Thursday, February 19, 2009
Army officer eyes return to pitching
1st. Lt. Nick Hill puts together recruiting packets in the athletic department.
His West Point classmates are searching for roadside bombs and watching for mortar attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The 24-year-old engineer officer is one of the few troops with the skills of a professional athlete. An Army policy aimed at balancing the needs of the individual soldier with the military's overall goals is allowing him to pursue a baseball career -- despite the ongoing conflicts.
For the left-hander with a decent fastball and Double-A experience, it's both a blessing and a burden.
"To be honest, it's something I think about every day," Hill said by telephone after another afternoon workout at West Point in preparation for the 2009 baseball season.
In the mornings, Hill assembles recruiting material for prospective cadet-athletes in his administrative job at the U.S. Military Academy, biding time until he can be a minor league pitcher again for the Seattle Mariners.
He doesn't need to be reminded that last August, while he was on special leave finishing his second season of professional baseball, his West Point class of 2007 had its first combat casualty. 2nd Lt. Michael Girdano died in Afghanistan one month into his first deployment. He was the 66th and most recent West Point graduate to die in combat since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"It weighs on me every day," Hill said.
Hill and a handful of graduates, including Detroit Lions draft choice Caleb Campbell, took advantage of a 2005 Army policy called an alternative service option. It allowed those West Point and ROTC graduates with professional sports contracts to play immediately after graduation instead of after traditional active-duty service, the idea being to score public relations points for the military.
The policy stated that selected officer-athletes were to be assigned to recruiting units in locations near where they played for a shortened commitment of two years -- with "a strong expectation they will provide the Army with significant favorable media exposure likely to enhance national recruiting or public affairs efforts." Essentially, the officers' military jobs were to be worked around their athletic schedules.
The concept isn't new. Basketball star David Robinson graduated from the Naval Academy in 1987 and served two years on active duty. Then the Navy set him free three years early to join the NBA on a height-restriction technicality. Robinson being called the "Admiral" throughout his basketball career was a far bigger coup for the Navy than having a 7-foot lieutenant on a ship.
The Navy also let running back Napoleon McCallum play on weekends for the NFL's Los Angeles Raiders in 1986 during his five-year active-duty commitment.
Of course, the United States wasn't in two wars then.
Last June, one week after baseball's St. Louis Cardinals drafted 2008 Naval Academy graduate Mitch Harris in the 13th round, Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter ruled Harris must first fulfill his five-year active-duty requirement.
Harris, whose fastball reaches 95 miles per hour, was assigned to a ship based in Virginia. He is now preparing for a long deployment beginning in May, according to his agent, Rick Oliver.
The Cardinals are willing to wait, assistant general manager John Abbamondi said. A former Navy officer, Abbamondi likens the process to holding a ticket to a future lottery drawing.
With the Air Force handling service commitments just as the Navy does, those two branches claimed West Point had an unfair advantage over the other academies in recruiting top high school athletes.
Last July 11, amid those arguments and the concern that officers should be serving the military in war time, Secretary of the Army Pete Geren tightened the pro sports policy. He rescinded the option of Army officers getting on the field immediately after graduation, yet left the door open for them to play professional sports following an abbreviated service of two years.
The change had no grandfather clause, so Hill, Campbell and others had to go back onto active duty.
Lt. Col. George Wright, an Army public affairs officer in the Pentagon, emphasized the policy change complies with a Department of Defense directive from last April 30 that "constructs for 'active duty' service should not include arrangements typically unavailable to others in uniform."
Hill got credit for active-duty time served during his first two seasons in the minor leagues, so his two years of active duty end in May. He has applied for release back to the Mariners' farm system. The request is expected to be approved in a few weeks.
He knows West Point was founded in 1802 with an official mission to produce "a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an officer in the United States Army."
"I went to West Point for a reason," Hill said. "It's just, I've been blessed with to have this opportunity to play baseball."
In 2007, Hill became West Point's highest-drafted baseball player. The Mariners chose him in the seventh round and then gave him a signing bonus reportedly worth $70,000. The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder with a fastball in the low-90 mph range had a 0.51 ERA with 45 strikeouts and just nine walks in 18 games that year for the Mariners' Class-A team in Everett, Wash. Then he went to basic officer training at Fort Benning, Ga., and Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
Hill, from Bluff City, Tenn., then rejoined the Mariners' system for his second season. He was 2-7 with a 4.48 ERA in 35 games for Class-A High Desert and 0-1 with a 10.13 ERA in nine games for Double-A West Tennessee last season.
"In the long run, that will be good for me, to experience adversity," he said. "The minor leagues is a grind. I found out what a grind is when I was going through West Point.
"I feel my potential is unlimited. There's no reason I can't pitch at the highest level."
After the Army called Hill back to duty, he finished the season by taking excess leave into September.
The Army has assigned Hill next to the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Wash., about 45 minutes south of Seattle, beginning next month. Though Fort Lewis is a major deployment post, Hill's new unit returned just last summer from a 15-month deployment to Iraq. Hill has no idea what job he'll get, because he has already submitted his request to be released two months later through his chain of command.
The new policy states approval is based partly on "the likelihood the individual's accomplishments will be sufficiently noteworthy to generate interest in serving in the Army." If Hill is no longer under a professional baseball contract or binding agreement during his new reserve time, he could be subject to another recall to service.
"I'm just waiting," he said.
That's fine with the Mariners. They are holding a place for him at their extended spring training in Peoria, Ariz.
"Obviously, Nick has great makeup. You go to West Point, you don't have bad makeup," Seattle's director of minor league operations Pedro Grifol said. "And he's left-handed. We don't have many of those in our organization."
The new policy stipulates Hill must pay back a prorated cost of his West Point education to convert his remaining three years of active service into six years of reserve status. Hill said that is about $100,000 per year. Mariners spokesman Tim Hevly said the team is exploring whether to pay that tab.
During World War II, Hall of Famers Bob Feller and Hank Greenberg -- among other athletes -- served their active duty overseas. Today, Hill is one of several officer-athletes assigned domestically.
Milan Dinga, a 10th-round draft choice of the Los Angeles Angels in 2007 who pitched briefly at Triple A last season, came back to work at West Point's Center for Enhanced Performance, a psychology skills program for cadets. He is rehabilitating from surgery.
Hill's roommate is Cole White, a 42nd-round pick by Pittsburgh last June. He is doing clerical work in the baseball office and expects to go to basic officer training and a unit before applying for early release in May 2010.
"It's tough when you see friends of yours going overseas, and fighting and helping out, and you're trying to pursue a career in baseball," White said. "At the same time every one of them has been supportive."
Campbell can apply for a return to football in 2010. The defensive back agreed to a contract with the Lions but hadn't signed it when the Army called him back to duty. He left Detroit's training camp last July and came back to West Point as an athletic intern, then went to basic officer training in December.
As for the officer-athletes being clerks, the Army says war's front lines are now anywhere -- and cites Sept. 11 as proof.
"Service to our nation is in so many areas, not just on the battlefield," said Paul Boyce, a civilian official in the Army's public affairs department. His Pentagon office is 40 feet from where a terrorist-controlled jetliner slammed to earth on Sept. 11, 2001, killing 184 Pentagon personnel.
"Certainly when an administrative process is pending, we try to balance the needs of the Army with the needs of the individual."
Boyce said the Army is still assessing whether this policy is giving it the public-relations boost it was seeking.
"It takes time to see what should be changed, what should be continued," Boyce said. "At the moment, we are fully on board with the policy we have, and our desire is to continue it."
Hill has a knowing supporter in Feller, who led the Cleveland Indians to their last World Series title more than 60 years ago. The pitcher left baseball six years into his career with Cleveland to volunteer for war. He enlisted in the Navy on Dec. 8, 1941 -- the day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
"If he has the ability, I say 'Go for it.' This is supposed to be a free country, right?" Feller, now 90, said with conviction by telephone last week from his home in Gates Mills, Ohio. "If he has completed the requirements of his military obligation, he should be able to play."
As he waits for word, Hill feels the both sides of the debate over whether athletes who have been trained to serve the nation's military should be doing just that and not playing baseball.
"The program has a lot of pros and cons," Hill said. "I understand the people who say, 'You come here to serve in the military.' I understand where they are coming from.
"But everywhere I've played in the minor leagues, people kind of take a step back when they hear I went to West Point. They are very appreciative of what my classmates and the soldiers are doing for them in serving.
"I think it's great publicity for the Army, and great for West Point, for people to see me in my baseball career."