U.S. Army Spc. Lance Ludwig attended a handful of games at Marlins Park when he lived in South Florida. But Sunday will mark the first time he — or anyone else — experiences a Major League Baseball game at a military base.
When the Marlins face the Atlanta Braves at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in the nationally televised contest (ESPN, 8 p.m.), it will become the first regular-season professional sporting event ever staged at an active U.S. military installation.
“I think it’s going to be cool,” said Ludwig, who plans to be in the crowd of 12,500 service members at Fort Bragg Field, which was constructed specifically for the one-time event. “Everyone is talking about it. It’s a really big thing.”
For one night, baseball will become “base” ball.
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And Marlins players and executives are fired up about the chance to perform in front of the troops.
“I’m extremely excited,” Marlins reliever Mike Dunn said. “To be able to play in front of the troops — the first time a professional sport is going to be played just for them — I think is awesome.”
This won’t be Dunn’s first visit to Fort Bragg.
Just before the start of spring training in 2014, Dunn and several other major-leaguers traveled to the base, taking part in many of the same drills that are required of the Army troops.
“We woke up in the morning, did P.F.T. [physical fitness training] with them every morning,” Dunn said. “We packed some ’chutes, jumped off a platform, went around with the special forces.”
The players even got in a Wiffle ball game with soldiers.
On Sunday, though, they’ll be playing hardball on a real field in a game that counts in the standings.
“It’s going to be a special night that I think we’ll remember for a long time,” said Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich, whose brother, Cameron, is a member of the U.S. Marines. “I don’t know how many times — if ever — you’re going to be able to play on an active military base again for a Major League Baseball game.”
Marlins president David Samson said the team was first approached about the Fourth of July weekend game to honor troops at the end of last season when MLB and the player’s union agreed to the idea.
Samson said he didn’t hesitate when asked about participating. The Marlins have supported the U.S. military for years, sending players, coaches and executives on yearly offseason excursions to overseas bases.
“MLB knows and the union knows about our involvement,” Samson said. “The minute we were asked, we said yes.”
Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton went on one such trip before the 2012 season, visiting troops in Japan, Guam and Hawaii. But the Fort Bragg trip excites him even more.
“Going there for them, and giving back, it’s fun for both of us,” Stanton said of players and soldiers.
Said Dunn of playing in front of the troops: “They’re the ones sacrificing their lives so we can do this. And we’re able to play a baseball game right in front of them. Can’t wait.”
The Marlins plan on abandoning their heavy-on-the-orange, rainbow-colored uniforms in favor of red, white and blue jerseys and caps — ones they’ve worn in the past for July 4 games.
Along with the game itself, players on both the Marlins and Braves are scheduled to take part in various activities with the Fort Bragg troops throughout the day Sunday.
“Whatever they are, doesn’t matter to me. I’ll be there,” Yelich said of pregame functions with the soldiers.
Samson said he can’t wait to see the field itself.
“The only people in the stands will be members of the armed forces and their families,” Samson said. “It’s going to be like a field of dreams to me.”
As for Ludwig, he’s longing for the chance to see his favorite team — the Marlins — in the once-in-a-lifetime event. He’s hoping the Army will allow him to wear his Marlins paraphernalia, but wasn’t sure whether that would be the case.
“That would be awesome,” said the 21-year-old Ludwig, who grew up in Coral Springs and has been stationed at Fort Bragg for a year and a half. “I’ve got my Stanton jersey ready, and a new hat and T-shirt.”