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For some Marines, intramural softball championship at Nationals Park is ‘like a dream come true’

Nate Halstead, right, and his Finance Team from Marine Corps Base Quantico will compete in the championship game of the Battle of the Bases tournament Saturday at Nationals Park. (Courtesy of Nate Halstead)

When Nate Halstead assumed the role of player-manager for the finance office’s team in the Marine Corps Base Quantico intramural softball league this spring, he immediately set about trying to assemble a championship roster. Some of his recruiting efforts were more successful than others. Halstead had high hopes for a colleague whose athletic background was mostly limited to competitive bowling, figuring the arm motion required to throw strikes at an alley would translate well to the pitcher’s circle.

“That didn’t pan out the way I wanted,” Halstead, 43, said in a phone interview, “but he’s been there for me as far as coaching and helping me keep the score book.”

Halstead, who has been stationed at Quantico for about three years, convinced a number of younger Marines to join his experienced squad, and he began organizing three practices a week more than a month before the start of the regular season. The dedication paid off; the MCB Quantico Finance Team will play at Nationals Park on Saturday night in the championship game of the first Battle of the Bases tournament. Their opponent? Drumroll, please: the Marine Band Team from Marine Barracks Washington.

Preliminary rounds of the double-elimination tournament, which drew from a field of 130 teams, were held on Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling on Aug. 24 and Aug. 25. The top two teams from each of the 12 base-affiliated intramural softball leagues across the National Capital Region received invites. The Nationals supplied Nats-branded uniforms and caps to all 12 leagues this year as part of their Nats on Base initiative to benefit service members and their families in the Washington area.

Saturday’s seven-inning championship game will begin at 8 p.m., or 30 minutes after the final out of the Nationals’ game against the Atlanta Braves, whichever is later. Fans attending the 4:05 p.m. Nationals game will be permitted to remain in the ballpark between games and relocate to the lower level before the softball game. Fans interested in attending only the showdown between Marine Corps Base Quantico and Marine Barracks Washington may enter the ballpark free of charge through the third base gate 10 minutes after the final out of the Nationals game or at 7:30 p.m., whichever is later.

The Quantico Finance Team cruised into the winner-take-all title game, going 4-0 with three shutouts, including a 10-0 win over the Marine Band squad in the preliminary rounds.

“You could maybe consider them the underdog, but they are a very good team and we’re not coming out there thinking that we’re just going to win with no effort,” Halstead said.

“They beat us up pretty bad,” said Master Sergeant Eric Sabo, the Marine Band team’s coach and first baseman. “We had a really rough game. We didn’t play well, and they played great. Their defense was outstanding."

Halstead, who put as much emphasis on fielding as hitting in practice all year, said watching his infielders turn double plays from his catcher position during the tournament was “something to behold” and enabled his pitchers to escape several bases-loaded jams unscathed.

A week after Saturday’s championship matchup was set, the Nationals invited both teams to Nationals Park for a joint practice. They took batting practice on the field before Washington’s game against the Miami Marlins on Aug. 31 and interacted with Nationals players and coaches.

“We just had a blast, and it was fun to get to know those guys,” said Sabo, a double bassist in the Marine Band, which is also known as “The President’s Own.” Musicians from the country’s oldest continuously active professional musical organization perform at the White House about 200 times every year and have performed the national anthem at Nationals Park on several occasions.

“It’s easy to get caught up in the glimmer and glamour of playing at the Nationals’ stadium,” Halstead said. “Especially for the young Marines, it’s like a dream come true. Who else can say that they got to play a competitive softball game in a major league stadium?”

The short answer is not very many people, though a team of Marines stationed in D.C. had a similar opportunity in 1908. That year, the champions from the eight amateur baseball leagues in the District, all of which attracted crowds, played a round-robin tournament to determine a citywide champion.

“Never before have all the leagues in Washington been classed together with an equal chance to win the coveted honor of champions, and when the dust from the final game has settled, the team which has won will stand out as the best without a doubt,” The Washington Post reported.

In the first game of the eight-team series, the Marines, the champions of the Marquette League, played Grace, the champions of the Sunday School League. More than 500 people, including 70 members of the Marine Band, watched the Marines’ 3-2 win at American League Park, one of the former homes of the Washington Senators. Columbia Athletic Club captured the title after a month of games.

John Philip Sousa, the most famous director in the U.S. Marine Band’s 221-year history, was an avid baseball fan and player. He regularly organized games as director of the Marine Band from 1880 to 1892 and embarked on barnstorming tours after forming his own civilian band.

“If Connie Mack could have witnessed the game of baseball yesterday morning he would have been tempted to make him an offer,” a reporter once wrote of Sousa, after the Sousa Band team played a squad from the Marine Band. “The March King proved a wonder in the pitcher’s box.”

It could take a Sousa-like performance for the Marine Band to upset the Finance Team on Saturday, but the game figures to be a memorable experience, no matter the outcome.

“We’re all really excited about it,” Sabo said. “It’s kind of a pipe dream to get to play under the lights in a major league stadium.”

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