Hill, Army Players Put Dreams On Hold
Mariners pitching prospect Nick Hill isn't bothering to get excited about next baseball season. Because, unfortunately for him, there may not be one.
Sure, next summer would have been intriguing as the 6-foot lefthander from West Point built on the lessons of 2008 and, in his second full season in the minors, attempted to justify his $70,000 signing bonus after the Mariners made him a seventh-round draft pick last year.
But Hill and the current crop of standouts from Army's improving baseball program have no choice now but to place their big league dreams on hold. This after the Army rescinded a program that allowed cadets who were athletes to swap out military service for playing professional sports after graduation.
"This is a dream I've had since I was a kid. This is not going to deter me," Hill said. "This is just a little speed bump in the road. I'll be happy to serve my country and go from there."
The option had been available since April 2005, as the Army reasoned that its former West Point cadets could generate positive media attention—and enhance recruiting—by serving on athletic fields instead of battlefields.
The Pentagon, apparently pressured by athletes from the Naval and Air Force academies who did not have similar options available, reiterated that the Army fall back under the same rules, which require at least two years of active service after graduation.
That means Hill must pack his bags at season's end and return to West Point, where he will await orders that could ship him off to Iraq or Afghanistan. The Mariners, however, are optimistic he could return to baseball at some point next season. Hill spent this past offseason at West Point, and Mariners farm director Greg Hunter said the organization has been told that Hill accrued time toward his 24 months of duty.
"(The policy change) was a little bit of a surprise, but we knew he had other obligations. We're at a time of war," Hunter said. "We've benefited probably more than the football teams."
Hill, the highest-drafted player ever out of West Point, entered the season rated by Baseball America as Seattle's No. 28 prospect. Save for a three-week midsummer stint with Double-A West Tenn, Hill has spent the majority of the season pitching in the bullpen at high Class A High Desert. He would likely be on a faster track if not for the Army obligations that kept him from offseason baseball workouts.
But Hill said he is glad to fulfill his military obligations.
"I knew (being recalled) was always a possibility. I knew from day one
when I went to West Point," Hill said. "I love playing. But one of the
reasons I went to Army was to serve my country. I'm thankful that I've
had the opportunity to play this past year and a half. And I'm thankful
the Army and the Mariners have been understanding. I've just got to
take it all in stride.
"It's always been a dream for all of us. Hopefully we get
another shot at it. It looks like we'll just have to put it on hold for
awhile and then we'll see."
Baseball America rated Hill the No. 200 prospect going into the 2007 draft, after the lefthander finished his four-year college career with a 33-12 record that included 336 strikeouts and 85 walks in 328 innings. In 2006, the summer before his senior year, he pitched for USA Baseball's college national team on a staff that featured 2007 first-round draft picks David Price, Daniel Moskos, Casey Weathers and Ross Detwiler. Hill went 4-0, 1.48 in 24 innings for Team USA.
Hill threw in the low 90s as a college junior, but has thrown more in the high 80s since then. Though his stuff isn't great, he has always been a favorite of coaches and managers because of his strong competitive drive.
Hunter said Hill is making slow progress, but the Mariners are being patient because of his military obligations.
"A lot of the offseason, he wasn't able to do a lot of baseball activity," Hunter said. "We've been pushing him, probably more than we should have. But he's doing better in his last few times out, so we are encouraged."
Sports Come Second
Hill is not alone in having to adhere to the Army's new policy. Righthander Milan Dinga, a 10th-round pick of the Angels in 2007, will also have to suspend his career, while righthander Drew Clothier (37th round, Marlins), catcher Chris Simmons (41st round, Pirates) and outfielder Cole White (42nd round, Pirates) were all drafted this June. The Pirates already have placed Simmons and White on the military list.
Angels scouting director Eddie Bane said he is not disappointed the Army has changed
its policy, even though the Angels in effect lose a 10th-round pick. Dinga, 23, pitched just twice this season: an inning in the
low Class A Midwest League and an inning for Triple-A Salt Lake, where he sustained a shoulder injury.
"They are the Army, for heaven's sake, and they can do what they want. It's up to us to adapt to what they are doing as they are defending our
country and, after all, our game is just baseball," Bane said. "The
Angels will adapt to whatever the military does, and it is way above my
pay grade to discuss anything with the Department of Defense except to
thank these guys for all they are doing for our country."
Navy had two players drafted this year (neither signed), including 6-foot-4, 220-pound righthander Mitch Harris, a 13th-round pick of the Cardinals who would have gone much higher in the draft if not for his military commitment. The Naval Academy, under orders from Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter, had already suspended its alternative service option last year, mandating a five-year commitment after graduation.
Kane County catcher and former Navy standout Jonathan Johnston, a 42nd-round selection of the Athletics in 2007, has not played since June 9 and was ordered to report to active duty in San Diego.
Since the alternative service options were revoked, former Navy and Army football players have felt the squeeze as well. For instance, Army standout Caleb Campbell, a seventh-round draft pick of the Detroit Lions in April, had to leave just before training camp got under way.
Athletes hoping the Pentagon revisits the policy to make it more liberal probably shouldn't cross their fingers. Athletic directors at the service academies do not have the clout to change the policy. Instead, that decision would be left to the secretaries of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. And no one seems anxious to push for a change.
"We're at a time of war, which is why we're not changing that type of policy," Navy spokesman Lt. Karen Eifert said tersely. "That is the policy that the Secretary Winter has put in place."
Until the Pentagon reverses the policy, there is little that baseball teams can hope for in drafting a player from a military academy and then immediately seeing him in their organization. A possibility—though an unlikely escape hatch based on these players' commitment to service—would be for players not to return for their junior seasons. Once a student starts his junior year, he is obligated to graduate and then fulfill his active duty requirement.
It's unfortunate from a baseball perspective because the Army and Navy baseball programs have improved significantly in recent years. Army pitching coach Fritz Hamburg even won Baseball America's Assistant Coach of the Year award in 2007.
Scouts will continue to keep an eye on the talent at military academies, however.
"The Angels will definitely continue to scout the military institutes," Bane said.
"It is just within the last few years that the Naval Academy and West
Point in particular have had players that have interested professional
baseball. As long as the coaches at the military universities continue
to put out professional baseball prospects, then the Angels will be
sure to be aware of these young men."
Among Army's most intriguing names is shortstop Clint Moore, who dominated the Patriot League this season as a freshman. A former standout at Grimsley High School in Greensboro, N.C., Moore led the league in nine offensive categories and became only the third freshman in West Point history to earn first-team all-conference honors. He batted .350 with six home runs, 14 doubles and two triples, and he scored 46 runs and had 39 RBIs.
Another freshman, first baseman Kevin McKague of Fayetteville, N.C., was a second-team all-Patriot League selection after batting .328 with a school-record 19 doubles. McKague also finished with 50 RBIs and 33 runs, and he set a single-season Army record with 18 multi-RBI games.
The Army's policy change is a touchy subject at West Point. Questions are being referred to higher authorities, and Moore was not made available for comment.
"We do not feel our cadet-athletes are spokesmen on this topic," Bob Beretta, West Point's senior associate athletic director, wrote in an e-mail to Baseball America.
Moore's father Kevan said his son plans to fulfill his commitment the next three years at West Point. He said Clint and the family understood the policy change and that his son likely would try to play pro baseball whenever his military obligation ends.
"Clint had the opportunity to play at a lot of places, but he's at the very best place he could be," Kevan Moore said. "The whole thing has been something of a blessing for Clint. (The change) is a disappointment right now, but who's to say something doesn't happen in the next two or three years?
"Obviously it's a level of concern with the guys. They want to serve their country and do what they can. And they want to have a shot at playing at the next level. I told him, 'Just hang on.' "
Moore added, "He will indebted to the Army the rest of his life, no matter what happens in baseball. Clint would never leave. The people have just been wonderful to him."