Major League Baseball players do what they do for many reasons. They play ball because it's fun, because it's a chance to be a kid again. They do it to delight fans, to break records, to win championships. They do it for their livelihoods, for their families, for their hometowns and native countries.
But on Sunday, the Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins will play a historic baseball game at a remarkable American venue, and they'll do it for another reason that can never be questioned. They'll play the Fort Bragg Game to simply say, "Thank you."
Sunday marks the first regular-season professional contest of any sport that will be played on an active military base. The location is Fort Bragg, the United States Army installation in North Carolina, and the beautiful new 12,500-seat ballpark, Fort Bragg Field, that will host the game.
The Fort Bragg Game was created in a joint effort by MLB and the MLB Players Association to honor our nation's servicemen and servicewomen. The first game of its kind is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET on Sunday and will be broadcast nationally on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, ESPN Radio and MLB.TV. Tickets are limited to military personnel.
And the players who will suit up for the game wouldn't have it any other way.
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"These military guys that we're going to be around are the real heroes who give us an opportunity to do what we do every day," said Braves catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who has flown with the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, visited the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and spent many hours with military members and their families over the course of a long Major League career.
"It truly is an honor to be able to be a part of something like this."
An iconic venue
In baseball terms, the Fort Bragg Game is the beginning of a tradition and the culmination of a vision of gratitude and grandeur.
Ground was broken in March on land that was formerly a portion of the Willow Lakes Golf Course, which closed when Pope Air Base was merged with Fort Bragg, the sprawling complex that covers more than 500 square miles and is home to roughly 250,000 people, including 10 percent of the U.S. Army.
Fort Bragg Field was laid out and sodding began in April. The padded walls with logos, the big league foul poles and the Bermuda grass outfield is game-ready. So are the Marlins and Braves. So are the service members who are lucky enough to have tickets.
"Everything is starting to feel real," Fort Bragg spokesperson Christina Douglas said. "They really have built this entire event and this beautiful venue to honor the military, and we're so appreciative for everything they're doing."
More than just a game
To a man, though, it's the players and coaches and front offices of the Major Leagues who are the appreciative ones. Throughout the clubhouses of the two lucky teams, members of the Marlins and Braves were expressing how moved they were to be involved with such an endeavor.
"We try to do as much as we can, for the military, for our veterans," said Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich, whose 24-year-old brother, Cameron, is currently serving in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Just to give back for all they've given us. It's special. It's something a lot of the guys in here appreciate."
The teams will get to show that appreciation in person, and not just by playing the game.
On Saturday, MLB will host a PLAY BALL event on the base for 250 military youth, ages 7-13. The event will be overseen by Tony Reagins, MLB's senior vice president of youth programs, and the numerous baseball-focused stations, including "home run derby" and "running bases," will be operated by staff from USA Baseball, the national governing body of the sport. PLAY BALL is a joint program between MLB, USA Baseball, USA Softball and Minor League Baseball to encourage participation in both formal and casual baseball and softball activities.
The Braves and Marlins will arrive on Saturday night after their afternoon tilt in Atlanta, and both clubs will have players, coaches and executives spend time Sunday morning and afternoon meeting with troops and touring the base to see how they live their lives from day to day. The soldiers will get an additional treat on Monday when country star Chris Stapleton performs a July 4 concert on the base, but the national spotlight will be focused on the diamond on Sunday night.
"I'm sure [the military members] will be excited to watch a ballgame on Sunday night on ESPN, but I think more than anything, we'll be looking forward to spending the morning and afternoon hanging out with those guys," Braves outfielder Jeff Francoeur said.
"It's just an honor to be with them. It's not like they're forced to go into [the military]. They make the decision to serve our country and be the backbone that keeps us safe."
After that, they'll play ball in front of the country and the world. And after that, the gem of a field will stay and be converted to a permanent softball facility for the soldiers and their families to enjoy forever.
On Sunday, though, it's all about America: Fourth of July weekend baseball in a ballpark packed to the rafters with honor, patriotism and the celebration of liberty.
And history. This is the first game of its kind, and that's significant and special.
"I think the excitement level is off the charts," Marlins reliever Mike Dunn said. "Everyone is extremely excited to go."
But beyond all the excitement will be a healthy dose of perspective.
Baseball players ultimately know that bunts and flies are not real "sacrifices." A matchup between two tough teams is not a real "battle." And these are some of the distinctions that will be on their minds as they visit Fort Bragg and play in this monumental event.
"We grind every day doing this and that and putting pressure on ourselves," Francoeur said. "Yet these guys have lost friends [in the battlefield]. We gripe about it being hot in Atlanta, and these guys are full suit running sprints and doing obstacle courses.
"There's a humility and admiration for just what they do. It's unbelievable when you see those Navy Seals out there. They could run circles around us. It's just an honor to be around those guys and see what they do."