The week ahead begins with the usual drama typical of a baseball season poised to steam ahead into July: pennant races percolating, All-Star Game excitement building and highlight-reel plays lighting up all 30 Major League diamonds night in and night out.And then comes the show-stopper.Independence Day weekend prior to Monday's
The week ahead begins with the usual drama typical of a baseball season poised to steam ahead into July: pennant races percolating, All-Star Game excitement building and highlight-reel plays lighting up all 30 Major League diamonds night in and night out.
And then comes the show-stopper.
Independence Day weekend prior to Monday's Fourth of July holiday gives us a spectacular, historic reminder of what our game means to our country, but most important, what our country means to our game.
The stage is set for Sunday, when the first professional contest of any sport will be played on an active military base. And what a stage it is.
The location is Fort Bragg, the United States Army installation in North Carolina, and the sparkling, newly constructed 12,500-seat ballpark that will host the Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins.
The Fort Bragg Game, which was created to honor our nation's servicemen and servicewomen, 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 (blackout rules apply). Tickets are limited to military personnel.
"Major League Baseball's boundless gratitude to our military has led us to a unique event that will benefit the men and women of Fort Bragg and their families for many years," MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in March when the game was announced.
"I thank the Braves and the Marlins for their participation and all of our clubs and players for contributing to this gesture, which will stand as a fitting new chapter in the national pastime's proud and distinguished military history."
The field will be converted to a permanent softball facility for the 250,000 people who live at Fort Bragg, a sprawling complex that covers more than 500 square miles and is the headquarters for the U.S. Army's Global Response Force.
The Braves will be the home team on Sunday night at the ballpark, which was created as a gift from MLB and the MLB Players Association through the joint Industry Growth Fund. The game will be the third of a three-game series between the two clubs, with the first two being played in Atlanta.
For quite a few of the players involved, it's not just about the sentiment. In addition to being involved with charitable events and pursuits throughout the MLB season that pay respect to the United States military, these men also have Armed Forces members in their families.
Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich, for example, has a brother in the Marines who is stationed in Japan.
"I appreciate the troops and everything they do for us, especially having a service member in my family," Yelich said when the game was announced. "It will be extra special for me to be out there. I know it's an army base. We owe those guys a lot."
Braves catcher A.J. Pierzynski, meanwhile, has participated in events with the military throughout his 19 years in the Major Leagues. But never anything like this.
"Any time you get an opportunity to do stuff like that, it's an honor, especially to go to an active base in front of the troops," Pierzynski said. "That's what you do this for, because those guys are the real heroes with what they do to protect us and our way of life every day. It will be pretty amazing."
Of course, with the Major League season unfolding the way it has leading up to this stage of the 162-game schedule, Fort Bragg won't be the only amazing storyline to follow in the week ahead.
How about the streaking teams in the American League?
The Cleveland Indians head into the fresh seven-game slate on a serious tear, having won nine games in a row to vault into a five-game lead in the AL Central. They'll have a challenging week on the road, with three at Atlanta and four at Toronto.
The Astros lost Sunday to snap a seven-game winning streak, but they're still smoldering of late. They need to stay hot, given how AL West-leading Texas is closing in on the Cubs for the best record in MLB.
And then there are the homer-happy Orioles, who blasted the Rays, 12-5, on Sunday. The O's have won five consecutive games and have pulled away a bit in the AL East standings.
In the National League, the Mets have a hugely important week ahead, with three games on the road against the NL East-leading Nationals, followed by four at home vs. the NL Central-topping Cubs.
Out West, the division-leading Giants will try to maintain or improve upon their hefty cushion on the second-place Dodgers as a sensational season in San Francisco enters a new month later in the week. The Giants won last Friday night to complete a 40-game stretch in which they went 31-9, their best 40-game span since going 33-7 in 1954 as the New York Giants.
"It's been a lot of fun," Giants first baseman Brandon Belt said. "It's a lot of fun when you win games and I think it comes from the top all the way down. Nobody really feels like we're out of the game. We always feel like we have a shot at coming back."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB.