ARLINGTON -- More than six months passed between the scheduled opening of Globe Life Field in March and the arrival of fans for Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has affected every Major League Baseball franchise, the Rangers’ story is unique: They were the only team inaugurating a new stadium in 2020.
As he waited to welcome guests, Rangers co-owner and COO Neil Leibman devoted time to a cause that transcends sports -- the concept and eventual construction of the new National Medal of Honor Museum, a short distance away from Globe Life Field. Leibman serves on the museum’s board of directors; the group is chaired by Charlotte Jones, executive vice president and chief brand officer of the Dallas Cowboys.
In one measure of the project’s meaning and scope, every living former U.S. president is serving as an honorary director of the museum. President George W. Bush attended the ceremony announcing Arlington had won the nationwide site selection process in 2019.
Construction is set to begin in the fourth quarter of next year. The museum is scheduled to open in 2024, offering a public and enduring tribute to the U.S. military’s highest award for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.”
Army Staff Sgt. David Bellavia, the only living Medal of Honor recipient from the Iraq War, believes one crucial aspect of the museum’s mission involves inspiring visitors to consider the meaning of citizenship through service to others within their communities.
“It’s huge for the country right now,” said Bellavia, also a member of the museum’s board of directors. “There’s a tendency to think everything is virtual now, with COVID. We can learn virtually. We go online to get information. But there always needs to be a brick-and-mortar [place] you can walk through and be able to see it, touch it, smell it. This is American valor.
“Our country’s divided today, and the one thing that brings us all together -- no matter what you look like, how you were raised, who you love -- is our country and our belief that we are one people, together. The Medal of Honor Museum represents the beauty of what happens when people from rural America, the inner city, different socioeconomic backgrounds, all have the flag on our shoulder and are one family together.”
Joe Daniels signed on as CEO of the National Medal of Honor Museum after more than a decade as president of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York. Daniels was arriving for work at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, when he ascended the steps of the E train station and saw smoke billowing from the North Tower.
Daniels’ emotional experiences that day formed an integral part of his professional life for the 12 years he spent working on the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. He's similarly moved by the opportunity to share stories behind the 3,526 medals awarded since the 1800s.
“It’s a privilege to help build national institutions that are going to affect people for generations to come,” Daniels said. “I know for a fact there are millions of kids who have gone to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, and [when] they went back to hometowns across the country, the first time they saw a first responder after their visit, they had this renewed sense of respect for what it means to be a public servant. They saw the stories of the 343 firefighters who were killed, the more than 400 first responders who rushed into the buildings on that day and didn’t make it out.
“With the Medal of Honor, the DNA is the same. It’s focusing on these individual stories that are so emotionally powerful that they have the ability to impact how people live their everyday lives.”
Major League Baseball has shown public support for the project, including the installation of cutouts of Medal of Honor recipients in the community section at American League Championship Series games in San Diego. The Rangers have lent support and expertise in a variety of areas, including the building’s design and location, north of the team’s former home, Globe Life Park, and adjacent to Esports Stadium Arlington. Leibman said his long-term vision for the Arlington Entertainment District involves spectators visiting the Medal of Honor Museum for education and reflection before or after they attend sporting events.
“I’ve met several Medal of Honor recipients, because they live here in Texas,” Leibman said. “The stories are so compelling and moving ... [They] sacrifice their life, they sacrifice it all -- for us. They should be rewarded.”
While Daniels acknowledged the difficulty of planning amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he said the fundraising total thus far -- more than $60 million -- is ahead of initial projections.
“What it shows is there’s a feeling, I believe, that people are really sick and tired of the hyper divisiveness we see,” Daniels said. “So when they see a project that really is about -- left or right, wherever you are -- coming behind and honoring these Medal of Honor recipients and the DNA of selflessness we really do have in our makeup, there’s a real pull toward supporting that project.”
Bellavia was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and lives today with his family in Western New York. He received the Medal of Honor from President Trump in 2019 for his actions on Nov. 10, 2004, in Fallujah, Iraq. The citation for Bellavia’s medal says, in part: “Acting on instinct to save the members of his platoon from an imminent threat, Staff Sergeant Bellavia ultimately cleared an entire enemy-filled house, destroyed four insurgents, and badly wounded a fifth.”
When asked about his own heroism, Bellavia speaks emotionally about friends and fellow soldiers who died in combat. “You have to live your life for all the people that died,” he said. “I think about that sacrifice every single day. I can’t have a bad day because Sean Sims and Steven Faulkenburg and Edward Iwan and J.C. Matteson and 37 others of my family gave their lives, so that I can be a dad, come home, talk with you. It puts everything in perspective.”
Bellavia is a lifelong New York Yankees fan. Hall of Famer Dave Winfield is his all-time favorite player. When a fellow American approaches Bellavia to thank him for his service, he typically replies with a saying he learned from a Vietnam War veteran.
You’re worth it.
“That blows their mind,” Bellavia explained. “You go to Los Angeles, someone says, ‘Thank for your service,’ and you’re like, ‘You’re worth it, random stranger.’ You get a look like, ‘What is wrong with this guy?’ But I started to say that, and I noticed that we have a moment. It’s a really odd exchange, but they are worth it. Everyone is worth it. And if we get back to realizing there are so many people doing things for us every day, we should be more appreciative.
“I bring everything back to sports. I don’t like the Boston Red Sox, but I love Boston. I love the people on the team. I will do anything for those people because they’re part of my family. They’re part of my country. They’re part of my life. We can have differences of opinion -- differences in politics, and in art, and in entertainment -- but at the end of the day, this is one united front.”
To learn more about the National Medal of Honor Museum or make a donation to the project, please visit mohmuseum.org. The National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation is a 501(c)(3) institution.