White Gets Second Chance To Play
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.—Only vague images from a game Cole White attended at Shea Stadium during the summer of 2008 remain in his mind.
The Mets' opponent? White doesn't remember. The winner? White can't recall that detail, either.
What White does recall is the empty feeling of sitting in the stands following a quick start to his own professional career.
"It was sad to watch those guys play and wanting to be a part of it," he said. "I was determined to get back."
White, a 42nd-round pick of the Pirates in 2008, went from enthusiastic player to dejected spectator through no fault of his own. The West Point graduate hit .338 in 21 games with short-season State College before a revision to the Department of Defense alternative service option forced him into active duty.
Two years later, the Army allowed White to resume his professional career, and he returned to State College. The 25-year-old outfielder is among the oldest players in short-season baseball. But he also might be one of the most determined—and appreciative.
"Not many people get a second chance, much less a first chance to play professional baseball," he said. "Getting a second chance, I have definitely not taken anything for granted. I try to take each day for the day and not get too wrapped up in personal performance."
White was batting .264/.319/.424 with three home runs for the Spikes and playing right field, and was making adjustments after getting off to a 6-for-36 start.
"My heart was pumping so fast the first 20, 30 at-bats," he said. "I wouldn't say it was nerves. I was so excited to be back in the box and facing a live pitcher. I was so pumped up that I was swinging at just about everything. After a while, your nerves kind of calm down. I think I have started to relax a little bit in the box and start putting a swing on a good pitch instead of just any pitch."
Baseball players from the military academies have always faced a challenging path in athletics, and it became even tougher after Sept. 11.
The alternative service option allowed military academy and ROTC graduates with professional sports contracts to play immediately after graduation instead of after active military service, with the idea that the public-relations value of their athletic careers was a greater benefit to the military.
In recent years, however, the Air Force and Navy have not allowed their academy graduates the alternative service option. The most notable player affected by this was Navy righthander Mitch Harris, who has touched 95 mph with his fastball and would have been an early-round pick if not for his military commitment. The Cardinals took Harris in the 13th round in 2008 and he petitioned for alternative service, but the Navy ruled that he must fulfill his five-year commitment.
The Army had been more flexible, but the Air Force and Navy argued that its policy gave West Point an unfair advantage over the other academies in recruiting. So in the summer of 2008, the Army tightened its policy, forcing academy graduates to go into active service, but leaving the door open for them to play professional sports after two years.
White joins Nick Hill, who pitches for Double-A West Tenn in the Mariners organization, as Army graduates pursuing their major league dreams. Hill was drafted in 2007, and he has also fulfilled his two-year commitment. He missed two months early in the season with a knee injury, and he was 2-1, 4.46 in 40 innings working out of the bullpen.
Righthander Milan Dinga, a close friend of White's, was a 10th-round pick of the Angels in 2007 and pitched a scoreless inning for Triple-A Salt Lake in 2008 before shoulder injuries cut his career short. Dinga, the first Army alum to reach Triple-A, now works at West Point's Center For Enhanced Performance and watched White in Brooklyn earlier this summer.
"Cole busted his butt to get back after two years off, and what he's doing is helping Army baseball," Dinga said. "He's a good role model for the young guys who want to go to West Point and try to play professional baseball."
White, a first lieutenant, rejoined the Spikes in June after a transient two years. He worked nine months as Army's graduate assistant coach before stops at bases in Oklahoma, Kentucky and Texas. White didn't serve overseas, though he heard rumblings his unit might be sent to Iraq.
Through it all, White never gave up his baseball dream. He submitted paperwork to resume his professional career and received the answer he wanted in early June: White can play uninterrupted as long as he holds a professional contract.
"We're going to see how far I can take it," he said. "At the end of that, that's when decisions will be made based on what needs to happen."
Knocking Off Rust
White didn't see any live pitching during his two years away from the game. He tried hitting and throwing on his own, and got his father to throw batting practice when he returned to his Midland, Texas, home. At one point, he went six months without clutching a bat. He took batting practice the day he returned to State College, and was in the lineup a day later.
"I was absolutely astounded by how quickly he was able to do some things," State College manager Gary Robinson said. "The first day I saw him take BP his swing was well put together. There was some rhythm and timing there."
After going 0-for-3 in his first game this summer, White sustained a rib injury in batting practice, knocking him out for 17 games and temporarily altering his role. White went from player to mentor, helping Robinson by coaching first base. Teammates referred to him as Coach White, and some of the team's youngest players started greeting him with salutes. He provided what a team with eight teenagers and six players from outside the United States needed. He was a uniter.
"He's a guy who has been in the Army, and he brings leadership qualities right there," said 19-year-old righthander Zack Von Rosenberg, a 2009 sixth-round pick whose father attended West Point. "Everything in the Army is about being a leader. You're putting yourself on the line for other people. Not only that, but it's just the fact he has been through this already. He was here two years ago. He feels obligated to help this team win."
Once the pain in his ribs subsided, White started helping the Spikes on the field again. He opened the summer in the No. 9 hole, a move designed to get him more fastballs to hit. White's pitch recognition improved, and he now bats fifth or sixth.
White is hoping to put together enough quality at-bats to begin next season with one of the Pirates' full-season affiliates. Some of his 2008 State College teammates have reached Double-A Altoona. But White said State College was the perfect place to spend this summer.
"I want to move up," he said. "But this is a great year for me to get my feet back underneath me and see live pitching. Do I feel rushed to move on? No, I don't. I feel like I'm right where I need to be."
Guy Cipriano covers the New York-Penn League for the Centre Daily (Pa.) Times.