By NATHAN DEENJuly 3, 2013
FORT BENNING, Ga., (July 3, 2013) -- Former Atlanta Braves first baseman Mike Bell did a role reversal Sunday and loaded his iPhone with pictures as he posed with numerous service members at Turner Field in Atlanta.
Bell made his rounds in a reception area and greeted service members, and before they could ask whether a picture with him would be OK, he already had his phone out to have his photo taken with the Soldier.
"I'm honored to be out here today," Bell said. "When we come out and meet people serving in the military, we're honored to shake their hands and take pictures with them. I want pictures with them as much as they want pictures with us."
The Braves and Fox Sports South treated Soldiers from the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team and the Georgia National Guard to a day at Turner Field as part of Sunday's "Tribute to the Troops" theme during Atlanta's game against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Soldiers arrived at the stadium via charter bus and received a red-carpet welcome. Fox Sports South hosted a luncheon, where the Soldiers received a thank-you from Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Gov. Nathan Deal.
"We are very proud of all you," Deal said. "We appreciate the sacrifice you have and are making.
"It's an opportunity (to draw) a greater crowd today. Having you here is special to all the fans in the stands today."
The Soldiers also received visits from former Braves players, including Bell, who were being honored as part of Atlanta's "Alumni Weekend."
Bell played for the Braves during the 1990-1991 "worst to first" year. Also among the alumni was former left-handed pitcher Denny Neagle, who played in Atlanta from 1996-1998.
"It was just lucky that this fell in line with 'Alumni Weekend,'" Neagle said. "Trust me when I say you didn't have to ask any of us to be here."
The Soldiers and players from both teams lined up around the bases as the national anthem was played during a pregame ceremony.
"It was like, 'Wow, I'm actually standing on the field next to MLB players," said 23-year-old Kevin Gardner Jr. of 3rd ABCT.
Gardner had a story of his own to tell and was interviewed by Fox Sports South during the game. He and his father, Kevin Sr., both serve in the 203rd Brigade Support Battalion and went to Afghanistan together during the brigade's last deployment in 2012. Kevin Sr. and Kevin Jr. stood on opposite sides of home plate during the national anthem, with Kevin Jr. standing next to Gonzalez.
"It's an honor," Kevin Jr. said. "I'm blessed. I couldn't ask for a better game with anybody more important than him (Kevin Sr.)."
Kevin Sr. said it was one of the most memorable days of his life.
"It's been a wild experience for me," the 44-year-old said. "It's my last year in the military … it's a chance to do something like this with my son before I retire."
Meanwhile, Michael Flores of the Georgia National Guard said he would do anything for his best friend and former battle buddy, Nick Rogers.
He'd fight in combat with him, take a bullet if he had to -- and walk right into the Atlanta Braves dugout and ask a player to autograph a baseball for Rogers, who is a die-hard Braves fan.
Flores and Rogers deployed together to Afghanistan from 2010-2011 and became close friends. Rogers has since gotten out of the Army, but the two reunited Sunday at Turner Field.
After the national anthem concluded, Flores spotted Rogers in the stands, and Rogers handed him a baseball.
"I told him if I couldn't get on to the field, he had to get my ball signed," Rogers said.
Flores, who said he didn't really follow baseball, went up to the first player he saw in the Braves dugout. That player turned out to be rookie sensation Evan Gattis.
"I didn't think he'd sign it, but he said, 'Absolutely,'" Flores said.
The Braves defeated the Diamondbacks 6-2 in a win that featured home runs by Freddie Freeman, Brian McCann and Dan Uggla.
Flores said he appreciated the opportunity to be recognized in front of Braves fans and it turned out to be a day he won't soon forget.
"We don't expect that, but they still went out and did it," he said. "It was very thoughtful for Fox Sports South to do this."