When Mario Xavier Cruz and Robert Jaime, baseball teammates at Sylmar High, look up into the sky on the Fourth of July and see fireworks bursting in the air, their thoughts may turn emotional.
Jaime leaves July 11 for Army boot camp at Fort Jackson, S.C. Cruz leaves the same day for Fort Sill, Okla.
Another Sylmar teammate, Erick Aleman, left June 20 for boot camp at Fort Benning, Ga.
"I'm very proud," Sylmar baseball coach Ray Rivera said. "Three players off one team."
Rivera doesn't act like an Army drill sergeant — though his preseason conditioning sessions are pretty tough and he's got an Army haircut. But the coach does offer a clear message to any player who shows up.
"I tell them everything we do here is geared for preparing you for life," he said.
And the players agree that baseball has helped prepare them for Army life.
"Playing baseball really influenced me to join," Aleman, a pitcher, said in an email before he left. "Baseball gave me the personal courage and confidence to join. The skills that I learned, I will use throughout my military career and life."
Said Cruz: "Baseball takes a lot of discipline and you have to be mentally tough."
Aleman was first to sign up, then he started talking to Cruz and Jaime. Soon, they were all in.
"I've always wanted to serve my country," said Jaime, an all-East Valley League catcher who batted .437 and also starred as a wrestler. "I always looked up to soldiers and saw how much respect they got."
Rivera, who has been Sylmar's coach for 14 seasons, had other players join the military but never this many from one team.
"All three of them could have gone to college," he said.
Now they're about to see if Rivera did a good job preparing them for what awaits in nine weeks of boot camp.
"I don't think there's any way to fully prepare," said Cruz, an outfielder who was second-team all league. "There's a lot of yelling and a lot of conditioning. I don't think anybody goes in ready."
Rivera is confident his boys can handle it. "I'd put my guys up against anyone," he said.
Baseball is not necessarily over for the three, but they're not allowed to bring a glove or bat with them to boot camp. However, they could become ringers for any pickup games.
Asked to put into perspective what it means to see three of his former players join the Army, Rivera said, "My goal is always to get them to understand that it's not just about doing for themselves, but to do good for others as well.
"These young men are following in the footsteps of some other alumni who seem to lean toward the Army. I am proud of all my alumni, but there is an extra sense of pride knowing that my guys are gonna be the ones protecting all that we as a great nation stand for."
Cruz and Jaime intend to spend their final Fourth of July before boot camp with family, watching fireworks.
"There's people fighting while we're here celebrating," Cruz said. "That's what I'm thinking about on the Fourth of July."