Last Sunday, the Miami Marlins and Atlanta Braves celebrated Independence Day weekend with a regular season game that was anything but regular. The two division rivals became the first teams to play on an active military base when they took the field at Fort Bragg, home of the 82nd Airborne Division and Special Forces. The game was also the first time the state of North Carolina hosted a regular season MLB game.
Home to approximately 55,000 service members, Fort Bragg is the biggest military instillation in the world. Many around Fort Bragg call it a city in itself, as it is houses more than 250,000 people. Sunday's game was a special treat for military personnel and their families.
Fort Bragg Field was constructed in four very short months, and the whole $5 million project was funded by the MLB and the MLB Players Association. The stadium held 12,500 seats, but the game sold-out beyond that total capacity. Final attendance was announced to be 12,582. (The facility will be converted to a recreational field for the troops now that the game is over.)
“It means a great deal, it’s truly amazing the support that Major League Baseball has shown the Fort Bragg community, and the military community as a whole," said Master Sgt. Patrick Malone of the 82nd Airborne.
The event proved to be a rare treat for the players, too. The Marlins spent the morning of the game at the gun range, while the Braves visited the parachute packing facility for special operations training. Both teams visited the Womack Army Medical Center where they met with patients and doctors. Both teams then went to eat lunch at the mess hall, where they were greeted by fans. Players from both teams signed autographs and took pictures with troops and their families. Former Braves manager Bobby Cox, who retired after the 2010 season, was among the legends selected to represent the Braves at this historic game.
Just a few hours before the first pitch, some of MLB's top executives honored those who wouldn’t get so much attention at game time. Commissioner Rob Manfred, MLB Players Association Executive Director Tony Clark, and Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre made a stop at the recently opened Fisher House, a place where families of wounded warriors can stay while their loved ones are being treated at the nearby Army Medical Center.
“It's a privilege, and it just brings back what we’ve had in baseball for so long: the teamwork," said Torre. "These families are here for each other, and it just warms your heart."
After months of preparation and anticipation, the game finally drew near. Once both teams took the field for batting practice, the players marveled at the conditions of the field. Marlins second baseman Derek Dietrich said that the quality of the infield was better than some at major league parks.
But everyone was most excited to play in front of the troops.
“It’s huge,” said Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton. “You know everything that they do for us and the sacrifices they make, and it’s good that we can give back with our talents, to give them some entertainment, and give them a night off.”
Pregame festivities included the national anthem sung by Staff Sgt. Traci Gregg, and a four-helicopter fly-over. Then the players took the field. The Marlins already made franchise history before the game started: Catcher J.T. Realmuto was the first catcher to bat lead-off in Marlins history. Christian Yelich, who started in left field for the Marlins, got the first hit ever on an active military base, singling to right off a pitch from Braves starter Matt Wisler.
Despite the small size of the stadium, the fans chanted "U-S-A!" and made noise worthy of a major league park. Before the seventh inning stretch, the 82nd Airborne Division All-American Chorus performed "God Bless America."
“I know at a lot of parks we sing ‘God Bless America,’ but this one felt different,” said Marlins starting pitcher Adam Conley. "It was humbling for me and helps puts things into perspective — not to take gifts I’ve been given for granted.”
Conley turned out to be of the star of the game, pitching six scoreless innings. The Braves tallied two runs in the ninth, but the Marlins would end up winning the historic game, 5–2. Once the game was over, both teams saluted the fans by waving before going back to their respective clubhouses.
The result of the game seemed insignificant. It made so much history and left a lasting impact on so many people.
“The bad part is we lost the game," Braves interim manager Brian Snitker said. "The good part is, it’s something I’ll never forget the rest of my life.”
Conley, who missed all the community activities to prepare for the start, marveled at his good fortune, “This is the most memorable place I’ve ever pitched. An absolute honor that it falls on my day and that I get to start here.”
Marlins manager Don Mattingly agreed. “[Despite] having the chance to play at Yankee Stadium and play in the playoffs, there’s nothing like tonight."
Since Fort Bragg was a success, Commissioner Manfred entertained the idea of playing baseball on other military bases in the future.
“Well, we’re very interested in the concept of taking baseball to parts of the country where they don’t ordinarily see professional baseball, and I do think military bases provide a great venue for events of that type," said Manfred.
Whether or not it is replicated, this game was undoubtedly memorable for everyone involved — especially those serving our country.
Photos: Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos/Getty Images (helicopters), Dylan Goldman (with Barry Bonds)