by Jeff Goldberg
There were roughly 2,450 games played in Major League Baseball between April and October in 2016, right down to the World Series Game 7 between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians.
But for all the historic significance of that fate-altering final game – and all the variety and intrigue that is baseball on a daily basis – no individual game was more meaningful and inspiring than the one that was played on July 3.
That Sunday night, before a worldwide ESPN audience, Major League Baseball played its first-ever regular season game on a military base. Before a crowd of more than 12,500 at Fort Bragg Field in Fayetteville, NC, the Miami Marlins defeated the Atlanta Braves, 5-2. But the game itself was only part of the story, one that is receiving Ballpark Digest’s 2016 Editor’s Choice Award.
To take Major League Baseball’s tribute to servicemen and women and their families from dream to reality, a ballpark had to be built from scratch, turning an old golf course at Fort Bragg into a functioning, major league quality field. And in a span of four months, led by MLB’s groundskeeping guru, and Salem-Roanoke Baseball Hall of Fame member Murray Cook, this baseball mission was completed.
Once the specific site for the field and accompanying bleachers and concession areas was selected in March, Bermuda grass sod was put down in May.
Roughly eight feet of soil was moved to create the proper grading and a drainage system was installed. The seating bowl of 12,500, following a blueprint drawn up by sports architectural design firm Populous, was erected around the field. Padding was added to the outfield walls; dugouts were created and nets were installed in batting tunnels.
Cook’s grounds crew consisted of 36 volunteers from the 82nd Airborne Division.
Field maintenance was also assisted by groundskeepers throughout the Southeast, including Salem’s Chad Kropff, another S-R Hall of Famer, Chris Ball of the Gwinnett Braves (Class AAA; International League), Jake Halloway from the Greensboro Grasshoppers (Low A; Sally League), Scott Strickland of the Durham Bulls (Class AAA; International League) and Zach Severns from the August GreenJackets (Low A; Sally League).
After the game was completed, the site was converted into softball and multipurpose recreational fields for those on the base. The foul poles, dugouts and bullpens remained, along with the playing surface.
“I was honored to be a part of it,” said Cook. “I’m a perfectionist, and I can always find something I’d rather do differently here or differently there. But I think, overall, we met expectations of the players union, MLB, and, more importantly, the service members who were there at the park. We’re pleased with how that turned out.”
About Jeff Goldberg
Jeff Goldberg is a former Boston Red Sox beat writer for the Hartford Courant (2007-08) and Editorial Producer for MLB.com