FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- United States Army installation Fort Bragg is the largest U.S. military base in the world, with more than 50,000 active duty personnel. This evening, 12,500 servicemen and women will have the unique opportunity to kick back and watch 50 civilian visitors go to work -- namely, the 25-man rosters of the Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins.
Tonight's game at newly constructed Fort Bragg Field will air on ESPN at 8 ET. It marks the first time a professional, regular-season game in any sport has been played on an active military base and is the first time the state of North Carolina has hosted a regular-season Major League Baseball game.
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During the hours leading up to Sunday's game, players from both teams participated in numerous activities that allowed them to interact with troops stationed at Fort Bragg. At a dining hall, the Marlins' Martin Prado was among the Braves and Marlins who were gladly handling long lines of autograph seekers.
"Even though I'm not from here, I have so much respect for the military and everything that they do," said Prado, who hails from Venezuela.
Wherever players and coaches went, they were greeted with warm smiles and words of appreciation for taking part in a historical occasion.
"They're telling us how thankful they are that we're here," Marlins left fielder Christian Yelich said.
The Fort Bragg community is justifiably excited. Pictures and videos of progress being made on the field, which was completed in less than four months on the site of an overgrown golf course, have been posted on all Fort Bragg social media channels for weeks. And the transformation is remarkable. What was very recently a brown, uneven ill-kept plot of land off Reilly Road near Pope Field is now a perfectly lit, glittering green baseball diamond framed with grandstand seating. Even those who are not attending the game recognize that it is a significant occurrence at Fort Bragg.
Fort Bragg hosts PLAY BALL event
"The game benefits my family and it really benefits a lot of the younger soldiers, who might not have an opportunity to go to a Major League game," said Lt. Col. Troy Shearer of the US Army Reserve Command, whose two youngest sons participated in a PLAY BALL event on post on Saturday morning. "With the Braves and the Marlins coming on post, and it being a free event, they don't have to put out the money to experience a regular-season game, so it's a pretty awesome event."
MLB and the MLB Players Association are looking at this event as a way to say a big "thank you" to America's servicemen and servicewomen.
"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," said MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. "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."
Baseball's ties to the military go back as far as the Civil War, when President Abraham Lincoln built a baseball field on the White House lawn and was allegedly once late for a war council meeting, saying, "They will just have to wait. It is almost my turn at bat."
Many professional baseball players have served notably in the military, but the most notable stars to distinguish themselves in the U.S. Army are Warren Spahn, Hank Greenberg, Cecil Travis, Hoyt Wilhelm, Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson.
Tonight, the NL East rival Braves and Marlins hope to distinguish themselves in front of the distinguished, all-military crowd.
"As soon as we found out about it in Spring Training, I was kind of excited for this date," said Marlins left fielder Christian Yelich, whose brother is a Marine. "I've been waiting for it to come along. I've seen pictures of the field and try to imagine what it's going to be like, the atmosphere. Playing there, I'm sure it's going to be unbelievable, and something we remember for a long time. Hopefully, the servicemen and women enjoy the game, and enjoy the day as well."
Given the small size of the stadium, tickets were scarce. They were not made available to the general public and were open only to those with Department of Defense IDs. While individual Army units were given a set number of tickets, most of those interested in attending the game had to go through a ticket lottery. Those who got tickets were required to sign documents stating the tickets could not be given away or sold.
Those servicemen and servicewomen who did not get tickets will have the opportunity to meet some of the players at pregame events at Fort Bragg's parachute-packing facility, Womack Army Medical Center and the 18th Field Artillery Brigade dining facility.
Spc. Hewitt Villaronga of the 11th Armored Cavalry Division at Fort Irwin, Calif., is one lucky serviceman with a ticket. He flew home to visit his family in Fayetteville, N.C., and will be attending the game with his father, Master Sgt. Roger Ocasio of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 37th Engineer Battalion, which makes its home at Fort Bragg.
"I'm not even a huge baseball fan, and this game is a really big deal," said Villaronga. "We're Puerto Rican, and my father is a lifelong baseball fan and a lifelong Yankee fan, so he's really excited."
To begin the evening's festivities, the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team and the U.S. Army Special Operations Command Black Daggers Parachute Team will jump into the ballpark and deliver the ceremonial first pitch baseball. After a flyover by the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, the first pitch will be thrown by Sgt. 1st Class Corey M. Calkins, a Green Beret from 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for valor as a result of his service in Afghanistan.
Also before the game, MLB Commissioner Manfred and MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark will present a commemorative plaque to Fort Bragg leadership to officially name the ballpark "Fort Bragg Field."
According to Eric Hill, recreation division chief for Fort Bragg's Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation, the site will be converted into softball and multipurpose recreational fields following tonight's game. The playing surface will remain, along with the foul poles, dugouts and bullpens, as a lasting reminder of tonight's historic event.