by Thad Mumau

A big thing is taking place July 3 at Fort Bragg. A major league baseball game will be played there, a Sunday night game televised by ESPN. It is not an exhibition contest, but an official National League game that counts in the standings.

The Atlanta Braves will be taking on the Miami Marlins in a battle of NL East Division rivals that is part of a three-game weekend series. The first two games will be played at Atlanta’s Turner Field, with the final contest at Fort Bragg. The Braves will be the home team.

The game was intentionally planned to tie in with Independence Day Weekend as America celebrates its 240th birthday. A flyover by the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade will highlight pre-game festivities.

In making the announcement of the historic game back in March, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said, “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.”

Although the mere playing of the game is momentous, where it will be played is equally noteworthy. Major League Baseball is constructing a stadium at Fort Bragg. Not just a ball field, a ballpark with a manicured infield and carpet-like outfield with a seating capacity of 12,500, which is more than the three Triple-A baseball stadiums in North Carolina (Durham, Zubulon and Charlotte).

And it gets better. Because, after the game, MLB is handing over the stadium to the United States Army, specifically to the Fort Bragg base, to be used by the men and women of the military and their families. It will be converted to a multipurpose facility that will include softball fields and will provide additional opportunities.

“It will stand as a fitting new chapter in the national pastime’s proud and distinguished military history,” Manfred said.

A generous gesture, to be sure, and one that lays the groundwork for possible future games at Fort Bragg. The July 3 game will be the first professional contest of any sport to be played at a military installation. It would stand to reason that MLB would consider doing it again, and though no announcement has been made, Bragg would be a logical choice since a stadium will already be in place there.

Fayetteville and Fort Bragg are part of what is known as Braves Country, a point recognized by team president John Schuerholz.

“The Atlanta Braves organization is extremely honored to be chosen to play in the Fort Bragg Game and to entertain some of our nation’s patriot men and women,” he said. “It is special for our fans and our entire organization that we are playing this game in Braves Country.”

The ballpark is being built near Pope Field, on the former Willow Lakes golf course, which closed in 2009. More than 12,500 people are expected to attend, with most of the tickets going to Fort Bragg troops and their families,.

The following quotes from members of the Miami and Atlanta teams are compliments of Major League Baseball.

“This is an honor,” said Braves catcher A.J. Pierzynski, “especially to go to an active base in front of the troops. 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.”

Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich has a brother, Cameron, who has been stationed in Japan as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, so the Fort Bragg Game, as it has come to be called, has special meaning for him.

“I appreciate the troops and everything they do for us,” Yelich said, “especially having a service member in my family. It will be extra special for me to be out there. We owe those guys a lot.”

Upon learning that his team would be playing in the historic game at Bragg, Miami pitcher and player representative Tom Koehler was asked to gauge his teammates’ reaction.
“I texted a bunch of the guys,” he said, “and everybody was super excited. It’s something that’s never been done. To be able to take the national pastime and honor our servicemen and women … I think it’s going to be an absolutely incredible experience.

“We’re going to put the spotlight on those men and women,” Koehler said. “We’re going to be playing, but the whole purpose of this is to shed some light on everything they do and kind of honor them.”

“There are a lot of heroes there,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “Some have paid a heavy price. It’s just good to go and honor them and play there.”

The Fort Bragg Game is the latest venture for MLB and its players to show support and respect for the people who serve in the U.S. military, which includes many former Major League players who sacrificed for their country.

Since 2008, MLB has supported, “Welcome Back Veterans,” an initiative that addresses the mental health and jobs needs of returning American veterans and has committed more than $30 million to those efforts.

In addition, many players contribute to military-support organizations as individuals and collectively through the Players Trust.