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‘Field of thanks’: MLB gives back to military with Fort Bragg game

Chad Olsen, left, and Sharon Majeski work on the field as final preparations are made on Thursday, June 30, 2016, for the major league game between the Atlanta Braves and the Florida Marlins to be played on base at Ft. Bragg on Sunday, July 3.
Chad Olsen, left, and Sharon Majeski work on the field as final preparations are made on Thursday, June 30, 2016, for the major league game between the Atlanta Braves and the Florida Marlins to be played on base at Ft. Bragg on Sunday, July 3. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Like a movie set, or a World’s Fair, or a U.S. Army forward operating base that is unloaded from trucks to unfold into an instant city, Fort Bragg Field has sprung from the remains of a defunct golf course on this sprawling post for one transient moment.

The diamond will glitter under the lights just long enough to host a single Major League Baseball game Sunday.

“It’s a ‘Field of Thanks,’ ” said Murray Cook, making the unavoidable nod to the 1989 film “Field of Dreams,” in which an Iowa farmer mows down part of his corn crop to make room for a field where long-dead baseball players can play pick-up games. Cook, MLB’s field and ballpark consultant, had to clear more goosegrass than corn for this project, but the transformation of a three-acre section of the old Willow Lakes Golf Course since early March is no less dramatic.

Sunday’s contest will show up in sports record books as a home game for the Atlanta Braves against the Miami Marlins; the first Major League Baseball game to be played in North Carolina; and the first regular-season game to be played on an active military base.

Whatever the game’s outcome, the event will be seen as a huge score for baseball executives and players, whose $5 million outlay for the temporary park’s construction takes the popular practice of honoring active-duty military into the major league.

“Honestly, it’s one of the most exciting events that I’ve been fortunate enough to work on,” said Mike Teevan, a MLB spokesman who has traveled back and forth between New York and Fayetteville repeatedly in recent months. “This is really just a gesture of gratitude. We want to show all the service members a first-class experience. We want to stage an event that they can be proud of, that they can enjoy with their families.”

The idea was born last fall, Teevan said, when MLB executives were talking about ways in which they could take the game to fans who don’t normally get to see it in person. In baseball’s early history, it was not uncommon for teams to meet in neutral venues, but since the 1920s, most major-league games have been played in the big stadiums that are the teams’ homes.

“Somebody brought up playing at a military post,” Teevan said, and eventually, MLB made a proposal to the Army to bring America’s game to America’s heroes on America’s most-populous military base on the eve of the nation’s Independence Day. The Department of Defense approved it in February, and construction began the first week of March.

Willow Lakes Golf Course, built in the 1960s at what was then Pope Air Force Base, was described as a fine facility in its heyday, but was on the decline when the Army absorbed the air base, and the course never reopened after its 2009 season. Converting a section of the neglected course into a ball field required 100,000 square feet of Bermuda grass sod, procured from a Charlotte grower; 8,000 tons of drainage gravel from a Fayetteville rock dealer; 400 tons of track mix; 250 tons of infield clay; fencing from a Raleigh company; and wall padding, foul poles, backstop net and batting tunnels from a Salisbury supplier.

Bobby Sloan, a senior associate at Populous, the Denver, Colo., architect team that designed Fort Bragg Field, said the idea was to create a “pop-up park” comparable to a minor-league stadium or one used by a major-league team for spring training.

It’s going to be a whole lot more than a baseball game. It’s going to be a memory.

Bobby Sloan of Populous, the architect team that designed Fort Bragg Field

During construction, the site has been closed to most of the 150,000 people who live or work on the base, including the 50,000 or so soldiers and airmen assigned there. To keep it intimate, Sloan said, the park has only 12,500 seats, every one of them with a good view of the field. At that size, it nestles below the tree line.

Watch a time lapse video of construction of the stadium at Ft. Bragg where the Atlanta Braves will face the Florida Marlins in the first Major League Baseball game played in North Carolina.

The Department of Defense managed a lottery to distribute tickets, which, except for VIPs, were given only to active-duty service members, who can bring dependents. They will see the stadium the first time when they walk through short entryways at the corners and find the garnet-red warning track around the field, the perfectly trimmed emerald-green grass, the glimmering stadium lights. It will have all the normal trappings: television cameras, major-league announcers, vendors selling hot dogs, popcorn and team memorabilia.

“It’s going to be a whole lot more than a baseball game,” said Sloan, who hopes the three or four hours spent at the park tonight will prompt recollections for many in the crowd of sweet times in childhood when a parent or grandparent took them to a game. “It’s going to be a memory,” Sloan said, “that will live on in people’s minds for a long time.”

A part of the stadium will live on as well.

Immediately after the game, the 12,500 seats will be removed, along with the ancillary tents that surround the field. What will remain – the playing field, the foul poles, the fence, the dugouts and bullpens – will be handed over to Fort Bragg’s Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation directorate, which will use them for baseball and softball, and likely add fields for soccer, flag football, ultimate Frisbee and other intramural sports for the dozens of teams on post.

Eric Hill, chief of recreation for the directorate, said that with budget cuts, Fort Bragg relies heavily on grants, gifts and corporate sponsorships to pay for equipment and programming for its popular intramural teams.

“This is a population of extremely fit people who are extremely competitive,” Hill said. “The sports teams give them an outlet for that competitive spirit, and help build esprit de corps.”

The gesture by Major League Baseball in building Fort Bragg Field is by far the largest such gift the base has received. Teevan, the league spokesman, said it’s an extension of a long relationship between baseball and the military; he cites a list of players who served in the military and says that since 2008, MLB has been a major supporter of Welcome Back Veterans, which helps veterans find jobs and get treatment for post-traumatic stress and brain injuries.

The relationship has hit stumbling blocks; last fall, Major League Baseball – along with the National Hockey League and the National Football League – were criticized for having taken $6.8 million in payments from the Pentagon for patriotic displays during games. The Pentagon said the payments were part of recruitment campaigns, but has since banned the practice.

In recent weeks, social media pages on which tonight’s game and the temporary stadium were mentioned were mostly positive, with a few complaints that the game itself would be less than compelling and some disappointment that veterans and the general public could not get tickets.

Stan Coerr, who grew up in Winston-Salem, graduated from Duke and served nine years in the Marine Corps and 16 in the reserves, has written about the post-9/11 culture change in which civilians feel they must continually thank service members and veterans and says the gestures have gotten “out of hand.”

They are motivated, he said, in part by a determination to treat this generation’s service members better than the ones who served in Vietnam.

“There’s also a hunger in this country for heroism; real, no-kidding heroism,” Coerr said, and it’s easy to make heroes of those who volunteer for military service when less than 1 percent of the population does so.

But Coerr says that grand gestures by corporations and even non-profits that say they’re honoring or thanking the troops are sometimes disingenuous or misguided.

“Honoring the troops is a very easy way to get two or three birds with one stone,” he said. “One is to sort of prove your patriotism, and one is to prove how benevolent you are.

“Part of it is legitimate; people really do feel grateful. But if you’re not stationed at Fort Bragg, you’re not going to get a lot of benefit out of a really nice softball field. After the game, the lights go out, the cameras turn off, the crowds go home, the seats disappear, and then what?

“I bet if you surveyed them, most of those service members would rather take that $5 million and put it into job placement programs for young solders getting out, or something else that they could use more than once,” Coerr said.

Air Force Capt. Tim Hubler understands Coerr’s position, but said tonight’s televised game will showcase Fort Bragg and is an acknowledgment that military service is a sacrifice. Hubler, a huge Braves fan, will be at the game with his wife, Kate – a Yankees devotee who will pull for the Braves this one night – and their 7-month-old daughter, Hayley.

Hubler has been to at least 20 Braves games and has visited 31 major-league baseball stadiums, but knows there will be many people in the stands who have never been to a professional ballgame.

“So many kids start out playing when they’re young, and they all have dreams of one day playing playing on a field like that,” Hubler said. “It just resonates with people.”

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