FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- It’s easy to be cynical in these cynical and divisive times, so it's easy to view the first professional sporting event ever held on an active military installation -- one named after a slaveholding general in the Confederate States Army, no less -- as nothing more than a public relations stunt.
You know what though? It was one hell of a stunt.
The Fort Bragg game, played on a temporary field built on the remains of a discarded golf course with 350,000 tons of infield clay hauled in, was baseball’s thank-you to the military, a chance for the sport to give something back to the men and women who serve their country.
The idea was hatched last summer. The Major League Baseball Players Association had to sign off on it. Construction on the field began four months ago. The logistics -- down to having a K-9 unit sniff the bags of media members -- had to be coordinated. Tickets had to be distributed to those lucky enough to win the ticket lottery. In the end, the rain and thunderstorms that struck the area earlier in the day held off, and 12,500 military members and their families got to see a Major League Baseball game, one that counted in the standings.
What’s so wrong with that?
“We’re very interested in taking baseball to areas of the country that don’t normally get to see Major League Baseball,” commissioner Rob Manfred said before the game. That’s true, from season-opening games in Japan to the preseason games this year in Mexico to the Pittsburgh Pirates-Miami Marlins series scheduled for Puerto Rico in May -- which was moved back to Miami after players raised concerns over the Zika virus.
Those mosquito concerns were dubious, probably more a reflection of not wanting to endure the extra travel and hassle of getting to Puerto Rico. For Sunday's game, however, the players had no such reservations. Marlins manager Don Mattingly said before the Fort Bragg game against the Atlanta Braves, “I haven’t heard one player complain about being here. Everyone is excited.”
The players visited a parachute packing facility, where they met troops and got to see some military weapons and machinery. Others visited soldiers at the Womack Army Medical Center. Later, the commissioner, his right-hand man, Joe Torre, and Players Association head Tony Clark visited Fisher House, which houses about 300 families a year so that they can be near loved ones who are hospitalized. Sure, those were all photo ops, but the players -- like Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich, whose 20-year-old brother Cameron is in the Marine Corps -- seemed appreciative of the opportunity to meets the troops.
The troops and their families, meanwhile, were happy to meet the players or to see them up close. Jose Fernandez shot some selfies with soldiers during batting practice. Players signed autographs. Giancarlo Stanton hit home runs in batting practice. I met Spc. Ryan Fawver, a 23-year-old from Auburn, Washington, who happened to be a Seattle Mariners fan like myself, and we talked briefly about the ups and downs of this year’s team.
“Nothing better than going to a Mariners game,” Fawver told me. He was working MP duty on the field before the game. “Lucky enough to draw the assignment,” he said. That was at least until Timothy Jenkins, his platoon sergeant, reminded him to start paying attention and talk less to the media.
Fawver has been in the Army for more than two years. He was previously stationed in Korea. He has been at Fort Bragg the past year.
“I love it here,” he said.
His barracks is literally across the street from the ballpark, which will be torn down after the game and converted into a recreational complex with baseball and softball fields. Major League Baseball funded the project, considered a gift to the Department of Defense.
Spc. Andrew Dobos, 20, had less interest in the game -- “I’m more into racing dirt bikes,” he said -- but is from Georgia and knew a lot of his friends back home would be watching. What struck me was, these are kids -- one barely old enough to remember watching Ken Griffey Jr. play for the Mariners, the other barely out of high school.
At Fisher House, I met Sgt. 1st Class Alfredo Delgado, his wife, Jazmine, and their four kids. He has been in the Army for 19 years. They had scored tickets to the game, and son Josh had on a Braves hat and T-shirt.
“They all play sports,” Jazmine said of the kids. “Keeping them involved in sports has helped keep me sane,” whenever her husband had been deployed.
This is who this game was for. I’d prefer not to think of that aspect as a mere PR stunt.
“It was awesome,” Yelich said after the game. “Something that I’ll remember -- and a lot of guys in the locker room will remember -- for the rest of their lives.”
Marlins starter Adam Conley called Fort Bragg Field “my favorite place I’ve ever pitched in."
"I know a lot of the parks we sing ‘God Bless America,’ but this one felt different," Conley said. "It was very humbling for me and helps put things in perspective -- not to take the gifts I’ve been given for granted.”
Oh, the Marlins won 5-2. It was a much-needed victory over a Braves team that had defeated them in eight of 11 games. Yelich had three hits. J.T. Realmuto went 3-for-5, homered and scored three runs. Conley threw six scoreless innings. It was a good game of baseball.
The stadium will be torn down, starting in a couple of days. And the Braves and Marlins will go back to being coddled professional athletes, but at least with a game to remember and some lessons learned. I guess the rest of us will go back to our skepticism and our heated arguments on Twitter and our analyses of playoff races and everything else. And life will return to normal at Fort Bragg.