Sunday Salute

It is a sight to behold, a Padres baseball tradition unique to San Diego that sends chills up the spine and makes one's heart swell with pride. Oorah! Sunday home games are, indeed, special at Petco Park. It's the day hundreds of Marine recruits are seated in their reserved section above right field, snappy in their service charlies and enjoying a well-deserved afternoon of baseball. When the Marine Corps Hymn fills the downtown air in the fourth inning, Padres fans applaud in unison, whistle and go wild. The recruits, meanwhile, respectfully stand at attention, breathing it all in. It must feel pretty good: they are days shy of graduation after nearly three months of boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. The training is rigorous and constant; recruits have an hour of quiet free time a day, right before they turn in for the night. For these young recruits, the outing to Petco Park is an early graduation present, their first time in public since entering training and their first time wearing the uniform. "It is a big morale boost for me personally," says Sgt. David Baldus, a Marine of 10 years and an MCRD drill instructor. "And when the Marine Corps Hymn plays, it's a very proud moment. You get jittery and little bubbles in your stomach. "But it especially boosts morale like you wouldn't believe for our new Marines. After they reach the culminating event of their training and earn the title of United States Marine, that is when they go to the Padres game, just days prior to graduation." The recruit Sundays tradition began in 1996, shortly after the Padres became the first professional sports team to create a military affairs department, says Sarah Farnsworth, Padres senior vice president of public affairs. "This is a tradition with the MCRD that the Padres value and cherish," she says. "We salute these Marine recruits and are happy they get to spend a day off at the baseball game." Baldus says the day off is due. Recruits and instructors are together 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Recruits are constantly supervised and can train up to 20 hours a day. "The recruits don't leave the depot and live in squad bays," Baldus says. "After three months they are completely not used to being relaxed." There is no relaxing at boot camp. The physical requirements of being a Marine are infamously intense. Recruits must pass a physical test that includes running three miles in less than 18 minutes; performing 100 crunches in two minutes; and perfecting 20 "deadhang" pull-ups - no saggy arms or swinging, cheating bodies allowed. Training requires mental strength as well, says Sgt. Joseph Stoker, a Marine of five years and MCRD drill instructor. "You see who has the heart and who wants it," he says. "A lot of times you are running or you've done 18 or 19 pull-ups and don't think you can do another. But mental toughness comes in when it is crunch time, when it is time to do one extra. You relate that to combat. In combat, everybody is tired, hungry and misses home." The simplicity and contentment of a baseball game is like light at the end of the tunnel, Stoker says. "You can see the real change in attitude for the recruits when they have a mouthful of pizza and nachos and a soda in their hand," he says. "It is the first time they have seen any of these things in months. They see baseball and see themselves on the big screen. It is an opportunity for them to realize they are almost through this." Baldus says the baseball game is almost cathartic. "They have a chance to walk proudly and after three hard months, relax or perhaps remember what they have been working toward this whole time," he says. "They can reflect on the trials we have put them through." And see that drill instructors are people, too. "They see a more human side of the drill instructors," Stoker says. "It's the first time the recruits see us in a human aspect other than screaming and yelling and not letting them get a word in edgewise. Now they are shaking our hand at a baseball game." The motto "Once a Marine, Always a Marine," holds true for recruit and drill instructor alike, Stoker says: "Every Marine has the eagle, globe and anchor burned on their heart."

• Male recruits from west of the Mississippi River complete their Marine recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. More than 15,000 recruits train at MCRD annually.

• The Padres thank USAA for hosting our nation's Marine recruits on military Sundays at Petco Park.