"The young people who worked for me and with me at the Padres, I kind of looked on them the same way I looked at my young sailors -- you can’t change your stripes after 30 years."
When Jack Ensch retired from the U.S. Navy, he applied his military skills to a somewhat unexpected field: baseball.
“I was recruited by the new ownership of the Padres to start a military function. They wanted to do something to support and engage the large military population here,” Ensch said. “The owners weren’t exactly sure what it was going to involve, and I’m a fighter aviation guy who didn’t know much about marketing. When my wife sent me to the store for milk, I thought that was marketing.”
Despite his lack of marketing expertise, Ensch went on to develop a much-lauded and emulated Padres military initiative as director of Military Affairs. Ensch’s priority was to create programs that would improve the quality of life for Marines and their families, including the now-signature honoring of the military during the fourth inning on Sunday home games and steeply discounted tickets. During the 2000 season, the Padres awarded lifetime passes for regular season home games to more than 700 Korean War and World War II prisoners of war in Southern California and around the nation, beginning an ongoing program. That same year, Ensch also initiated a tradition of Padres players wearing military-inspired camouflage jerseys during Sunday home games and new Military Opening Days.
“I came on board with great support from the owners and in turn established the only Military Affairs and marketing department in all of sports,” Ensch said. “It started from the ground floor, and we built it up and became known as the ‘team of the military.’ We provided more programs and deals for the military community than any other in the country, and I am proud of that.”
Other sports franchises, from the Tampa Bay Rays to hockey teams, have followed the Padres’ lead and developed similar military marketing programs. Following his retirement from the Padres earlier this year, Ensch was also asked to provide his expertise to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“The building of a relationship between the Padres and the military in San Diego was rewarding, so that when people say San Diego Padres and the military, it’s like salt and pepper. It was rewarding to see that develop over the years and to have other teams call me and say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do, and we’d like to pick your brain about things,’” Ensch said.
With what he calls an “approachable leadership style,” Ensch has helped not only other franchises but also his subordinates. His tendency? To take a page from his military days.
“The young people who worked for me and with me at the Padres, I kind of looked on them the same way I looked at my young sailors -- you can’t change your stripes after 30 years. I took pleasure in watching them advance their careers either with the Padres or moving on to other clubs,” Ensch said.
Yet while Ensch used his leadership skills in his role with the Padres, he emphasizes the difference between leadership in the private sector and the military.
“In the civilian world, there’s often more management and administration than it is leadership,” he said. “To me, in the military, leaders inspire and are good stewards of our nation’s assets. It’s kind of an awesome responsibility. I liken it to raising your children and wanting them to succeed and do well in whatever they choose to do. You look after your people and make sure they can, to quote an old slogan, ‘Be the best that they can be.’”
Ensch had initially thought he wanted to be a teacher, and he joined the Navy not intending to stay. Three decades later, he retired as a captain.
“I signed up to go to Aviation Officer Candidate School. I thought I would just do a tour in the Navy and serve my country, then get out and pursue my teaching, as I had wanted to be a high school teacher,” Ensch said. “But I fell in love with the mission, the teamwork and the quality of people I got to associate with; on a day-to-day basis, I served with some of the finest people I’ve ever met. Then 30 years later I was retiring out of the Navy. It’s one of those serendipity things.”
During his Navy career, Ensch accumulated more than 3,000 flight hours and more than 800 carrier landings. He held positions such as aide to commander, Naval Air Test Center in Maryland, and executive officer of Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) at NAS Miramar. Ensch also received dozens of awards, including the Bronze Star with Combat V; two Purple Hearts; and the second-highest award for valor in combat in the armed forces, the Navy Cross. And two of the most defining moments in Ensch’s career came just a few months apart in 1972: After being credited with two confirmed MiG-17 shoot-downs and more than 285 combat missions completed, he was shot down over North Vietnam by a surface-to-air missile.
“I had the opportunity to shoot down MiGs and success in aerial combat, then three months later was shot down. So that was the top and nadir, within three months. That affected me in that I have a hell of a lot better appreciation for life and realize what a fleeting thing it can be,” Ensch said.
This perspective gained from his prisoner-of-war experience continues to influence his life, both inside and outside the military.
“It really made me say ‘wow’ about the freedoms we enjoy in this country where you can walk out and come in any time you want, day or night. One of the POWs had a saying along the lines of, ‘It’s never a bad day when you have a door with a knob on the inside.’ So in that respect, I think I have a better appreciation for my life in general and the wonderful freedoms and things we have in this country,” Ensch said. “So many of us take things for granted. I know I did.”