Fort Leonard Wood was front and center before thousands of baseball fans Saturday at Busch Stadium, as the home of the St. Louis Cardinals welcomed service members, veterans and their families on Military Appreciation Day at the ballpark.

"There really is some synergy between what we do (as Soldiers) and baseball, because it's a team effort, and whatever branch of service you're in, it takes a team to be successful," said Col. Daryl Hood, U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear School commandant, who represented Fort Leonard Wood during the event.

While those attending got to cheer on the Cardinals as they beat the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates 3-1, the team behind Military Appreciation Day is actually the Association of the United States Army, which has coordinated the annual game for more than two decades.

The effort involves two AUSA chapters: the Fort Leonard Wood chapter and the St. Louis Gateway chapter. Together, they purchase more than 2,000 discounted tickets which are resold, primarily to service members and military families. Each ticket includes admission to a pre-game tailgate party run by AUSA volunteers, who offer attendees free barbecue, games and more, just outside the stadium.

"This is the 26th year we've done this," explained Doug Stuart, the current president of Missouri AUSA. "It's really an honor to come out here and work with the military members."

The tailgate party has grown over the years, and was a popular destination for several service members this year.

"We're having a blast," 2nd Lt. Gage Wampler said as he and his teammate, 2nd Lt. Benjamin Shultz, competed in a game of cornhole at the Better Opportunities for Single Service Members program tent. Both are students in the Chemical Basic Officer Leader Course.

"We don't usually have time to get away from Fort Leonard Wood, so we really appreciate the chance to get to come out here, have some fun and watch a game," Wampler said. "We really couldn't ask for more, especially the free barbecue."

The event also gives current service members a chance to connect with veterans, military retirees and those who have lost loved ones in war. Hood took time to recognize all those who had served and sacrificed during an address to those attending the tailgate event.

"For our Gold Star family members who are here, God bless you -- we will never forget your sacrifice," Hood said as the large crowd of attendees applauded.

"It's an opportunity to spend time with veterans and really with those who support the military," Hood said later. "So, if they served, whether they are a veteran or a retiree, it's just a chance for some fellowship."

The entire stadium showed its support with cheers and applause after Hood led more than 30 future service members in the Oath of Enlistment before throwing out an honorary first pitch.

Hood was joined on the mound by Command Sgt. Maj. Dana Mason Jr. with the U.S. Army Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois.

Getting to throw out a pitch was, "a really big deal" for Mason, who said he will soon leave the military after 34 years of service.

"To me, I think this is really a changing of the guard. You've got me coming out here with 34 years of service, and then you have these young Soldiers coming out here to be sworn in -- they're just now joining," Mason said. "It's really an honor to come out here and represent the military."

Fans also got to see Fort Leonard Wood's 399th Army Band perform the national anthem, and the installation's joint service color guard presented the colors on the field.

Seeing the event come to fruition was especially rewarding for AUSA volunteer Roger Layman, who has been the key coordinator for Military Appreciation Day for 25 of the past 26 years.

"We usually start in the November/December timeframe, planning the game. So, by the time the day's over with, I just take a big sigh of relief," Layman said. "It's a good turnout every year, and it's a good turnout this year."

Several Soldiers voiced their appreciation for the community support that goes into Military Appreciation Day, including Sgt. Maj. Rebecca Franco, USACBRNS professional development sergeant major, who also had the opportunity to represent Fort Leonard Wood on the field.

"This is great that our community has supported us in doing something like this," Franco said. "It's proof they can truly see who we are and that we make the choice to protect and defend our nation. I'm really proud of that."