Sgt. Major Randolph Delapena saw many a Marlins game in Miami, where he was born and raised. But when Delapena found out they would be playing at Fort Bragg, the massive military installation in North Carolina where he’s stationed, nothing could keep him away.
“I just got home two days ago from Germany for a training event, just to make it back for this game,” said Delapena, sporting a vintage Marlins 1997 World Series cap he wore for the occasion.
Delapena was among the 12,500 soldiers and family members on hand for the first professional regular-season game ever played at an active U.S. base, when the Marlins faced the Atlanta Braves in the Fort Bragg Game.
It was baseball’s salute to those who serve the country.
And it offered all the pageantry one would expect from the occasion: a pregame helicopter flyover, an organist playing Sousa marches, a rousing rendition of the national anthem with a massive U.S. flag rollout and plenty of patriotic vibe.
“I think what I want the soldiers and family members to take away is the respect, admiration and love of baseball and America on Independence Day for those who actually provide the independence that we enjoy,” said Fort Bragg’s top gun, Gen. Stephen Townsend.
Although the special game was meant for the enjoyment of soldiers and their families, players on both teams said they experienced chills simply by being a part of it.
“We’re like kids again,” Marlins reliever A.J. Ramos said.
“Both teams are experiencing the same thing. Going out to the field just to play, to play a baseball game. It feels we’re out in the backyard playing, and it’s a good feeling.”
Said Braves catcher A.J. Pierzynski of playing in front of the troops: “They all look up to us. But, in reality, we all look up to them.”
“Fort Bragg Field,” which was built in six months, contained all the normal ballpark features, from spacious dugouts to team clubhouses that included batting cages and lounge sofas for the players.
A large video scoreboard towered over left field, and the playing surface was a smooth carpet of green that players said was equal or superior to those found in the big-league ballparks.
“Really, beyond what I expected,” Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said.
Before taking the field Sunday, players on both the Marlins and Braves visited the troops during the morning, taking part in some of their daily routines. Some of the Marlins visited patients at the base hospital.
“It’s been great ever since we landed [Saturday night],” Marlins reliever Mike Dunn said. “Just being around our soldiers. Going to the hospital. Just seeing the smiles on everybody’s face. We’re honored to be here.”
Said Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich: “They’re telling us how thankful they are that we’re here. It’s the other way around. We’re thankful they allowed us to be here.
“We appreciate everything they do for us to allow us to play baseball. To do this in honor of them is going to be special for everybody.”
Because it was the first game ever played on a U.S. military base, there were all sorts of firsts.
The Braves’ Matt Wisler threw the first pitch to the Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto, a strike. Yelich recorded the first “base” hit, a single up the middle in the first. And on it went.
Manfred said the league will continue to look at putting baseball in places that never experience it firsthand. (Not only was Sunday’s game the first played at a U.S. base, it was the first ever played in North Carolina.)
But Sunday’s Fort Bragg Game was meant for the exclusive enjoyment of the soldiers.
“This is special for me,” Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton said. “It feels like more giving back to them for what they do for us every day. It’s something we can do for them.”
Said Townsend, Fort Bragg’s top commander: “This is a little example of what makes America special.”