Game will celebrate nation's military; new facility will remain as legacy
By John Schlegel
When America celebrates its 240th birthday this summer, the national pastime will pay tribute to the people who have kept the country safe for all those years of independence and freedom: America's military heroes.
Fittingly on Independence Day Weekend, the Braves and Marlins will honor the nation's servicemen and servicewomen by playing a regular-season game at Fort Bragg, the venerable North Carolina military installation.
The first professional contest of any sport to be played on an active military base, the Fort Bragg Game is slated for 8 p.m. ET on Sunday, July 3, at a newly constructed 12,500-capacity ballpark, Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association jointly announced Tuesday. The game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, ESPN Radio and MLB.TV, and the event promises to light up the July sky with appreciation for a job performed with honor around the clock and around the world.
For all the players and club personnel who will be involved in the contest, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to demonstrate their respect for the job those who serve do, day in and day out. For the Marlins' Christan Yelich, it will be a chance to recognize those who are in his brother's boots. Cameron Yelich is serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, currently stationed in Japan.
"I appreciate the troops and everything they do for us, especially having a service member in my family," the Marlins' star left fielder said. "It will be extra special for me to be out there. I know it's an army base. We owe those guys a lot."
Like many players, Braves catcher A.J. Pierzynski has interacted with the military many times before, from flying with the Blue Angels to greeting active soldiers on the field before games. But this is new territory, literally taking the game to the troops at Fort Bragg, the most populated military installation in the United States and a key operations center for the nation's security.
"Any time you get an opportunity to do stuff like that, it's an honor, especially to go to an active base in front of the troops," Pierzynski said. "That's what you do this for because 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."
The Braves will be the home team on the new ballfield, which will be converted to a permanent softball facility for those who serve at Fort Bragg as a gift from MLB and the MLBPA through the joint Industry Growth Fund.
"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," Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a release announcing the event. "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."
Said MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark: "As the son of a Navy officer, I am extremely proud to stand with all players and Major League Baseball as we honor our nation's military and our country, through the playing of a regular season game in historic Fort Bragg on Fourth of July weekend. Many players are the grandsons, sons and brothers of men and women who have served or continue to serve our country. This one-of-a-kind ballpark construction project provides us with an opportunity to say 'thank you' to all who serve to protect our great nation."
Fort Bragg is home to 250,000 people and covers more than 500 square miles. It is the base for the U.S. Army's Global Response Force, defined by Military Review as "a brigade combat team prepared to deploy anywhere in the world within 96 hours of notification." A city unto itself, the installation has an annual impact of $9.8 billion to the local economy, according to Tuesday's release.
"We're extremely grateful to Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association for their support to our service members and families," Col. Brett Funck, Fort Bragg Garrison Commander, said. "This historic event and the converted multipurpose facility will have enduring benefits for our entire Fort Bragg community for years to come."
The base is located near Fayetteville, N.C., in a region which Braves president John Schuerholz points out has been home to many fans of the Atlanta club for years.
"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," Schuerholz said. "It is special for our fans and our entire organization that we are playing this game in Braves Country -- Fort Bragg, N.C."
The Marlins are no less honored to be playing in this first-of-its-kind showcase of MLB talent at a military installation. They'll be the visiting team, but they'll feel right at home in paying tribute to those who serve.
"It's a distinct honor to play the Atlanta Braves at Fort Bragg, one of our nation's oldest and most revered military bases," Marlins owner and CEO Jeffrey Loria said. "It also makes sense for America's pastime to honor real American heroes by playing this regular-season game for the soldiers and fans."
Added Marlins pitcher Tom Koehler: "We're going to put the spotlight on the service men and women. 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."
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 of Major League Baseball Charities and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation 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.
Teams and players traditionally pay homage to members of the military on holidays such as Memorial Day and Fourth of July, but the Fort Bragg Game will take that tribute to a new level -- and a new venue, on the nation's largest military installation.
Koehler, as his team's player rep, was asked to gauge the reaction the Marlins might have to making a one-day trip to a military base. "I texted a bunch of guys, and without hesitation, everybody was super excited," he said. "It's something that's never been done. To be able to take the nation's pastime and honor our service men and women, I think it's going to be an absolutely incredible experience."
The game will be the third of a three-game series between National League East rivals, the first two being played in Atlanta. The Braves leave North Carolina for their July 4 game at Philadelphia, and the Marlins will continue their road trip by heading to New York to face the defending NL champion Mets on the holiday.
But the highlight of the Fourth of July weekend for both clubs promises to be that Sunday, a day that will bring the national pastime home to the nation's heroes at Fort Bragg.
"This is a unique and exciting chance to play in front of some of our military troops and their families," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "We have tremendous respect for what they do and it is an honor for us to have this opportunity."
Said Marlins manager Don Mattingly: "There are a lot of heroes there. Some have paid a heavy price. It's just good to go and honor them and play there."
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnSchlegelMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.