It is another bright, cloudless, blue-skied, San Diego Sunday afternoon, hopefully with that great, cool ocean breeze.
The grass at Petco Park, in its alternating shades of green rows, which sometimes are straight, other times slightly crossing, are crisp and sparkling. The brownish hue from the dirt radiates. The senses, as you walk up to the field from the north side entrance, amidst the Park at the Park in right field, are completely bombarded by these radiant, bright contrasts.
But what really grabs your attention, what really causes the skin to tingle, are the perfectly in-line military officers and enlisted soldiers, in their various dress, standing at attention or a rigid at-ease, down both sides of the foul lines. More so, it is the Marine Band and Honor Guard marching into center field, and possibly a huge American flag spanning the outfield with a spatter of patriotic fireworks. It is at this point that you see the specialty that the San Diego Padres have created for their town and its military tradition. This is Military Appreciation Sunday. It happens every Sunday, for home games, at Petco Park.
San Diego has long been a city for the military. It is a crucial port for the U.S. Navy, a center for training of new recruits for the Navy and U.S. Marines, and is also home to the “Arlington of the West”, Fort Rosecrans cemetery, atop Point Loma. It is because of this special relationship that the San Diego Padres decided to begin a Military Appreciation night in 1996 with an annual event.
Then, in 2000, they came up with the great idea of wearing the camo unis to further demonstrate their appreciation. Ultimately, in 2008, the Padres began wearing those unis and honoring the military every Sunday home game, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day. The event and uniforms have been so successful that you frequently see many other teams doing it across the Major Leagues– of course, not with quite the same underlying fundamental home field result as that in San Diego.
The direct official ties from the San Diego Padres to the U.S. military began in November,1995, with the establishment of the Padres’ Military Affairs Department. This was the first such tie in professional sports. Furthermore, the San Diego Padres were also first to continuously fly the POW/MIA flag at all home games.
In 1996, the Padres’ ownership designed the position of Director of Military Affairs and staffed it with Captain John C. Ensch, USN, Ret, (AKA Capt. Jack), solidifying their ongoing efforts to reach out to the military community. Captain Jack is a highly decorated military hero who flew countless missions during the Vietnam war and elsewhere.
During that war, he was shot down, and remained a POW for a period. His outreach effort with the San Diego Padres includes many ticket opportunities and commitments for military service or deployment, whether active, retired, previously served, or Reserve. Furthermore, Padres lifetime passes to regular season home games have been given to more than 700 American World War II and Korean War POW’s. Captain Jack also facilitated a Military Honor Wall and a large-scale model of the USS Enterprise, which pays tribute to Major and Negro League ball players who served in the United States Armed Forces. You can read more about Capt. Jack at https://www.fleetweeksandiego.org/about-us/board-of-directors/john-c-jack-ensch/
Jerry Coleman, “The Colonel”, is another great fixture in San Diego Padres history with ties to the military. In his younger days, while playing Semi-pro ball and for the New York Yankees, Lt. Col. Coleman was an aviator for the U.S. Marine Corps. In fact, he is the only Major League ballplayer who served in both World War II and the Korean War while seeing combat (Ted Williams was at both but only saw combat in one of them). The Hall of Fame broadcaster was a fixture for the San Diego Padres for decades. The Colonel passed on January 5th, 2014.
Military appreciation events at Petco Park also serve as a stage to promote the continuing outreach services for military personal from around the country. One noticeable program is the Wounded Warrior Project. Gary Sinise, aka Lt. Dan from “Forrest Gump”, appeared at the park in 2014 to talk about the project’s success in building homes for the Wounded Warriors. Sales of Padres’ military merchandise also aid the project, many times being donated to the San Diego Fisher House, which helps families stay together during hospitalization for injury, illness, or disease. Throughout the year, San Diego Padres players make appearances at local military bases and various in-port aircraft carriers for certain events, always honoring the working soldier.
The trademark of the San Diego Military Appreciation events have been the various camo unis that the players have donned. The first camo uniform to appear on the field for the San Diego Padres was the Army “Woodland Design”. This uni was utilized from 2000 through 2005. It is known as the “jungle camo” because it was modeled after the uniforms used by the Army in the Vietnam war. The uniform features a mixture of darks in brown, green, and beige. The “Padres” across the front, the name and number on the back, and the SD on the left sleeve were in plain white.
The result of the camo was a very loud statement that caught the eye. The hat was the same green featured in the uniform with a bronzish SD that was outlined in black. An undershirt, short sleeve or long, could be worn, which was the same dark green.
The San Diego camo uniform went through its first evolution in 2006. From 2006 through 2010, the Padres donned the Navy Seals, “Desert Version”, camo. This jersey was lighter than the previous green Army “Woodland Design”. While using the same green cap, the top was a mix of lighter and darker brown hues. The “Padres” across the front and the name and number across the back were in green with matching green belt, and now a green batting helmet with white SD. During this time period, specifically in 2008, the Padres began wearing their camo unis at every Sunday home game, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day, cementing the visual aspect of the San Diego Padres Sunday Military Appreciation Day.
In 2011, the Padres went “legit” with their camo uni. They produced an authentic replica of the MARPAT, (Marine Pattern) digital camo. This pattern, which was personally approved by the Commander General, James Conway, when Padres’ leadership visited Washington D.C in 2010, is an authentic camo pattern utilizing smaller patches of digital camo that are intertwined. This version of the camo jersey was so realistically camo, featuring a mix of browns, beige, and grey, that many of the players, such as Will Venable and Heath Bell, sports writer Bill Center, and “Capt” Jack all felt that the players would blend into the field, thus making them harder to see on T.V. and by the opposing players. The “Padres” across the front and the number on the back was a dark brown outlined by white. Both the batting helmet and field cap was a tan brown, as well as the belt. The name across the back was in white. Everything on the uniform had a nice outline to it which made it pop out of the soft, blending images of the digital camo. Of course, in Padres fashion, each portion of the sales from fan purchases of this jersey went to the Marine Corp. Assistance Program.
As the San Diego Padres moved into the 2016 season, they transitioned their Military Appreciation Sunday camo jerseys once again. With permission from the U.S. Navy, the new jersey is a digital camo jersey in the colors of the U.S. Navy working uniform, “type 1”. The colors of this jersey are deck gray, haze gray, black, and Navy blue. The sailors who don the Navy uniform refer to them as “Blueberries”. Along with this jersey, the ballplayers wear the “old” traditional blue hat with white SD and grey pants. Unfortunately, as of the end of 2016, the “Blueberries”, which are considered the most hated uniform of the military, will be phased out over the next couple years. The new look of the Navy, called the NWU Type III uniform, will feature a green and tan camouflage colored pattern. Maybe this is a foreshadow to what the next generation of Padres Military Appreciation Sunday camo jerseys will look like.