On Sunday, July 3, 2016, Major League Baseball (MLB) made a historic visit to Ft. Bragg. In four short months, a team of volunteers, including Durham Bulls Director of Stadium Operations & Grounds Scott Strickland, pulled off a miracle, creating a professional grade field from scratch for that big day. The Atlanta Braves took on the Florida Marlins on that field, in a game solely for military members and their families.
Strickland got involved in the epic event through industry friend Murray Cook, the head field and stadium consultant for MLB. Over the past seven years Cook has invited Strickland to be part of his crew at various events, including the 2009 World Baseball Classic in Puerto Rico. We should mention that Strickland served as head groundskeeper at the DBAP before stepping up into his current role in January of this year. When it comes to all things baseball field, Strickland is a seasoned as the grass he so carefully manicures.
Murray is a jack-of-all-grounds, as well.
“Easiest way to put it is Murray is responsible for all things field and stadium related for any MLB affiliated event not played in an MLB stadium,” said Strickland. “He thought it would be a great idea to invite a lot of local MiLB groundskeepers from the region to come down and help out with the field for the event. He already had a crew of 20 active duty men and women to serve as a tarp crew and to assist with other game day items, but he needed a seasoned and experienced crew to assist in the preparation for a major league quality surface. Fixing mounds, preparing the infield skin, baselines, home plate, mowing, etc. All things that go into a normal game day at the professional level. I was lucky enough to receive an invite to be part of that team.”
“Going into it I really didn’t know what to expect,” continued Strickland. “I had read all the news stories going into the event the week of and was in communication with vendors who were supplying products for the stadium during the 4 month long construction phase. How these folks were able to pop up a stadium is 4 months is beyond me. Truly an amazing collective effort between MLB and the army. I watched via twitter the field being built… (they built a major league quality playing surface just for this one game… sand based rootzone, full drainage and irrigation system, etc.) the stadium going up, temporary lighting and sound systems being installed, etc., but I still didn’t know what it would all look like in person until I arrived.”
Then he got to see the field complete. On the eve of the big game, Strickland arrived at 9:30am, his truck laden with L screens from the DBAP; they were needed for the indoor batting cages that had been built for each team.
“When I pulled in the first thought that ran through my mind was the movie Field of Dreams,” said Strickland. “Here you are driving through a military base and poof, a baseball stadium pops up out of the trees.”
The field looked great, but much work was needed to ready it for the game itself on Sunday.
“Saturday was spent preparing the field for the next day and putting on all the finishing touches that were needed,” he explained. “Fine tuning the infield skin, warning track, bullpens, and turf was time consuming. We also had 3 different rain storms that required tarp pulls. This was my first real interaction with the active duty men and women. It was incredible seeing their attention to detail and regime based mindset on something I see so many times during a baseball season, a tarp pull! It was also abundantly clear they were having the time of their lives. All were huge baseball fans, mostly Braves, and were more than ecstatic to be getting dirty and helping in the preparation for a historical event.”
Then came game day. On Sunday the crew pretty much did the normal field prep you need for a professional baseball game. The day was hot, but the air became more electric as game time approached. Not electric because of Mother Nature, thankfully, but because everyone knew something very special was about to happen.
The teams started to make their way out onto the field about 3:30pm.
“I got to experience a personal cool moment as Juan Nieves, pitching coach for the Marlins, came out,” said Strickland. “Juan was the pitching coach for the first minor league team I worked for (Winston-Salem Warthogs) back when I was in high school. To be reunited working together 15 years after first working together was pretty cool.”
Gates opened at 5pm, with batting practice beginning at 5:15pm. Strickland continued:
The stadium filled extremely quickly as the troops were anxious to get to their seats and see players they have never seen before in person. The pregame field preparation went well which led into the starting lineups, National Anthem and fly over.
I was stationed in the Braves dugout during the anthem. (This is where the butterflies come in!) As the Anthem started, 125 dressed troops unfolded a 150 foot wide by 240-foot-long American flag. An active duty female performed the National Anthem and as she ended the anthem a flyover was performed by four low-flying helicopters. They were flying Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins flags as well as flags associated with groups stationed on the base.
The volunteer tarp team of active duty men and women were standing in front of me and they reacted as if they had just won the World Series. They were jumping up and down, yelling passionate phrases that I can’t quite say in public (ha!) and were simply on cloud 9. They were so excited. All of us ‘civilians’ looked at one another with expressions of joy, raw emotion, accompanied by the feeling of knowing we’d never experience anything like that again. It was one of those moments I will never forget and wish I could relive every day.
After the flyover, as Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” rocked over the loudspeakers, Strickland and the other crew members did a quick touch-up to the field. He then got to return to his station in the Braves dugout for the game.
“This was a great spot to sit back and watch what truly was one large family take in a Major League Baseball game,” he said. “There are 50,000 active duty men and women living on the base with an additional 200,000 others living on it as well. They all knew one another. They were all there together celebrating an incredible night. I was just lucky enough to be part of it.”
Thanks to DBBC’s Scott Strickland for these capcom photos.