By Craig Davis, Craigslegz.com
FORT BRAGG, N.C. — We knew him simply as Burns. Because that’s the way it is in the Army, last names suffice.
Nor did we ask his rank. To us he was commander and guardian of our company of media covering the Miami Marlins at Fort Bragg in the first regular-season Major League Baseball on a U.S. military base, July 3, 2016.
Burns took to the task with the same gung-ho spirit, dedication and efficiency we expect of our military on any assignment anywhere in the world.
He was personable, engaging and knowledgeable, a South Carolinian with a predilection for football and basketball. On this day, his complete devotion was to baseball and doing what he could to help us tell the story of a special game in a unique setting.
That included about a dozen representatives of Japanese media outlets, who follow the Marlins everywhere with the sole purpose of reporting every exploit, from mundane to magnificent, of aging superstar Ichiro Suzuki.
It was an uneasy detour for them to a game on a U.S. military base. But they were made to feel as much at home as the rest of a sizeable media contingent.
And when Ichiro came up to bat late in the game as a pinch-hitter, the crowd of 12,582 service members and their families broke into the familiar chant of “Ich-ee-row! Ich-ee-row!” common wherever he goes in recognition of his accomplishments as one of baseball’s greatest hitters.
Covering a major league game on an active military base is different, as to be expected. Although entering every major league ballpark requires passing through security, the process for Fort Bragg was stepped up to military standards. At the staging area before being shuttled to the base, the entire working media contingent set our bags in a line on the ground for inspection by the K-9 unit.
The dog gave a wag, and we were off.
Highway 24, aka Bragg Boulevard, passes through a portion of the sprawling base, which spans 500 square miles across six counties in North Carolina. It’s a short drive from Fayetteville, a Mayberry RFD off-the-beaten-path sort of place.
Burns told us that Fort Bragg used to be an open base, but that changed after 9/11. Now razor wire lines both sides of the highway, and no one enters without an authorized reason.
It is the nation’s largest military base, home to about 250,000 people, including some 54,000 active-duty troops, notably airborne and Special Operations Forces. Members of the Marlins and Braves early in the day toured special ops facilities, a parachute packing training center, a base hospital and shared mess with soldiers.
Our visit was limited to about 10 hours at the ballpark that Major League Baseball and the players’ association built for $5 million over the preceding four months.
We reached the base amid a downpour. Burns made sure to get us as close to the gate as possible and kept us sheltered in the air-conditioned van until it passed.
Soon we were melting in the steamy aftermath of inland North Carolina in the summer swelter, which heightened an appreciation for the men and women who toil there without complaint.
Each one encountered was much like Burns, proud and devoted to their duty. It was refreshing, on the eve of Independence Day during a time that the nation is divided politically and fundamentally to a distressing degree, to find men and women whose job is to protect us and our way of life to be uncompromisingly united in that mission.
Among them, Lance Ludwig, 21, a South Florida native who serves in field artillery and described his job as “we shoot rockets.”
He had already done duty in South Korea, which he described as stressful due to the tense stare-down with North Korea. Ludwig was delighted to be at a ballgame on his base watching the Marlins, whom he grew up following.
Also happy to be there with his wife, who was pregnant, but well aware duty could call him away at any time.
“Whenever they need us, within 18 hours we’ll be on a plane overseas ready to go whenever the president calls,” Ludwig said.
Randolph Delapena, from Miami, was wearing a cap commemorating the Marlins’ World Series championship, which he remembered well, and accompanied by his wife and 7-year-old son. Just a young family enjoying a ballgame together.
Delapena felt fortunate to receive the tickets, which were distributed through the various units stationed at Fort Bragg. Timing also worked out in his favor. Until two days before the game he was in Germany on a training event.
U.S. Army Special Ops Staff Sgt. Dillon Heyliger, who spent time in Iraq, marveled at the transformation as he surveyed the field a few hours before the game. He passes the site every day going to and from his duties and witnessed the field take shape from a wasteland.
“When they were digging it out they found hives of honey bees. They had to relocate them,” Heyliger said. “It was totally untouched and unused for a long time. People would just jog and walk through this area, and I guess it was the spot to dig up and build this.”
What they built was a real-life Field of Dreams setting that brought together major league players with those who perform in the big leagues of the world’s most challenging arenas.
The ballplayers spoke of getting goosebumps when a massive American flag was unfurled covering the outfield prior to the game and seeing the four military helicopters emerge from the clouds as 82nd Airborne paratrooper Traci Gregg wrapped up a stirred rendition of the national anthem, “and the home of the bravvvve.”
Earlier, LTG. Stephen Townsend, the base commander, sat next to baseball commissioner Rob Manfred and spoke of what the event meant to him and Fort Bragg.
“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,” Townsend said. “I want everyone to take away, I think, this team effort. This is a little example of what makes America special.”
Hours later, on the shuttle ride off the base, Burns was ecstatic, pointing out that the game was trending No. 1 on Twitter, and thanks us for our part in bringing attention to the base and those who work there.
No, Burns, the gratitude was all ours.