America's pastime and America's armed forces -- the only thing missing from the Freedom Classic Baseball Game Friday was apple pie.
The annual series, held at Historic Grainger Stadium in Kinston, kicked off with its first of three games Friday evening. The eighth event since its inception, the Freedom Classic welcomes the baseball teams from the U.S. Naval and Air Force academies to compete in Kinston to celebrate the military spirit of eastern North Carolina.
Several groups set up booths outside the stadium where spectators came in. One of those was the Goldsboro Composite Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol, which was in town to aid with ceremonial duties and spread the word about what CAP does.
Maj. Tony Overman, squadron commander, said that the group had three main missions during the three day event.
"We're going to be presenting the colors, helping with the giant flag during the opening ceremony, and also recruiting," he said. "Last year, we didn't have near the same presence here as we do this year, and we came away with nine people, so I'm hoping we are able to get more people this time around."
Overman said that the Goldsboro CAP squadron covers Wayne, Duplin and Lenoir counties, and hoped that being visible at a game designed to celebrate the military would help reestablish a squadron in Kinston.
Kevin Zoltek, a member of the Freedom Classic committee which organizes the game each year, said that the game first came about as an idea from founder Bill Ellis.
"He wanted to bring the Air Force and Navy teams here because they're non-conference," Zoltek said. "And we just took it and said 'we're not going to let you just come and play here, we're going to make a big deal out of it' because we are a military-friendly community."
Zoltek said that the game has gradually attracted the attention of more and more retired Air Force and Navy personnel, who have increasingly volunteered to help run the game. He said he couldn't speak to the numeric population of veterans in Kinston, but was confident in the city's culture of military support.
"We do have a presence of veterans that we want to continue to honor," he said.
Inside the stadium, the teams lined up to the sides of the field -- Air Force in their dark blue "away" uniforms to the right and Navy in the white "home" colors to the left. As the sounds of pipes and bugles washed over the arena, a line of dozens of CAP members and local volunteers walked on to the field, carrying a massive American flag folded between them. They unfurled the flag, careful to never let it touch the ground, until it had reached it's full size. Children ran underneath the flag, giving it the illusion of waving in the wind.
As the national anthem reached its peak, fireworks shot into the air with a crack, and the game was on. It was slow going in the first inning, but a series of big hits from the Navy team in the second broke the game open with four runs on the scoreboard. The crowd filled in even as the game went on, their cheers and yells just the first few of many to come.