Sunday night’s Marlins-Braves matchup wasn’t just another midsummer game, it was an historic one. Held at North Carolina’s Fort Bragg and played in a temporary 12,500-capacity venue, it marked the first professional sporting contest at an active military base. The Marlins won 5–2 behind J.T. Realmuto’s three-hit night, including a homer.
In March, MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association announced plans for the game as a July 4 weekend tribute to U.S. servicemen and servicewomen to be held at Fort Bragg, the largest military base in the world. Home of the Airborne and Special Operations Forces, the installation covers more than 500 square miles spread across six counties in North Carolina and houses more than 55,000 active personnel and 250,000 residents. The league and the union funded the construction of the $5 million Fort Bragg Field, broke ground on what was previously an abandoned golf course in March and began sodding the field with Bermuda grass in April, building dugouts, bullpens, locker rooms, showers, a press box, seating areas, a padded outfield fence, foul poles, lights, a video scoreboard and tents for concessions, souvenirs and production of ESPN’s broadcast.
On television, the field—which measured 331 feet down the foul lines, 387 to the power alleys and 405 to dead center—looked as attractive and brand-spanking-new as a top-shelf minor league park or spring training facility. According to players, the playing field was in better condition than some major league parks. Check out the cool time-lapse video of the construction:
On Saturday, nearly 200 kids between the ages of seven and 13 participated in a baseball clinic. Players from both teams spent part of their Sunday with the soldiers. Tickets for the game weren’t sold to the general public. Instead, they were distributed to active-duty soldiers, their families, disabled veterans, and U.S. Department of Defense personnel, with stern warnings regarding repercussions for selling or otherwise transferring tickets, which meant tough luck for Marlins Man, though somehow, professional ballhawk Zack Hample got in and managed to wind up on the wrong side of the 82nd Airborne Division.
Cardinals reliever Mitch Harris, who last year became the first United States Naval Academy graduate in nearly 100 years to play in the majors, was in attendance (he recently underwent Tommy John surgery) and shared his view of the pregame flag presentation and helicopter flyover via Instagram:
A video posted by Mitch Harris (@mitch_harris2) on Jul 3, 2016 at 5:13pm PDT
The Braves, who hosted the first three games of the series at Turner Field, served as the home team for the game, which was scoreless for the first four innings, as Atlanta’s Matt Wisler and Miami’s Adam Conley traded zeroes. The Braves came close to breaking the ice in the bottom of the fourth when Freddie Freeman hit a leadoff double to centerfield and advanced to third on a groundout, but he was ultimately stranded there. In the next half-inning, the Marlins put two runs on the board. Adeiny Hechavarria drove a ball over the head of centerfielder Chase d’Arnaud for a leadoff triple. Two batters later, he came home via Realmuto’s single, and Realmuto scored via successive singles by Martin Prado and Christian Yelich.
The Braves threatened again in the bottom of the fifth, putting the first two batters aboard via an Erick Aybar single and a throwing error by Realmuto on a short groundball by Wisler. Conley recovered to strike out Jace Peterson and induced d’Arnaud to fly out to left, and while Freeman drew a two-out walk to load the bases, Markakis grounded to Prado at third base for a fielder’s choice—par for the course for the majors’ most inept offense (3.43 runs per game).
The Marlins widened their lead to 5–0 with runs in the seventh, eighth and ninth. Realmuto, the majors’ only catcher to hit from the leadoff spot more than three times this year, led off the seventh with a single and stole second, then scored on a single by Prado. That ended Wisler’s night after 103 pitches; he yielded 10 hits and one walk while striking out six. Giancarlo Stanton led off the eighth with a triple off Tyrell Jenkins via another drive to deep center that eluded a diving d’Arnaud, then scored on a sacrifice fly by Derek Dietrich. Realmuto led off the ninth with a solo homer to centerfield off Jenkins, his fifth of the season.
Conley departed after six shutout innings and 91 pitches, yielding just four hits and one walk. David Phelps and newly acquired Fernando Rodney each worked scoreless innings, but closer A.J. Ramos struggled to nail down the final outs in a non-save situation. With one out, he hit Tyler Flowers with a pitch, walked Jeff Francoeur, served up an RBI double to Aybar and a sacrifice fly to A.J. Pierzynski. The Braves never got the tying run to the plate, however, and Ramos struck out Peterson to seal the victory that boosted the Marlins’ record to 43–39, 6½ games behind the Nationals in the NL East and 1½ back in the Wild Card race. The Braves fell to a league-worst 28–54.
By all accounts, the game was a rousing success for MLB, and a well-received tribute to the troops; no doubt it meant something special to the players involved who have family members in the military. Given its success, it wouldn’t be tough to imagine this becoming an annual event, but the current plan is to sacrifice Fort Bragg Field to another noble cause. It will be converted into a softball field and a recreational facility with other fields—soccer, flag football, and other intramural sports—for the use of those at the base, helping to replace around 20 athletic fields lost to construction or other projects over the past decade.