FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — A weed-infested golf course at Fort Bragg has bloomed into a major league-quality baseball field on the vast U.S. Army post.
The finishing touches are being put on the ballpark where the Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins will play on July 3. The salute-the-troops game will cap an ambitious four-month project to create the temporary ballpark from scratch.
"I couldn't be happier with the progress that the team has made," said Murray Cook, MLB's veteran field consultant and the point man for the construction of this field.
"We're right there. We've got all our grass in, we've got all our seats in," he added. "All that's left is just details."
Bringing big-league baseball to Fort Bragg, for what's believed to be the first regular-season game played at a military installation, came with a unique set of challenges.
Chief among them was creating the field and constructing the temporary 12,500-seat ballpark that will surround it.
"I think the biggest challenge is the most obvious one — which is, we started out with a piece of ground that was part of an abandoned golf course, and you can't really start from much more scratch than that," said Joe Garagiola Jr., a senior vice president for Major League Baseball. "And so the challenge was to identify and then execute all the elements that go into making a major league field."
The site of the old Willow Lakes golf course has been buzzing with near-constant activity ever since the game was announced in March.
Eric Hill, chief of the recreation division of Fort Bragg's Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation, said the project has been "progressing on schedule, on a very tight schedule."
The first chunks of Charlotte-grown Bermuda grass sod were laid in early May and the rest of the field was down by May 23, Cook said. He pointed out that 6-8 feet of soil was moved to create the proper grading, a drainage system that will remove 8-10 inches of water per hour was installed and USGA-caliber sand was spread out for the sod to take root. Then the temporary seating, following a blueprint drawn up by sports architectural design firm Populous, was built around the field.
A few less obvious details are being ironed out this week.
Cook said they must install the nets in the batting tunnels and place pads on the walls and fences. By next week, all that's left will be to stock the dugouts and clubhouses with water bottles and other supplies for the players.
"You really sort of sit down and think about, 'OK, what are all the elements that go into playing a major league baseball game?'" Garagiola said. "Many of which you take for granted."
Instant replay will be handled on site, Garagiola said. When a play is under review, the umpires still will put on the headsets — but they'll talk to a replay official in the operations center at the ballpark, not to headquarters in New York.
The grounds crew will consist of 36 volunteers from Fort Bragg and a few "seasoned vets" from minor league teams and other established ballparks in the Southeast, said Cook, who is in charge of teaching the crew how to properly, and quickly, unroll the tarp in case of rain.
After the game, the site will be converted into softball and multipurpose recreational fields for those on the base, Hill said. The foul poles, dugouts and bullpens will remain, along with the playing surface.
The idea to bring a game to Fort Bragg came from a retired Air Force general, Hill said. MLB developed with the concept and filtered the plans through the Pentagon and a series of officials at the post before they "eventually wound up on my desk," Hill said.
"They wanted to do something to give back to the military," he said.
Garagiola said Fort Bragg — home of the 82nd Airborne Division — was chosen because of its large number of soldiers and because of North Carolina's ties to the sport, which date back to 1902 with the creation of the Durham Tobacconists, the precursor to the Durham Bulls, who were popularized in the 1988 film "Bull Durham." Coincidentally, both the Marlins (Greensboro) and Braves (Zebulon) have minor league teams near the installation.
The logistics lined up, too. The teams will play Saturday afternoon in Atlanta. The Braves will be the home team at Fort Bragg and both clubs have manageable travel to afternoon games on July 4, with the Marlins visiting the New York Mets and the Braves at Philadelphia.
"I've been fortunate enough to be in a lot of ballparks for a lot of big events," Garagiola said. "But I can't imagine and I'm so excited for what the atmosphere is going to be like on that Sunday night."
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard in Fort Bragg contributed to this report.
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