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MLB's Fort Bragg game showed the sports world how military tributes should be done

Appreciation of the military is often perfunctory in sports, but MLB managed to give a baseball game and normalcy to baseball fans.

Miami Marlins v Atlanta Braves Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Retired Sgt. 1st Class Cecil James Barnes leads what is, as far as anybody can tell, the world’s fastest-ever volunteer tarp crew. The all-military crew at Fort Bragg was able to get the 22,500 square-foot tarp down in about one minute and 25 seconds during practice. That beats the fastest crews MLB field consultant Murray Cook has overseen by a wide margin.

"I was telling them, 'I was just in Cuba, and the guys down there got it down to about just two minutes and 10 seconds,'" Cook tells SB Nation. "And then I go, 'The guys in Puerto Rico, they got it down to two minutes.'"

Fort Bragg got it down to one-two-five in just four days. On Friday, the 27 members of the tarp crew were at work at about 9 a.m. on Fort Bragg’s immaculate new baseball field, rolling tarp out and up, out and up, over and over beneath an indecisive downpour until about 7 p.m. Someone says "that’s North Carolina, 50 percent chance of rain at all times."

Barnes looks at his crew — they’re all in t-shirts and shorts — and looks at the field and says, "The level of this right here, I don't think right now we can get it any higher.

"And they can take away that whatever they do, they're doing it excellent," Barnes says. "Everybody will talk about this for years and years, and some of us will take it to our graves."

* * *

The idea to host a game at Fort Bragg cropped up some time last summer as MLB officials were discussing non-traditional locations to host a game. They had gone outside the United States several times in recent years. Someone suggested doing something associated with the military, and Fort Bragg was quickly brought up.

Fort Bragg is enormous. It’s the largest military base in the United States and perhaps the world, with a population of nearly 250,000 of which more than 53,000 are active military. It also hosts some of the United States military’s most prestigious rapid response teams, from the storied 82nd Airborne Division, to Special Forces and Delta Force.

Miami Marlins v Atlanta Braves Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Chances are any serviceman on base is used to jumping out of airplanes or supporting those who do. Just maintaining the parachutes that paratroopers need requires a full-time commitment. Fort Bragg’s parachute packing facility is, yes, the largest in the world, holding 158 personnel when full. The parachute riggers’ motto is "I’ll be sure, always." Anyone can learn to pack a parachute quickly if they do it long enough.

Diligence, however, is a skill that can actually deteriorate over time. That’s why each parachute goes through layers of security checks — at least 12 before the chute is fully packed — and a log book is kept on every one so that someone is always held accountable if something goes wrong.

Platoon Staff Sgt. Lance Fogle has 156 personnel assigned to him alone, about twice the number that make up the average platoon. As media shuffle into the facility, he yells out to the riggers, "How come when there are cameras you guys pick up the pace when the rest of the week you’re slow as dirt." A fast rigger might pack 15 parachutes in a day.

"That means that there are 15 paratroopers that owe him their lives," Fogle says. Each rigger works individually at his or her own table, compressing canopies that will inflate to 28.6 feet in diameter into knapsacks. He continues: "And they'll never know his name."

* * *

Sgt. Christopher Britt of the 82nd Airborne missed his unit’s call for tickets to Sunday’s game. He found out about the tarp crew because he’s also a coach for the base’s Child, Youth and School Services sports leagues. He responded within five minutes to the email for volunteers when he realized it could get him into the game. Britt is a lifelong Braves fan because he grew up watching the team with his great grandmother. For some reason, that was the only team that got picked up on TV in Clinchport, Va. She’d ask him to stay up whenever it wasn’t a school night.

"And I would sit up and watch with her," Britt says. "I was there to the point where we even watched the draft the year Chipper Jones got drafted. Got a really long history with that one."

A lot of servicemen had the same idea. Cook says he requested 20 people to work the tarp. "They told me, 'Well guess what you've got 38.'"

Units on Fort Bragg were given an allotment of tickets to hand out as they saw fit. Most of them prioritized their lowest ranked members, basically the guys who don’t get the best stuff all the time. Sgt. Ben Henning of the 6th Military Police Company volunteered for the tarp crew specifically because it would get him into the game. He grew up in Ohio, and became a Braves fan to spite a family devoted to the Yankees.

"It was back when they were playing in the World Series," Henning says. "My dad and brother went to the Yankees game when the Yankees were playing down in Atlanta, and they didn't take me. So, maybe I was just being a little rebellious."

Miami Marlins v Atlanta Braves Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

There seem to be a lot of transient Braves fans at Fort Bragg, and not just because they’re the nominal home team against the Marlins. The Nationals are technically closer by the map — a 327-mile drive to Nationals Park as opposed to 384 miles to Turner Field — but Atlanta is still close and seems to be a better spiritual home sports town to anyone who grew up in North Carolina (Facebook agrees). Terrance Watson isn’t military, but he has lived at Fort Bragg for the last seven years. He roots for the Braves if he has to root for anyone, because he likes their colors and he spent a lot of time in Atlanta as a former truck driver.

Watson now maintains all of the youth fields for CYSS at Fort Bragg as one of the majority of people on base who isn’t in the Army. He’s one of the people most excited about the complex of 12 athletic fields that MLB will leave behind when it packs up its stadium.

Watson grew up in Sanford, 30 minutes up the road. His mother worked on Fort Bragg for 35 years as an officer. A misconception in the civilian world is that living on a military installation is like boot camp — barracks and drills, and no time to relax. In truth, life is relatively ordinary, though a bit more formalized and the job descriptions are unique.

"It's just a different atmosphere being on a military installation versus being on the civilian side," Watson says. "I wouldn't trade it for the world, man. It's kind of breathtaking."

Fort Bragg’s emphasis on discipline and accountability trickles down even to those who aren’t up at 5 a.m. doing physical training.

"The awe of it is ... It kind of gives you — like for me, or for the younger generation — it kind of gives them more of the right direction to go, versus the wrong direction."

Watson wants the national attention show how Fort Bragg really is: "We like to have fun," he says. "We embrace the community. We embrace other people."

* * *

After a lot of hard work, a baseball game was held on Fort Bragg, the first regular season professional sporting event ever held on a United States military base. Cook and company had just three and a half months to create a major league field and put a 12,500-person stadium around it on what had been an abandoned golf course. The field passed fierce standards, withstanding pounding flash rains because of a well implemented drainage system and the work of the tarp crew.

The national anthem was exactly as spine-tingling as anyone would expect. Staff Sgt. Traci Gregg of the 82nd Airborne sang a perfect rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, hitting "and the home of the brave" just as four military helicopters flew overhead. After that, a baseball game was played and, oddly enough, that was it.

Miami Marlins v Atlanta Braves Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Odd, because anyone who has gone to a sporting event in the last — who knows, 50? 60? 100? — several years has become acclimated to a barrage of advertising partners, giveaways and public announcements all calling your attention to something that isn’t the game. Outside of a special pregame presentation by Chevrolet and MLB for their Play Ball event, there were no in-stadium commercial breaks. The outfield wall was decorated with the insignias of all of the divisions based at Fort Bragg, and it was gorgeous.

Military tributes at sporting events are something we seem to have become acclimated to. Even at their best they can feel perfunctory — here’s a flyover, here’s a sponsored Jumbotron shot of a soldier back from deployment. At their worst, these tributes are disingenuous. Last year, several NFL teams were discovered to have accepted money from the Department of Defense in exchange for stadium ovations honoring "Hometown Heroes." SB Nation’s Matt Ufford, a veteran of the Iraq War, wrote that the revelation should be taken as a lesson:

If there's a silver lining here, it's that the shadow-sponsored salute-the-troops moments call into question all the other times that the troops are positioned on the field to the benefit of the NFL and the military. How much money did that flyover cost us, and to what purpose? How are the soldiers holding the massive 100-yard flag being compensated? And can we do better than a round of applause for someone in uniform?

It’s easy to be cynical about these things. Thirty-eight seconds isn’t much time to get to know someone. That isn’t to say that fans aren’t genuinely moved when they see a smiling uniformed veteran walking out onto a field. In that brief time that veteran is recognized as a Hero. That’s good, but being a hero is just one facet of a person.

On Sunday, MLB gave Fort Bragg a baseball game and got the hell out of the way. Fans weren’t in uniform. They were on national television as husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, baseball fans and families. Fort Bragg was on TV as a community. It was a "Braves" crowd but it cheered mostly for the fact that baseball things, any baseball thing, was happening where they live. When foul balls flew into the stands, you could hear individual voices go up wherever the ball landed.

* * *

There are three different types of days at Fort Bragg, according to Staff Sgt. John Diket of the 82nd Airborne. The maintenance days are the relaxing days. After an hour of PT in the morning, his unit will do basic maintenance around the company, sweeping and mopping, and cleaning equipment.

Then there are field days, when they drill and generally run themselves down to the point of absolute exhaustion. "As odd as it may seem, those are the fun days for us, Diket says. "That's when we get to go out there, walk into the wood line. We're carrying our assigned weapon and we're practicing our job."

Then there are the third days: "At the 82nd Airborne, we love jumping out of airplanes." These days tend to be the longest, because a lot of time and meticulous care is necessary when the slightest miscalculation could mean death. Parachute checks continue into the plane. Riggers jump, too, and are often made to use parachutes they packed themselves, selected at random. Accountability is utmost.

People join the military for a lot of reasons. Among those I talked to, they joined because it paid for college, or because they spent a year at college and were directionless, because their life was in shambles due to drugs and alcohol and they needed some outlet of support, or because the military had always been a dream independent of anything that had been happening in their lives.

"I don't meet many soldiers who don't like their job and aren't here for a reason," Diket says. One of the things that has always surprised him is how few people know where or what Fort Bragg is, for how big it is and what it does. That’s something he’d like people to take away from Sunday’s game. And this: "Saying thank you for what we've had, for the opportunity that we're getting, and remembering that just because we wear a different suit to work doesn't mean we do that much different."

The tribute paid to the military at big venues and around holidays doesn’t always trickle back to places like Fort Bragg. Life at a military base can feel isolated, where people prepare every day, about as hard as they can, for contingencies that hopefully will never happen.

"Our community and our mentality is always, 'Go go go,'" Sgt. Andrew Steven Hardin says. His goal is to go to every major league ballpark in the country. He’s been to 10 so far. For once, he won’t have to plan a big trip. "It's just nice to enjoy an event that's donated to us, and we get to enjoy it and see how much the real world appreciates us. Sometimes we're cooped up in a military town where we don't necessarily get to see that the outside world is seeing what we're doing."

Steven Hardin is one of the members of the tarp crew, too. The crew stood along the fence next to the Braves’ dugout the entire game. Before pregame festivities began — as everyone closely monitored rain radar, unsure when the skies would open up next — Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commanding general of the XVIII Airborne Corps., spoke to media.

"I want everyone to take away, this team effort here," he said. "This is a literal example of what makes America special. You've got this community here, this sports community here, this community here in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and the soldiers and the services, and the civilians and the family members of Fort Bragg — all came together to make this event possible."

The Marlins beat the Braves, 5-2, with both teams playing solid defense until the Marlins’ bats opened up in the fifth inning. A large number of long fly balls were caught at the warning track until J.T. Realmuto hit a home run in the ninth. Miami pitcher Adam Conley pitched six scoreless innings. Christian Yelich, whose brother is a Marine, tied his season high with three hits. At some point the PA announced the attendance as a Fort Bragg record 12,582. Players stayed behind after the game to sign baseballs and toss them back into the crowd. Throughout it all, the rain held out.