Through the generosity of Major League Baseball and the Players Association, a regular-season game will be played in a ballpark in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. That barely scratches the surface of this story, though.
The game, which will be played on the eve of Independence Day, is a first for a variety of reasons. Not only is it the first time an MLB game has been played on an active military base, it’s also the first time a ballpark is being built simply for a single game — and then will be disassembled immediately afterwards. All that will be left behind is the playing field, which will then be used by the base’s recreation program.
Since I’ll be writing about this for USA Today Sports Weekly, I’m conducting interviews with some of the key people making this unique experience happen. As we get closer to the event, we will bring you their thoughts — from MLB (where the idea originated) to the designer of the one-time-use ballpark to the key figure at Fort Bragg coordinating the event. Then follow us on Twitter the night of the game to see what it all looks like.
Let’s start with Tony Petitti, the Chief Operating Officer of Major League Baseball.
Petitti said that the original idea for this game grew out of brainstorming in MLB headquarters. “Our Special Events, Marketing and Communications Departments had been kicking around ideas of bringing the game to places where they don’t traditionally get to see the game,” he explained. A number of locations were suggested, but one stood out: Fort Bragg. They got in touch with officials at the base as well as other contacts within the Department of Defense. “We received a reaction of ‘Wow, this is out of the blue, but really exciting!’ When we (then) talked to the Players Association, they immediately saw the value in this and wanted to partner with us to make this happen.”
Then came the selection of a date and the teams.
“We thought that a celebration of the military on July 4th weekend made a lot of sense,” he continued. Fort Bragg, by the way, is already known for its huge, patriotic Independence Day celebrations every year. As for the teams, the Marlins were already scheduled to be in Atlanta that weekend, so moving the Sunday game to North Carolina made more sense than any other contest on the schedule. “So we went to the clubs. They quickly said ‘We’d love to do this.’ They embraced it immediately.”
The formal approval process within the Defense Department came next. Petitti pointed out that “every one supported it and pushed for it, and it got approved relatively quickly. Next thing you knew, we were putting a shovel in the ground,” as groundbreaking occurred on March 9 of this year.
How do you get a Major League ballpark ready in under four months? “We have great expertise across the game,” he explained. “You see it every day when you go to a game (and see) how incredibly well-maintained our fields are. So we have all of this expertise, and we just marshaled it (as part of) a really aggressive plan.” He noted that everyone at Fort Bragg gave them “extreme cooperation … That’s what let us make this timing work.”
The game itself isn’t the only special part of the weekend. Immediately after the 4:10 game at Turner Field on Saturday, July 2, both teams head to Fort Bragg “so they can be on the base by Sunday morning so they can do things with the service members (there). Whether it’s taking tours of the facilities, eating in the mess hall (or) interacting with the men and women of Fort Bragg, all of our players are really going to embrace this.” Petitti pointed out that MLB is also bringing in a number of former players to run clinics for the youngsters as part of MLB’s Play Ball initiative. “Commissioner (Rob) Manfred has made it a huge priority to do things for youth in the game and to do all we can to support making the game more accessible to kids.” The Play Ball event at Fort Bragg fits in this perfectly.
While honoring the military by bringing Big League baseball to its backyard was the key component of this plan, it wasn’t the only aspect that makes this so special. Petitti noted that MLB is “incredibly excited that we leave behind this great new athletic facility that will turn into something more permanent on the base. We’ll take down the stands and infrastructure, but the field is going to remain. Obviously, it’s a Major League quality field that we’re leaving behind. To have that legacy on the base, given through a partnership of Major League Baseball and its players, is something we’re really proud of.”
With all of this effort and money being put into this event and the ballpark, is it creating a template for such events in the future? Are any being discussed? “Not anything that we’re ready to talk about publicly or specifically,” he replied. “But the way this has come together — and of course we want to see how it turns out — we really see the value in doing this. We think when people go to a game, see the game, experience the game, it creates a strong bond with the game and it’s the best way to build fans. So this is something that we hope we can duplicate. We are really excited about using this idea to create other events where we can expose people to the game.”
If you’re not lucky enough to be a member of the military or a family member at Fort Bragg to be able to attend this game on July 3, you’ll still be able to watch it, as it’s the Sunday Night Baseball Game on ESPN. “This is not a typical production for them,” Petitti pointed out. “They’ve had to put a lot of resources into this, into how to cover this. They’ve been involved in this every step of the way. ESPN was absolutely great in seeing the value in this and wanting to make this happen.”
Next in our series: how this ballpark was designed.
Aerial photo is by Chief Warrant Officer 3 Joseph A. Baker, U.S. Army. We thank him for the use of it.