FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Hubert Edwards was not one of the active duty personnel sharing the — draw a deep breath here — Second Brigade Combat Team/18th Field Artillery Brigade Consolidated Dining Facility with the Braves on Sunday afternoon.
Although that’s not to say he wouldn’t re-enlist if the need arose. Edwards is only 97, after all, an experienced hand with a big gun and, as he’ll be the first to tell you, “I’m in great shape.”
Except for the fact that he is largely deaf thanks to trailing a six-ton, 155 mm howitzer through North Africa, Sicily, Italy and France in World War II. His eyesight certainly wasn’t effected.
“Bobby Cox!” Edwards declared, spotting the former Braves manager. “Let me hug you. I am so glad to see you.” He then sprung up from his seat like was a spry kid of 87. And he wrapped his lean arms around that whippersnapper Cox, a mere 75.
Mostly, the Braves and their company encountered far younger souls as they toured parts of the world’s largest military base (by population) before their game-for-the-troops Sunday night against the Miami Marlins. Quite separate from a unique game — the first professional regular season one ever played at an active military base — was the day-long interaction between those who play and those who serve.
It wasn’t exactly clear who the more interesting people were here Sunday: The nonagenarian WWII veteran or his current favorite Braves player, Freddie Freeman? The shortstop whose mistakes might get noted in the scorebook as an error or the 20-year-old parachute packer whose mistakes, well … he simply can’t make a mistake?
Players splintered this way and that prior to the 8 p.m. first pitch, mixing with the military as it packed parachutes, showed off its special ops chops, tended to its ill and injured and ate a hearty lunch.
A certain hierarchy prevailed in who went where. In high demand was an excursion to a special ops demonstration — not open to the media — which included, according to a deep inside source (OK, it was Braves manager Brian Snitker) “the weapons, the field packs, a video of their training exercises, the armed vehicles, looking through the night vision room, showing us a lot of different training.”
Players, by the way, were split on whether they could, or would want to, perform some of the usual stuff that goes on at the home of the Army’s Airborne and Special Operations Forces.
Upon hearing that former Bulldog/Pittsburgh Steeler Hines Ward, working for CNN, was treated to a jump earlier in the week, Braves catcher A.J. Pierzynski feigned displeasure. “I’m disappointed Major League Baseball limited that for us. I don’t know why,” he said through a crooked smile.
As for pitcher Julio Teheran, as close as he may ever get to skydiving is Sunday morning, as he tried on a heavy military chute with both feet firmly planted on concrete. “I don’t know, I’m a little scared of heights,” he said. “If you have to one day to save lives, I’d do it.” That is currently not a part of his job description.
Asked how he thought baseball players would stand up to the rigors of special ops training, Fort Bragg’s commanding general, Stephen Townsend, had no reservations.
“I think they’d do great,” he said. “They are incredibly motivated, very fit individuals. I think they’d fit in great as soldiers. In fact I’m going to try to recruit a few of them later.” The pay cut may be more than they are willing to swallow.
The macro view of what this game meant, pointedly staged on the Fourth of July weekend, was evident in every player’s voice. Even players who were not U.S. born.
As Venezuelan outfielder Ender Inciarte put it, “They’re giving their lives for us, too. We live here, too. We work here. We appreciate what they do for us. Every time I see one of them I really feel respect for them and for what they do.
“Us foreign players are blessed to be in a country like this.”
But this was a day for players to get an up-close, micro view of those who wear or who have worn camo to work. This was a day for a 100 different individual transactions, exchanges that underscored the fact that the Army is a team, too, with a slightly larger roster.
They met 20-year-old chute packer PFC Andrew Henschen — not just any chute packer, but Fort Bragg’s chute packer of the month for May. He volunteered to come in on an off day Sunday for the good of his team.
His boss, Colonel Gavin Gardner, is a Georgia man through and through — born at Fort Benning, schooled at Georgia, his parents still living in Villa Rica. A Braves fan to his core. Col. Gardner had his free tickets for Sunday’s game but put them back in the pool for the enlisted men and women. “They’re the ones who do all the work, so they should get to enjoy this with their families,” he said.
Then there was the former artillery man Edwards.
“It’s an honor to meet you sir,” said the Braves first baseman Freemen.
“It’s an honor to be met,” the courtly 97-year-old said. Then, like a grandfather sharing lore with a young ‘un, Edwards launched into the tale of listening to the World Series while on the European battlefield, getting around the fact that the faint light of the transistor radio might give away his position.
A North Carolinian, still living near Fort Bragg, Edwards became like so many southerners a strident Braves fan once they moved to Atlanta and began beaming games everywhere. They retain a standing appointment on his television.
And, yet, he had never seen them in person until Sunday, when they made this unlikely stopover on the way to a road series in Philadelphia. The old artilleryman figured he better try to finagle a pair of tickets to this one. Who knows if he’d be nearly so spry the next time his favorite team dropped in on the home of the 82nd Airborne.