Baseball at Fort Bragg a big hit for MLB, military; Marlins win
Categories: Miami Marlins

Baseball at Fort Bragg a big hit for MLB, military; Marlins win

There was a sense of wonderment from every perspective Sunday when Major League Baseball staged the first regular-season professional game on an active military base.

The unlikely convergence of efforts that brought the Miami Marlins and Atlanta Braves together on this field that rose from a ramshackle abandoned golf course in less than four months crystalized when the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade flew four giant military helicopters out of the clouds and over Fort Bragg Field as the national anthem was winding to conclusion.

The players, accustomed to being the featured attraction, were as awe-struck as anyone as they took the field against a backdrop of emblems of the various units of the 54,000 troops stationed at Fort Bragg lining the outfield fence.

“Both teams are experiencing the same thing. We’re like a kid again,” Marlins closer A.J. Ramos said.

There was a sense of wonderment from every perspective Sunday when Major League Baseball staged the first regular-season professional game on an active military base.

The unlikely convergence of efforts that brought the Miami Marlins and Atlanta Braves together on this field that rose from a ramshackle abandoned golf course in less than four months crystalized when the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade flew four giant military helicopters out of the clouds and over Fort Bragg Field as the national anthem was winding to conclusion.

The players, accustomed to being the featured attraction, were as awe-struck as anyone as they took the field against a backdrop of emblems of the various units of the 54,000 troops stationed at Fort Bragg lining the outfield fence.

“Both teams are experiencing the same thing. We’re like a kid again,” Marlins closer A.J. Ramos said.

Once the pageantry and interaction with soldiers was concluded, the Marlins put their focus on baseball for a much-needed 5-2 victory before 12,582.

J.T. Realmuto capped a three-hit night with a home run in the ninth inning. Christian Yelich, whose younger brother is in the U.S. Marines, had three hits and drove in a run.

“I think it definitely got the adrenaline going for everybody. I got goosebumps. A couple of other guys were talking about it too,” Yelich said of the pregame unfurling of a giant American flag and the helicopter flyover.

Left-hander Adam Conley, coming off a rocky outing in Detroit, came through with six shutout innings while holding the Braves to four hits.

“I know for sure this has been my favorite place to ever pitch in my life,” said Conley, who skipped the events on the base earlier in the day to concentrate on preparing for the start.

“It’s an honor that it falls on my day that I get to start here today. I knew however it went today was going to be an amazing experience for everybody involved.”

That they were doing it in a game that counted in front of a national television audience created an energy that enlivened players and spectators alike.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Lance Ludwig, 21, a Coral Springs native who serves in field artillery and described his job as “we shoot rockets.”

Ludwig, attending the game with his wife, said, “Not a lot of service members get to come out and see this. This is the first time this has ever been done and there’s only 12,500 seats, so it’s a real blessing to be here.”

Tickets were distributed to all of the units stationed here in proportion to their size. They ended up going predominantly to Braves fans.

Ludwig had help in representing Marlins interests from Miami native Randolph Delapena who wore a cap from their 1997 World Series championship and vowed to “make enough noise for the Marlins.”

Randolph, a command sargeant major, said when he heard about the game, “I was enthralled. I just got home two days ago from Germany from a training event. To make it back home to get to the game is pretty awesome.”

Players from the teams had an opportunity to participate in various activities during the day, including a visit to a parachute packing facility. Some got a primer in special ops training while others met with patients and doctors at the Womack Army Medical Center and dined at a mess hall.

“I saw the gun ranges were really cool, how far they have to hit the target,” Giancarlo Stanton said. “They have one of them where the target pops up and you’ve got to find it in a certain time and hit it. If you don’t pass — hit something like 32 out of 40 — you’ve got to go back down to different training. So that’s pretty cool.”

Kind of the military’s version of getting sent down to the minors.

But the players had a clear appreciation for the distinction between what they do and the work of those who serve here.

“They’re telling us how thankful they are that we’re here,” Marlins left fielder Christian Yelich said. “We’re thankful that they allowed us to be here. It’s the other way around. We appreciate everything they do for us to allow us to play baseball. To do this in honor of them is going to be special for everybody.”

LTG. Stephen Townsend, the base commander, pointed to the cooperative effort that made the unique game possible between the military, MLB, the players association and the community of nearby Fayetteville.

“I think what I want the soldiers and family members to take away is the respect, admiration and love of baseball and America on Independence Day for those who actually provide the independence,” Townsend said. “I want everyone to take away, I think, this team effort. This is a little example of what makes America special.”

MLB and the players’ association spent $5 million to build the ballpark, which took a major excavation to create a major league-caliber field out of an overgrown, unused area.

U.S. Army Special Ops Staff Sgt. Dillon Heyliger, who spent time in Iraq, marveled at the transformation as he surveyed the field a few hours before the game. He passes the site every day going to and from his duties and witnessed the field take shape from a wasteland.

“When they were digging it out they found hives of honey bees. They had to relocate them,” Heyliger said. “It was totally untouched and unused for a long time. People would just jog and walk through this area, and I guess it was the spot to dig up and build this.”

Marlins second baseman Derek Dietrich said the qualify of the infield measured up with any park in the majors.

Fort Bragg Field has the look of a spring training park, but the Jumbotron in left field was impressive. The Braves organist provided the soundtrack with Turner Field melodies.

For one night this Field of Dreams in the nation’s military heartland felt big-league all the way.

“I think it’s a great thing we’re doing, and I think we’ll probably see more of it,” Dietrich said.

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