By Craig Davis
ATLANTA (TNS) — It wasn't that the work day began before dawn at Fort Bragg, N.C. It was the relentless physical pace in striving for excellence that heightened the appreciation Mike Dunn already felt for the military personnel who toil tirelessly at the world's largest military base.
The Miami Marlins relief pitcher got a close-up look at their spirit and dedication during four days of joining in training and interacting with soldiers as part of a group of major league players who participated in Fox Sports' "Spring Training to the Troops" tour in February 2014.
Dunn recalls the experience as life-changing, and he is excited about the opportunity he and his teammates have to provide a few hours of entertainment for the troops at Fort Bragg when the Marlins face the Atlanta Braves there Sunday in what is believed to be the first regular-season game staged by a professional sports league on a U.S. military base.
It will be televised nationally at 7 p.m. by ESPN on the eve of Independence Day.
"I've always appreciated our service men and women, but going there and spending time with them one-on-one really gave me a different outlook on it," Dunn said. "So being able to play this game, give them a chance to watch a game, I think is going to be an awesome experience for everybody.
"To visit there was unforgettable, and I think this game will be unforgettable too."
It will be a real-life Field of Dreams event at 12,500-seat Fort Bragg Field, which has risen from an abandoned golf course on the massive U.S. Army base over the past four months as a show of gratitude by Major League Baseball and the players' association, which collectively spent about $5 million on the project.
The effort to shape and prepare the field to major league standards and erect temporary stands and facilities is impressive. But the focus will be on the troops at the sprawling base that encompasses 251 square miles and has more than 50,000 active duty personnel.
"It really is an honor to be able to go. I'm excited about it," Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. "I feel like the energy is going to be great. From our standpoint, it should be an appreciation. It seems like not only baseball but all sports and the nation have been a lot better lately about honoring our military and respecting what they do for us."
Plans for the game were finalized during spring training, and Marlins players have embraced the chance to be part of the historic occasion for various reasons.
The connection is personal for left fielder Christian Yelich, whose younger brother Cameron is a U.S. Marine who has been stationed in Japan and is currently home on leave in California.
"I asked him if he wanted to come, but I don't think he's going to make it out. But he knows we're going there and he's going to watch on TV," Yelich said, adding that he supported his brother joining the corps out of high school. "I'm proud of his decision, and that's a tough commitment. I feel like the people who serve our country are the best our nation has to offer.
"I think we're all looking forward to it, giving back to the people who serve our nation. I think everybody is going to enjoy that and we're looking forward to that experience. It should be a special night and something that all of us will remember for a long time."
Dunn is driven by the memories of his experiences working and interacting with soldiers during his 2014 visit. He has souvenirs assembled as a shrine in his home office and will add mementos from Sunday's game.
"We traveled all over Fort Bragg and experienced a little of everything," Dunn said of his prior trip. "The stuff they did was grueling and tough. They said they took it easy on us, but I can tell you during the workout sessions it was tough. You never stopped. You went from one station to the next and just kept going."
Dunn, who developed an interest in the military at an early age, has been showing appreciation through his "All for One and Dunn for All" program for several years. Before Monday home games at Marlins Park, Dunn hosts members of special operations forces, which are based at Fort Bragg.
Sunday, the ballplayers will be the curious guests. The Braves will serve as the home team for the finale of a four-game series that began Thursday in Atlanta.
Although Fort Bragg is an army installation, the idea for the game was proposed by a retired Air Force general and gained impetus at the Pentagon.
The field will remain as a legacy from Major League Baseball as part of a softball and recreational complex on the base, although the stands will be removed.
The hastily assembled ballpark, begun in March and completed just this week, will be like a return to spring training for the teams, as there's just one level of seating for fans. The difference is the game will count in the standings.
The layout with the temporary seating was crafted by the sports architectural firm Populous, which designed Marlins Park and many other major league parks. The field is on par with those and has dimensions of 405 feet in straightaway center field, 331 feet along the lines and 387 feet in the power alleys.
It has a drainage system capable of removing 8-10 inches of water per hour. Volunteers from Fort Bragg will comprise the grounds crew for the night.
The logistics of the detour to Fort Bragg add to the rigors of the Marlins' nine-game road trip, with a quick turnaround in reaching New York for an afternoon game Monday against the Mets. But the players are regarding it as a chance to be part of something special.
"It's sort of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said first baseman Justin Bour, whose grandfather fought in the Korean War and whose father was on the White House Secret Service detail for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
"I've got nothing but respect for anyone involved in military _ people who do what they do so I can do what I do. Before he passed away, my grandfather told me some stories about the Korean War _ just a different life that they were living, and I'm very grateful.
"I'm looking forward to it, being able to talk to the men and women that are over there. Hopefully we'll be able to bring a little bit of joy and they'll enjoy watching the ballgame."