WASHINGTON -- Russ Newbern fantasized about playing big league ball as early as a boyhood family trip to the Braves' former home, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium."I remember going to a game when I was like 8 or 9, and turning to my dad and saying, 'I'm going to play here one
WASHINGTON -- Russ Newbern fantasized about playing big league ball as early as a boyhood family trip to the Braves' former home, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
"I remember going to a game when I was like 8 or 9, and turning to my dad and saying, 'I'm going to play here one day," recalls the Valdosta, Ga., native, now a petty officer third class in the United States Navy. "That's been a dream of mine."
That longing appeared to fade when Newbern's organized baseball career ended in junior college. But now he and his fellow competitors at this weekend's Armed Services Classic presented by T-Mobile have that chance.
Each of the five U.S. military branches has sent its best D.C.-area-based male and female softball players to the tournament, a two-day event that began Saturday at Ryan Zimmerman Field.
After playing each branch once, the top two teams in the standings will have the honor of kicking off next month's MLB All-Star Week with a championship game at Nationals Park on Friday, July 13.
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"It's hard to put that in words," says Air Force Tech Sgt. and P/OF Larry Russell. "That's something special, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity [for] a lot of us who had dreams of playing when we were in school who didn't make it for various reasons. ... It's our opportunity to be able to play on the biggest stage in the world."
It won't come easy. Most teams have a handful of players of at least Newbern's pedigree. With the June heat and humidity in full force on Saturday, the ball sailed beyond the 260-foot fences at Zimmerman Field early and often.
A few boppers even have the power to challenge the dimensions at Nationals Park. They'll get their chance in a home run derby that follows the championship game. Both events will be free for military members and their families.
"They can hit it a ton," says David James, Major League Baseball's vice president of baseball and softball development. "There's a lot of athletes here that played in high school and college, and I know that there's a very active intramural circuit within the branches."
Each branch held tryouts to cull down the number of interested players. Newbern says as many as 60 players showed up for the right to don the Navy jersey. The final squad had 17 players.
"Just seeing everyone's abilities, it's crazy," said Marine Cpt. and C/1B Michelle Chadwick, a former NCAA Division II softball player. "Some of these players could probably have played on Minor League teams and been competitive there, as well."
Nationals senior manager of community relations Nicole Murray says the event could potentially be a launchpad for the Nationals to host an annual "Battle of the Bases" tournament. Previously, Nationals Park has also hosted softball games with the Wounded Warriors Project and the annual Congressional Baseball Game.
Whatever the future, Russell is hopeful fans beyond those directly connected with the military will come out for the championship.
"You've got people out here who suffer from PTSD, that have been to some of the craziest places on earth, and some of the most dangerous places on earth," Russell says. "This is the nation's heroes in the nation's capital."
Ian Quillen is a contributor to MLB.com.