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A BANNER YEAR AT THE SERVICE ACADEMIES
Thursday, March 29, 2007
It seems only fitting in today’s world, with the attention focused on the United States Military and the continuing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, that the baseball community also spend time and effort above and beyond the norm looking in the Military’s direction.
Because at no time in the past have so many quality baseball prospects been playing and draft eligible at the three service academies, Air Force, Army and Navy.
Army, which went 39-14 in 2006, received an NCAA playoff berth and defeated South Alabama during regional play, has four players who are drawing attention from the scouting community; LHP Nick Hill (Sr.), RHP-OF Marlin Dinga (Sr.), LHP Drew Clothier (Jr.) and 3B Colin White (Jr.).
Navy, perhaps the top team among the academies in 2007 with an 18-9 record as of late March, is led by junior RHP-OF Mitch Harris, one of the top two-way talents in the country.
Out west at the Air Force Academy, senior OF Karl Bolt is re-writing the Air Force record books with his power and hitting ability. Ironically, Bolt’s younger brother Kendall is a freshman starter at Navy, creating a bit of inter-service rivalry.
Pro Sports vs. Military Commitments
The reason that it is so rare to find high level baseball prospects at the service academies is very simple, few if any athletically gifted young men with their sights on continuing at the professional level will choose to attend any of the three schools. When you make a commitment to Air Force, Army or Navy, that’s what you make, a COMMITMENT in capital letters that extends well past your four years of school and does not make room for immediate career choices outside the military.
That hasn’t stopped a handful of athletes over the last generation from becoming highly successful in professional sports.
David Robinson (Navy) grew from a 6-7 high school senior to a 7-1 All-American in college and was the first pick in the 1987 NBA draft despite his military commitment. In a decision that was somewhat controversial, Robinson was required to serve only two years of his five year post-graduation commitment. At the time, the Navy stated that Robinson’s height (Navy has a maximum height for recruits of 6-8) prevented him from normal deployment anyway, but one suspects that seeing “The Admiral” winning NBA championships and MVP Awards provided more value to the Navy than Robinson would have as a First Lieutenant, junior grade.
Roger Staubach was the Heisman Trophy winner in 1963, but was only a 10th round draft pick for the NFL due to his five-year commitment to the Navy, which he fulfilled, including a year’s tour in Vietnam, before joining the Cowboys in 1969 en route to a Hall of Fame career.
Similarly, 1987 Outland Trophy winner Chad Henning of Air Force served his 4 year commitment to the Academy, including 45 flights at the controls of an A-10 Thunderbird over Iraq, before returning to football and a nine-year career with the Cowboys.
The same type of success stories are unprecedented in baseball, however.
Outside of team sports, the Military has a program for all its academies called the World Class Athlete Program (WCAP). This is intended for athletes in the traditional Olympic sports that in many ways parallel military training and specific military oriented skills.
Those sports include: Biathlon, Bobsled/Skeleton, Boxing, Fencing, Modern Pentathlon, Rowing, Shooting, Taekwando, Team Handball, Track and Field, Triathlon and Wrestling.
A summary of the Air Force WCAP on their website is as follows, with similar program summaries existing for Army and Navy:
The Air Force World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) is a two-year program that provides active duty, national guard and reserve Air Force personnel the opportunity to train and compete at national and international sports competitions with the ultimate goal of selection to the United States Olympic team. The WCAP is not a developmental program; it targets athletes who have achieved world class status in their sport. Applications for the WCAP must be submitted using the Air Force Form 303, Request for USAF Specialized Sports Training. Candidates national ranking, ability and potential will be verified through the United States Olympic Committee’s National Governing Body of the sport. If selected, the athlete will be assigned to Headquarters Air Force Services Agency, San Antonio, Texas, with a duty location near elite coaches and/or world class training facilities. Candidates must remain competitive for a U.S Olympic team position to remain in the program, which ends with the Olympic Trials or after competing with the national team at the Olympics.
Options for Team Sport Athletes
Athletic department officials at Air Force and Navy gave virtual identical summaries of the regulations and options that apply to athletes at their respective academies. Many of the same apply to student athletes at Army, with one notable difference.
At all three academies, the path and commitment appears to be the same. During your first two years you can leave any of the academies without liability. Once you begin your junior year, though, your “commitment” has been solidified. The commitment is for two additional years of school, two years of full-time military service, then the option of three years of addition service or applying for deferment of those last three years to six years of service in the Reserves.
Should at any time the individual drop out of the military by choice or because of violations of code or law, there is a very significant financial penalty that must be paid to reimburse the military for the cost of the education and training. This number was quoted by various sources between $92,000 and $140,000; regardless of the exact number and situation it was a large amount of money.
According to Paul Bolt, father of Karl and Kendall Bolt and son of a Marine Corps drill instructor, officials at Air Force have told him that the post graduation terms are “somewhat negotiable and details can be worked out with the base commander where Karl is assigned.” There are issues of leave time that military personnel are given each year, including 60 days immediately following graduation on June 1 that overlaps much of the summer minor league season.
Still, that doesn’t make things easy for the pro scouts who are following the military prospects.
“I think the scouts look at it in the same way as the “Mormon Curse” that we talk about with players at BYU (which plays with Air Force in the Mountain West Conference),” says Bolt. “The players who go on their two-year church mission are looked at the same way as someone like Karl. It’s been a difficult situation to overcome for us.”
The situation at Army is different in one very important aspect that has helped lead the Black Knights to four Patriot League championships in the last six years, plus the aforementioned initial NCAA regional victory in 2006.
According to Army coach Joe Sottolano, baseball players at Army who have the opportunity to play professionally have the option of serving as full-time recruiters based near where they will be playing professionally, instead of serving in regular deployment. Called the Alternative Service Option, this enables them to pursue both a baseball career professionally while beginning to fulfill their obligation to the Army.
For professional baseball, this gives the teams and scouts a certainty of knowing where the Army prospects stand in relation to their commitment. For Army, it gives them a distinct edge over the other two schools in terms of how they recruit prospect athletes.
Two Army prospects have choosen this path since the ASO was enacted.
OF Josh Holden was the first, signing a free agent contract with the Reds in 2004. He played in Class A Daytona in 2006, hitting .248-0-18. In 2005, C Schuyler Williamson signed after being picked in the 26th round by the Tigers. Williamson left after a year in minor league ball to rejoin full-time duty in the Army after his younger brother, Nicholas, returned from a 14-month deployment in Iraq.
Where the top service academy prospects will end up as far as the draft and professional baseball is concerned will be effected by many factors. Here is a summary on where they stand now on the baseball field.
RF Karl Bolt (Air Force): The Air Force program isn’t where Army and Navy are right now, as they sit at 5-22 through late March. But that hasn’t stopped Bolt, who has been in the Falcon’s starting line up since the beginning of his freshman year, initially as a third baseman, then as a first baseman and now at his best position, right field, from excelling. The 6-2, 215 right handed hitter is slugging at a .347-7-26 clip this far, raising his career home run total to 32.
Says a veteran West Coast cross checker “Bolt is a very good looking athlete, very well built and very strong. He’s now playing his natural position in right field and has a 50/55 arm. He shows his power at the plate. He’s a very draftable player but it’s hard to determine what to do with him because of his commitment. He’s got a chance to play but there are a lot of scouts who aren’t going to pay attention and just skip on to the next guy.” (Photo: Air Force Academy)
LHP Drew Clothier (Army): The 6-3, 195 junior throws in the low 90’s occasionally and is beginning to harness his breaking ball and split finger change up. Clothier has pitched in 10 of Army’s first 17 games as a swing starter/closer and is 2-1, 3.20 with 1 save. He’ll pitch in Hawaii this summer and look to take Hill’s spot at the top of the Army rotation next spring.
RHP-OF Milan Dinga (Army): Dinga has been a two-way standout since his freshman year and is the all-time Patriot League leader in career saves, along with leading Army in numerous career hitting categories, including hits. He underwent minor surgery to repair a small tear in his shoulder in the fall after playing primarily outfield in the Cape last summer, but has made a rapid recovery. He's 1-0, 0.00 in 7 innings on the mound (3 hits, 0 BB's, 11 K's) and is hitting .329-3-16.
Scouts see Dinga as a pitcher at the pro level. He’s been as high as 94 in the past and has a power slider and change up. According to scouts who’ve seen him this spring, he has his fastball back up to the 90-91 mph range.
RHP-OF Mitch Harris (Navy): Regardless of his standing as a prospect, Harris is simply one of the best two-way players in college baseball. As of late March, the 6-4, 210 lb right hander was 5-2, 1.87 on the mound, with 59 K’s in 43 innings, while hitting .301-4-23.
According to an East Coast Scout: “He’s got the size and he’s a great competitor and one of the nicest kids you’ll ever meet. His fastball was up to 94 last year and has been 88-92 this spring. He’s over the top and his fastball and slider tend to be straight and it’s hard to see him as a premium guy, but lots of people would see him in the 6-10 round area if he was going to go out this year. But I have no doubt that he will stay at Navy all four years.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Navy coach Paul Kostacopolous. “Mitch is a great athlete and a legitimate prospect. But it’s not a reality that he’ll be in the draft this year; he’s focused on going to school. He knows that if you leave school early you can’t graduate from here and it’s just not a reality that he’ll do that. He’s not looking at getting out, so we really haven’t pursued what the issues are.
According to Kostacopolous, Harris will play for Bourne in the Cape Cod League this summer.
LHP Nick Hill (Army): Hill is the most prominent of the service academy prospects, due in large part to his performance with the USA National Team last summer. The 6-1, 185 lb
Hill posted a 4-0, 1.48 record in 24.1 innings. He’s a two-time Patriot League Pitcher of the Year and most importantly in some people’s minds, holds a 3-0 career mark against rival Navy. He’s 2-2, 1.89 with 47 K’s in 38 innings thus far in 2007. Hill pitched in the 89-93 mph range last summer with Team USA. He features a slider that has plus action at times and an advanced change up.
Says an East Coast scout, “He didn’t have the velocity early this year that he had last summer, more like 85-86, but his change up was a plus pitch at times and his slider is very tough on right handed hitters. I can see him in the top 10 rounds if his velocity comes back later this spring.
1B Colin White (Army): White was named an All-Conference Pitcher as a freshman and is still part of the Army rotation (2-1, 5.04 in 24 innings this year) while throwing in the upper 80’s, but his future is as a power hitting 1B/OF. He’s hitting .457-2-11 with 7 doubles in 17 games thus far in 2007. White is scheduled to play with LaCrosse in the Northwoods League this summer.
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