Some people get Memorial Day off and use it as an opportunity to get outside, go to barbecues, see their families. I decided to use it as an opportunity to sit on the couch and look up information about players who have been drafted out of the major United States military academies.
This list is almost certainly not complete. If you want to point out someone that is missing or even just mention someone you know who is serving in the armed forces, please feel free to do so in the comments below.
United States Naval Academy (Annapolis)
Mitch Harris, RHP (2007, 24th round, Atlanta; 2008, 13th round, St. Louis)
Harris emerged as a standout starter in his sophomore year at Navy, finishing 10-3 with a 1.74 ERA and 113 strikeouts in 82.2 innings. His sophomore-junior year totals: 18-8, 1.95 ERA, 171 innings, 232 strikeouts. Not too shabby. Down side: the Navy is requiring him to fulfill his five-year service commitment before joining the Cardinals organization. Up side: he still gets to play a little ball:
Harris will pitch on a team of military personnel organized for the U.S. Southern Command Baseball Partnership Tour. The club will play exhibition games around South America and the Caribbean, and they will also do humanitarian work and hold baseball clinics for youths. The stops in the monthlong tour include games in Panama, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Chile and elsewhere. In the Dominican Republic, they will play at a major-league campus — the San Diego Padres’. The traveling team’s schedule also calls for a youth baseball clinic at the Padres facility.
Oliver Drake, RHP (2008, 43rd round, Baltimore)
Drake, who was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 43rd round of Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft in June, withdrew from the academy in Annapolis this week after signing a contract with the Orioles that included a $100,000 signing bonus.
Drake had the option of leaving school early without penalty because midshipmen don’t make their military commitment until the first day of their junior year. Harris had to honor his five-year military commitment because he graduated in May.
Drake has performed well in Baltimore’s minor league system since being drafted, with an ERA under 1.00 out of the bullpen in Rookie and Low A ball last year. Working primarily as a starter for A-level Delmarva, he has a 1-2 record and 2.82 ERA in eight games.
Jonathan Johnston, C (2007, 42nd round, Oakland)
Extra P profiled Johnston last season when he was told he had to leave his team in Kane County, where he had a .228 batting average in 36 games, to report to his post aboard the USS Peleliu. Unlike Mitch Harris, he has been unable to consistently keep his skills sharp while continuing to serve his country.
One fascinating thing about Johnston, however, comes from the beginning of a story Yahoo’s Jeff Passan wrote about him last November:
A man speaking broken English cried through the radio. Something about an attack. Shots fired. Grenades launched. Pirates.
Aboard the U.S.S. Peleliu, the officers in charge expected such distress calls. On that day, Aug. 8, the ship was stationed in the Gulf of Aden, a strip of water between Yemen and Somalia known among seafarers as Pirate Alley. The hijacking was 10 miles from the Peleliu, close enough for the ship to send out rescue teams.
Steering one vessel was Jonathan Johnston, a 24-year-old Navy lieutenant junior grade. He maneuvered toward the Gem of Kilakarai, the cargo ship from Singapore under attack by two boats full of Somali pirates. Within minutes, the pirates caved to threats from Johnston’s team and skulked off, toward the horizon. Johnston had commanded a mission that thwarted the attack, an achievement that would earn him the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal. As much as he wanted to rejoice, to remind himself that being an officer in the Navy is about protecting people and saving lives, Johnston couldn’t.
After the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama last month, I found this amazing. Johnston was, for a time, in the sort of position where he might find himself charged with facing down the same sort of people who carried out that attack. I wish he could find some peace or pride in the fact that he is able to do a job that very, very few people would be willing to even attempt. Dude’s a hero.
And here’s the interesting thing, to me: whether Johnston should be talking to the press about his situation or not, whether he should be proud of the work he’s doing or not, the fact remains that he is unhappy and willing to express it. The Navy’s unwillingness to bend in certain situations, instead applying a unilateral solution to anyone in Johnston’s relatively unique case, is going to bring on more negative publicity than good. A story on former Army player Nick Hill mentions NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson:
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.
Matthew Foster, LHP (2003, 13th round, Toronto)
Foster played parts of three seasons for the Blue Jays, all at Rookie-level Pulaski, before being released after the 2006 season. Not entirely sure why the team gave up on him so soon, although the facts that he was a 24-year-old playing Rookie ball and could be wild (12 walks in 22.2 career innings) might have had something to do with it.
United States Military Academy (West Point)
Drew Clothier, RHP (2008, 37th round, Florida)
Chris Simmons, C (2008, 41st round, Pittsburgh)
Like Drew Clothier and Cole White, Simmons was drafted and assigned to a team before being called back for active duty.
All West Point cadets are required to serve two years of active duty upon graduation, but 2005’s Alternative Service Option allowed professional athletes to delay this obligation until the conclusion of their playing careers. Earlier this month, however, the Army changed this policy so that cadets interested in pursuing a professional sports career must serve two years of active duty before applying for a release.
Simmons was hitting .257 in nine games when his season ended in July.
Cole White, OF (2008, 42nd round, Pittsburgh)
Simmons’ teammate at State College in the New York-Penn League, White hit .338 in 21 games. At least he’s taking a positive approach to the situation:
“Two years is a while to be out of the game, but I’m looking at that as a motivator,” said White, who is now 23. “I want to get bigger, stronger and faster, and still be a force when I return. It’s definitely a challenge, and it’s not going to be easy to stay focused, but I plan on sticking with this.”
Nick Hill, LHP (2006, 47th round, Boston; 2007, 7th round, Seattle)
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.
That’s a long section to quote, but I thought it worth the space to show that these guys aren’t just trying to skip out on their required service. They want the opportunity to pursue baseball as a profession, sure, but the knowledge that guys they went through school with and knew personally are dying in combat is a reality that they hold close.
Hill’s two-year active duty commitment ended this month. He has appeared in 18 games for West Tennessee, Seattle’s AA affiliate in the Southern League. He also played there at the end of last season, appearing in nine games with a 10.13 ERA. This year’s results are slightly better: 3.18 ERA, 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings.
Milan Dinga, RHP (2007, 10th round, Los Angeles Angels)
Dinga was the first former Army player to reach the AAA level. He appeared in one game there, pitching one inning. Dinga’s on-field progress was impeded first by shoulder trouble, then the Army itself, as he was one of the players told to return to active duty for two years in 2008.
Schuyler Williamson, C (2005, 26th round, Detroit)
Williamson originally took advantage of the opportunity to play professional baseball right out of college, but left the game after a year when he decided he could do more by serving elsewhere:
“I talked to my younger brother, who was in Fallujah [Iraq],” says Williamson. “He just told me some bad stories about leadership and how they failed them. To put it straight up, they weren’t taking care of their men, to the point where they didn’t even go out. They just told them their mission and sent them out there. And that hit home for me. He was my mom and dad’s kid, but he could be any kid – your kid out there fighting. At the very least, I care.”
So he spent 15 months in Baghdad, a platoon leader in charge of 28 men. “I chose the fighting Army over the baseball Army because I wanted to do my part,” says Williamson. “I felt I was needed somewhere else to accomplish a different mission.”
Mike Scioletti, 3B (1998, 43rd round, Chicago White Sox)
As far as I can tell, Scioletti never played professionally after being drafted – under the rules at that time, he would have owed five years of active duty – and there isn’t a whole lot of info out there on his whereabouts since. If he’s the Mike Scioletti in this story, he’s a captain now, in charge of “Company A, 325th Special Troops Battalion, a unit of the 82nd Airborne Division.”
Air Force Academy
Karl Bolt, 1B (2007, 15th round, Philadelphia)
Bolt started his professional career in the Gulf Coast League in 2007 and moved up to Single-A Lakewood last season. He has not accumulated any statistics for 2009.
Mike Thiessen, OF (2001, 42nd round, Arizona)
According to some sources, Thiessen was the first Air Force player taken in the draft (Baseball-Reference Bullpen has him as the third).