Lots of stuff has been said and written about my presence at this game — the first in MLB history to be played on an active military base. Many media outlets have reported that I acquired my ticket illegally or somehow snuck in. That is simply not true. I have also faced a tremendous backlash for being there, the assumption being that I deprived a Soldier of the opportunity to attend the game. I tried to make sure not to do that, and if you read this entire blog entry, you’ll understand how it all went down. I do not intend to fuel the controversy by writing about Fort Bragg; I simply want to share my experience (with LOTS of photos coming up) because I know that lots of people are interested. Also, for the record, I do NOT get paid to write this blog. MLB gets money from the ads that appear on it. I do it simply because it’s fun to document my baseball adventures . . .
Okay, where to begin? Well, for starters, I had no idea what to expect at the security gate to Fort Bragg — one of 12 gates, I was told, as the base spans 500 square miles! In addition to my driver’s license, I had my passport and social security card. I was expecting a border-crossing level of interrogation, but because I was with an active duty member of the military, it was a simple process. The guard scanned his DoD ID and inspected my license, and that was it. No questions asked. He waved us through, and we were in.
Fort Bragg looked like any normal town with traffic lights, road signs, grass, trees, houses, buildings, banks, gas stations, parking lots, etc. There was even a mall. While the people there are remarkable, the post is remarkably ordinary (I suppose that provides our military heroes with some semblance of a normal life), but I was still excited to be there and look at everything as we drove around.
We had lots of time to spare, so my Soldier buddy — let’s call him Joe — gave me a tour, pointed out where he works, tried to figure out where we were supposed to park for the game, and asked what I wanted to eat for lunch. At one point, he pulled over on a beautiful residential street. He smoked a cigarette. I called my mom. A firetruck and an ambulance rumbled past, sirens blaring, but aside from that, everything was super laid-back.
That’s when it started to drizzle.
The sports-themed restaurant where we chose to eat was closed for the July 4th weekend, so we circled back to the mall. That’s when the drizzle turned into a steady rain. We ran inside, and once again, I was struck by how normal everything looked. We could have been at any mall in America. The only difference was that half the people were Soldiers dressed in uniforms. Part of me was nervous that I would be questioned for being there. The other part of me felt safer than ever and realized I needed to relax.
Joe had heard that there were shuttle buses that would take people from our designated parking lot to the stadium starting at 4pm. That was good because the stadium was going to open at 5pm, and we wanted to get there nice and early.
After a five-minute ride, we were greeted by a stadium employee (volunteer?) who gave us a quick speech about safety at the game. Here he is telling us that if we had any problems, we should look for people wearing the same hat and shirt that he had:
As you can see in the photo above, people were dressed in normal/civilian clothes. That’s because it was a weekend. Soldiers were not required to be in their uniforms, and many of the attendees were family members or guests of Soldiers. Like I said, everything was pretty chill.
When we got off the bus, we headed toward the right field gate entrance:
Then we passed through a small opening in the trees:
I nearly gasped when I saw the stadium in the distance. (See those teeny light towers poking up?) I couldn’t believe that I was really looking at it.
Here’s what I saw next:
There were dozens of signs/flags along the walkway, honoring members of the Baseball Hall of Fame who had served in the military, many of whom had sacrificed prime years of their careers to do so. Just thinking about that was humbling.
Eventually the walkway led everyone to a merchandise store . . .
. . . and soon after that, I got my first glimpse of the gates/entrance:
There were three sets of employees. The first set (see the woman up above in the tan shorts?) simply welcomed everyone, the second set asked for our tickets, and the third set checked our bags and made sure we didn’t cause any beeps when walking through the metal detectors.
That was it.
People have accused me of sneaking in and/or bribing security. That’s beyond ridiculous. Ask anyone who attended the game if they had to show ID or if they got interrogated when entering the stadium. I assure you the answer is “no.” It just wasn’t like that, so don’t believe anything you hear from anyone who wasn’t actually there.
I forgot to mention that it had poured during lunch. I didn’t think there was any chance of the Braves and Marlins taking batting practice, and I was nervous about the game itself being rained out. Two days earlier, there was such a huge threat of rain that MLB announced that because the schedules were so tight, there would, unfortunately, be no chance to make up the game at Fort Bragg. That being said, it was *very* lucky to only have to deal with a bunch of muddy puddles inside the stadium. Check out the walkway behind the batter’s eye in center field:
That’s pretty much what it looked everywhere behind the seating areas, and no, I’m not complaining. It’s incredible that this stadium got built as quickly as it did. Certain areas were pristine while others suffered a bit because of the elements. No big deal. But enough about that. I’m sure you wanna see the field itself, right? Here you go — a view from the “berm” in left-center:
I truly could not believe that there was batting practice.
Prior to this game, I had been to 51 different major league stadiums and snagged at least one baseball at all of them. Obviously I wanted to keep that streak intact, and I also wanted to be extra generous — more on that in a bit, but for now, check out the jumbotron in deep left field:
All it showed was guys taking their cuts in the cage. I liked that because it can be tough to identify players during BP.
After a little while, I got a ball thrown to me by Chase d’Arnaud. (There weren’t any kids standing near me when I caught it, and the grown-ups hadn’t been asking for it either. d’Arnaud threw it to me from about 100 feet away, so if I hadn’t been there, the ball definitely would’ve been tossed back to the bucket in shallow center field.) This made me VERY happy, so even though I was a sweaty mess, I posted a selfie on Twitter:
As soon as I posted that, I started writing my next tweet to announce something that I had thought of earlier in the day:
I ended up getting bashed because people assumed I donated money only as a reaction to the negativity on Twitter, so please allow me to point something out . . .
Look at the time stamp on my tweet about snagging that ball. Now look at the time stamp on my tweet about the donation. They were posted two minutes apart, so just to be clear: long before the internet got angry about my presence at this game, I had decided to do this. I had asked Joe what his favorite military charity is. He’s the one who came up with AMVETS.org (I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of them until he mentioned them and I looked them up), so that’s why I picked them.
It would have been great to have someone filming me all day, not just for the sake of posting it on YouTube, but because the footage would have cleared me from another slew of accusations — more specifically that I was pushing kids around to get baseballs.
Let’s talk about this for a minute or two, okay? For starters, that is NOT what I do or who I am as a person. Contrary to the many false accusations that have come my way over the years, I have NEVER knocked down a single person, young or old, in more than 1,400 MLB games. I pride myself on being super-careful and respectful, and I can’t believe that I have to defend myself all over again, but whatever, I’m doing it because there are lots of people hearing about me for the first time. If you’re one of them, hello and thank you for reading my blog! If you’re willing to suspend judgment a bit longer, please check out my YouTube channel. You’ll find lots of videos of me snagging baseballs at various stadiums, and you’ll get a sense of my personality and what I’m all about. I particularly like this video from Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas. Here’s another one of my favorites from Turner Field in Atlanta, and if you still have more time to spare, watch this short documentary on me that VICE Sports did last season after I snagged Alex Rodriguez’s 3,000th career hit. It really explains a lot.
One more thing about knocking kids down . . . do you really think that I would have gotten away with that? ON AN ACTIVE MILITARY BASE?! I would estimate that two-thirds of the crowd were non-military civilians (lots of families, kids, and friends), but still, that means I was surrounded by active duty members of the Army at all times. If I did anything bad to even one child, I would’ve probably gotten my ass kicked by his/her father, and if that type of behavior persisted, I would’ve been hauled out of there by the Military Police. Think about that. You’re basically insulting the military and stadium security by claiming that I got away with doing anything inappropriate or illegal.
And now let’s move on, huh? I did get someone to film me for a minute. Check out this screen shot of me giving a ball to a little kid:
You may have noticed that I was wearing a different hat than the red one in the photo I tweeted. Quick explanation: I own caps and shirts of all 30 MLB teams and often change outfits at stadiums because it helps me get toss-ups from the players. So yeah, in the screen shot above, I was wearing a Braves cap, and in the screen shot below, in which I was watching helplessly as a Giancarlo Stanton homer sailed completely over the berm and nearly went inside the open passenger window of a semi that was parked back there, I was wearing a Marlins cap:
Here’s what it looked like behind the berm . . .
. . . and here’s the berm itself:
WOW!!! Right? What an amazing place to move around and try to catch home run balls. (What an amazing place in general, just to chill and watch the game.)
Speaking of balls, I don’t have any action shots of myself, so you’ll have to settle for a quick rundown. After d’Arnaud hooked me up, I got a toss-up from Braves pitcher Ian Krol and then caught a couple of home runs. Jeff Francoeur hit the first one; I’m not sure who hit the second, but I can tell you that I gave away all of my BP balls, mostly to kids, but also to a few grown-ups. At one point, an usher walked over and asked if I might be able to catch a ball for him to give to his brother who wasn’t able to attend the game because he was currently deployed. I told him I’d give him the next one that I got — and I did. And he was thrilled.
Soon after the Marlins took the field, I got A.J. Ramos to hook me up from quite a distance. I was hoping he’d throw it hard — he likes to do that — but he gave me a gentle lob instead. My next two baseballs were both home runs by Giancarlo Stanton. I caught the first one knee-high on the dead run in left-center, and I caught the next one under more routine circumstances in straight-away left. That brought my total for the day to seven baseballs, meaning that at the very least, I was going to make a $700 donation to AMVETS.org. That’s a lot of money, but there was still one more group of BP. And I was glad to contribute.
My 8th ball was tossed by Jose Fernandez, and my 9th ball was a home run by Marcell Ozuna, which I caught on the fly in left-center. That was it for BP.
If I had brought all the materials for my glove trick with me, I probably could’ve retrieved a couple of balls out of this gap behind the outfield wall:
Why didn’t I bring the glove trick? Because I figured I wasn’t going to be allowed to use a device like that. Oh well.
I should mention that there were LOTS of baseballs to go around. The players, not surprisingly, were generous with toss-ups, and there were times when I had to ask three or four children, “Did you get a ball yet?” before I found one who said no. And then, to be clear, I would hand one to them. I always try to make sure that as many different kids as possible receive baseballs.
As you may have noticed, the berm was sloped, so whenever a child at the back dropped a ball, it rolled down and gently hit the back of someone’s foot. This probably happened a dozen times.
After BP I resisted the urge to get some shaved ice:
Instead of eating, I wanted to focus on wandering around the stadium and taking lots of photos. Here’s what it looked like behind the left field bleachers — ESPN’s tent is on the left and the foul pole is just out of view on the right:
Here’s the Marlins bullpen beside a merchandise tent:
The walkway in the left field corner was buzzing:
I liked the Guest Services setup — simple but effective:
Here’s what it looked like behind the bleachers along the left field foul line:
I kept walking toward home plate and passed the Marlins’ clubhouse:
There was excellent signage. Not even kidding. I notice things like that and appreciate it when it’s done well. That said, here’s a stadium directory:
The walkway behind the seats on the 1st base side was particularly muddy:
The ushers were checking tickets at all the tunnels, but on several occasions, they let me take a quick peek at the field. That was nice of them.
Here’s a tunnel that led to a disabled seating area along the right field foul line:
Here’s what the field looked like from that spot:
Very nice! I was so excited for the game but there was still another half-hour remaining before the first pitch.
Moments later, Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell walked along the warning track, tossing and handing out Braves caps:
I got one and gave it to a woman sitting nearby.
Here’s what the right field corner looked like:
I was tempted to stay there and try to catch a foul ball, but eh. That didn’t seem like a fun way to experience this game.
After walking all the way around the outfield again to the left field corner, I spotted this through a chain-link fence:
Two seconds after taking that photo, I heard a voice say, “Excuse me, what are you doing?”
I turned around and was surprised to see a Military Police Officer with a walkie-talkie. I explained apologetically that I was just taking a photo of the huge American Flag, and then I showed it to him on my phone. He said it was no problem but that he’d gotten a report of someone potentially tampering with the fence, so he asked me to step away from it.
I was unsettled at first but that quickly changed to feeling safe and appreciative. Although I didn’t feel smothered at any point by security, there was clearly an incredible presence and watchfulness, so let me just say THANK YOU to the Soldiers and volunteers who helped to make this event happen and who kept everything running smoothly. Everyone did a tremendous job, and I found myself marveling at the logistics throughout the night.
Here’s something else worth marveling at:
Everyone was in such a great, festive mood.
The Soldiers who’d been carrying the huge American flag had now moved inside the stadium:
The pregame ceremony had not yet begun, so while I was standing around, I got another baseball. In fact, if you scroll back up to my photo of the left field bullpen, you can see it on the grass. I noticed at the last second that Braves catching coach Brian Schneider had walked out and retrieved it. Just before he was about to place it in the ball bag, I called out to him and got him to toss it to me. Normally I don’t congratulate myself for getting baseballs and giving them away, but given the amount of negativity that’s swirling, it should be noted that if I hadn’t been there, NO ONE would have gotten that ball, but because I was there, it ended up in the hands of a child 30 seconds later — and a Veterans charity was due to receive an extra $100.
Fifteen minutes before game time, Marlins starter Adam Conley began warming up in the bullpen:
In case you can’t tell, he made a few throws by running from the mound and taking a crow hop. I’ve seen pitchers do that before, but it still looks funny. I wanted to continue watching him getting ready for the game, but I wanted to see the on-field ceremony even more. A friendly usher in the left field bleachers let me enter the section for a few minutes so that I could take some photos, like this:
What a beautiful sight! It made me think of my father, Stuart Hample (1926 – 2010), who served in the Navy on a submarine base in World War II. His service was a great source of pride, not just for him but my entire family. I wished that he had been here with me at Fort Bragg, and in spirit, he was. It was a touching moment for me, punctuated by a flyover featuring four helicopters from the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division:
FYI, the two helicopters on the side were UH-60 Black Hawks, the one in front was an AH-64 Apache, the one in the back was a CH-47 Chinook. Check out this amazing video that they filmed and posted on YouTube.
This might sound strange, but at the start of the game, I actually spent a few minutes here:
In the photo above, the big structure on the right is the home plate grandstand. You can see the protective screen to the left and down a bit. I was hoping that one of the left-handed batters would send a foul ball flying back in my direction, but I quickly gave up. It wasn’t fun to be missing the action, and it seemed like a lousy spot — set too far back from the field. Same deal on the 1st base side of home plate. There was lots of stuff in my way between the field and walkway, so foul balls seemed possible at best, not likely.
Ultimately I headed to my seat on the 3rd base side. (Joe, meanwhile, had wandered off to catch up with a few friends.) This was my view in the top of the 2nd inning:
Not bad. And it was a total fluke that I ended up there. I didn’t know where my ticket was going to be until a day before the game. That’s when I saw this seating chart for the first time.
Side note: I’d been so busy all day (and so engaged in the present) that I never spent more than a few seconds on my phone at any given moment. Yeah, I’d been posting some stuff to Twitter, but I didn’t see any of the replies coming in. I figured I’d catch up later, answer people’s questions, etc. It wasn’t until I started getting texts from a few friends that I realized something was amiss, and even then I didn’t realize the full extent of it. As it turned out, my presence at this game was turning into a national media frenzy, and for the most part, I was still oblivious. The more people tried to tell me about what was going on, the more I ignored my phone. As stupid and naive as this may sound, I was just trying to enjoy myself at a baseball game, so I did my best to tune out the distractions.
After each of the first two innings, I noticed that Marlins 3rd baseman Martin Prado had tossed the 3rd-out balls into the crowd. He wasn’t the fielder who had recorded those outs; he was simply the designated 3rd-out-ball tosser-upper. Some teams do that; there’s one guy who gives out all the balls during the game. On the Yankees it’s Didi Gregorius, on the Rangers it’s Elvis Andrus, and so on. I hoped that Prado would toss one to me at some point, and when my old buddy Chase d’Arnaud took a called strike three to end the 3rd inning, I figured I had no shot. Usually, when an inning ends with a strikeout, the catcher tosses the ball into the crowd at the home-plate end of the dugout, but for some reason (perhaps because there was protective netting here at Fort Bragg blocking those seats), J.T. Realmuto fired the ball to Prado, who then walked into foul territory and tossed it right to me. Check it out:
As excited as I was to have gotten that ball, no one else around me seemed to care. No one said a word about it or even asked to see it. It was actually kind of strange, so I posted that photo on Twitter, which unintentionally fanned the flames.
This was my 11th ball of the day, and I’d given nine of them away. I still had the one from d’Arnaud in my possession — a ball that I really would have loved to keep, as it was my first ball at Fort Bragg Field, but a promise is a promise. I had announced that I was going to give away all of my baseballs except for one, so I figured I’d hang onto the one I’d just gotten. A little while later, I gave the d’Arnaud ball to a very appreciative boy and then headed up the stairs to the last row. Here’s what it looked like from that spot:
By the 6th inning, I was starving, so I took a little walk . . .
. . . and ended up here:
The concession stands weren’t giving out bottles, so all the drinks were served in paper cups. I got chicken tenders and fries and some ice water for about $13.
Late in the game, I headed out to the berm in left-center field:
That’s when I noticed this:
That was the “Prisoner of War/Missing in Action chair of honor.” Here’s an article about it. I regret that I missed the official between-inning dedication, but I hadn’t heard when that was going to take place. Thankfully I was at least able to see it and take a photo to share here with everyone.
As for the game itself, Adam Conley’s crow hops must’ve worked because he pitched six scoreless innings. J.T. Realmuto hit the game’s only home run in the top of the 9th. It landed in front of the batter’s eye and got tossed up to the fans standing along the side railing. The Braves didn’t score until the bottom of the 9th, but their rally fell short — final score: Marlins 5, Braves 2. Here’s the final score on the jumbotron:
Officially, this was a Braves home game — fans did the Tomahawk Chop, and there were other between-inning promotions straight out of Turner Field — but it didn’t feel like a Braves game. It felt like some bizarro/alternate baseball universe, and I mean that in the best of ways.
I took a few more photos before heading out. Here’s what the batter’s eye looked like:
Here’s the berm after nearly everyone else had left:
Here’s the last photo I took inside the stadium:
What a special night and an incredible experience. Many thanks to Major League Baseball for making it happen and to all military service members and their families, past and present. Although I now realize that my presence at this game was a tremendous source of controversy, that doesn’t diminish the fact that it was truly an honor to set foot inside Fort Bragg and attend this historic game.
Are you still with me? Good because I have a few more things to share. Ready to see what the tickets looked like? I forgot to photograph mine at the game, so here’s the photo that Joe sent to get me pumped up after a mutual friend had first put us in touch:
It’s hard to tell in that photo, but the places where it says “ADMIT ONE” had shiny gold stamping. Very snazzy. Did you notice that the gate opening time was printed right under the date? I didn’t notice that at first and ended up wasting an embarrassing amount of time trying to find that info on the internet. Duh. And one more thing — there were no barcodes! The ticket takers at the stadium tore off the stubs at the bottom the old-fashioned way.
Now, about that donation to AMVETS.org . . .
I had announced on Twitter that I would write a check, but again: duh. This is 2016. Who writes checks? Instead, when I woke up on July 4th, I made the $1,100 donation through their website, and then I tweeted about it, just to let everyone know that I wasn’t BS’ing:
As I mentioned earlier, this angered lots of people who missed my earlier tweet and assumed I only donated because things had gotten ugly. Other people were upset because I was supposedly trying to get sympathy by mentioning my dad. (He’s my dad, and I miss him like crazy and still love him, and he served in the Navy, and I think about him a lot. I refuse to apologize for any of that.) Even more people were pissed that I hadn’t picked other military charities.
Why were all these people so mad? Let’s put it this way — the media coverage certainly didn’t help. Look at the headlines that appeared when Googling my name the following day:
What is “illegal” about receiving a ticket from a Soldier? How does receiving a ticket from a Soldier constitute as “crashing” the game? And my goodness, there was a petition to ban me from all stadiums?! I understand now that I showed poor judgment in attending the game — I posted a long apology on Twitter — but I really don’t think I did anything illegal. In fact, according to the many Soldiers who got in touch with me, there was lots of confusion about the tickets at Fort Bragg. Allow me to quote someone whom I met at the game and later emailed:
“According to a source at Fort Bragg’s MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) Department, the Fort Bragg agency tasked with providing ticketing and community outreach to the Fort Bragg game, there were major planning and coordination miscues with the distribution of tickets. Hundreds, if not thousands, of tickets went unaccounted for and were not provided to military units for distribution until days before the game; this sadly led to many tickets going unused. For tickets that were distributed by units to Soldiers, many were not properly documented and Soldiers were not provided guidance of restrictions on their use and transferability. These miscues also led to many Soldiers not receiving parking passes for the game and MWR frantically posting Facebook announcements the day of the game to disseminate information. Adding to the confusion, the MWR employees at the post Leisure Travel office were not provided with any information on ticketing. As this office serves as the main customer service point of contact for MWR, Soldiers and family members were not able to receive information concerning the details of the game and the tickets; in some cases, incorrect information was provided.”
I had initially tried to buy a ticket in the weeks leading up to the game, but that didn’t work because no one had tickets. Lots of people made promises, but no one could actually deliver. I realized that the best, safest, and most respectful approach was to try to find someone who knew someone who’d bring me along for free as their guest. That’s when I posted a YouTube video (which I deleted after securing a ticket) asking for help, and THAT is ultimately what worked. Joe’s entire unit had received tickets, or at least all the guys who wanted them. They never had to sign for them or enter the lottery or put their names or guests’ names on a list or vow not to transfer them, so he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong by helping me out. He received a pair of tickets and had no idea what to do with the extra one. He invited his girlfriend, but she wasn’t interested in the game, so when he heard about me from a mutual friend, he thought it’d be fun to bring me along and hang for the day. I’m sorry the story isn’t more exciting, but that’s really all there is to it. And let me stress again (as I did in my YouTube video) that I never ever EVER wanted to deprive a Soldier of the chance to attend this game. I only wanted to go if I could find someone who had a ticket that wasn’t going to be used.
That said, I was still enemy No. 1, and the hatred and negativity reached new heights. Here are a few of the emails I received, including one that compares me to Hitler and another which disrespects my dead father:
There were many more emails that I deleted without taking screen shots.
On a positive note, I’ve received lots of supportive emails, including a bunch from people in or connected to the military. These mean a LOT to me. Here’s one:
And another (from someone who sent a follow-up message explaining that he contacted me from his military email account so that when I shared it, people would really know that he was a soldier):
And yet another:
I have also continued to receive a steady flow of emails from kids who think I’m a decent guy. I’ll just share one of these for now, but if you want to read a whole lot more, check out the fan mail page on my website. Here you go:
Thanks for the kind email and for watching my videos! There’ll be a lot more of them coming this summer, so stay tuned. Also, keep in mind that thirteen-year-olds can be incredibly cruel, though I’ve found that grown-ups can be pretty crappy too. The more people make fun of you, the more insecure they are, so really it just reflects badly on them. You have no idea how much I got made fun of at your age — and still do. Just stay strong and keep doing what you love. Become an expert. Teach others. Perhaps you can even make a living doing it. As long as it’s not hurting anyone, you can hold your head up high — and the last time I checked, loving baseball stadiums is no crime. If anyone gives you a hard time, tell them to talk to me about it. Be well and take care and hopefully we can meet in person someday . . . at a stadium you’ve helped to design.
On a final note, I just want to say thanks for reading this blog entry. It was such an amazing and humbling experience to be there with our military heroes. I hope MLB and other sports leagues continue to have events like this to honor these brave servants of our country.