absolute blast and a pleasure."
The Braves and Marlins players were equally grateful for the opportunity to play on Fort Bragg and meet and spend time with some of the servicemen and women who call it home.
"Even though I'm not from here, I have so much respect for the military and everything that they do," Martin Prado said. "Having lived here for almost 15 years, I know all the problems this country has had and how these people try to protect the country. If I can give back to the people who actually sacrifice themselves for us, it's just a little thing I can do."
The game was also attended by St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Mitch Harris, who had season-ending elbow surgery in mid-June. Harris is a native of North Carolina and a 2008 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, and was particularly excited about the pregame helicopter flyover.
"It was totally awesome," he said. "I haven't been that close to helicopters since I was deployed on the USS Carr in South America in 2011. They were so low you could see the pilots. This game is giving me more chills than any baseball game I've ever been to."
Sunday's game was a part of Fort Bragg's Independence Day celebrations, which will culminate Monday with a Chris Stapleton concert for 40,000 servicemen and women. Stapleton, the Country Music Association's 2015 New Artist of the Year, was in attendance at Fort Bragg Field on Sunday night. He will be joined Monday by Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Cheap Trick, as well as Natalie Stovall and The Drive. The concert is sponsored by Budweiser, and the company will be donating up to $1 million in educational support to the families of fallen and disabled service members.