- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Matt Foster waited a long time to make his professional debut, then had to wait some more. In a game delayed an hour and 15 minutes by rain last week, Foster pitched two hitless innings, striking out four, for the Pulaski (Va.) Blue Jays of the Appalachian League (advanced rookies).

But Foster made history before that. The left-hander is the first player from the Naval Academy to be selected in major league baseball’s amateur draft. Picked by Toronto in the 13th round in June, Foster reported to Pulaski, passed his physical, then sat around for a week before finally getting to pitch.

“I was a little rusty,” he said. “But I got the job done.”

After getting drafted, Foster realized part of a dream. How the rest turns out is up to him.

But it is also up to the U.S. Navy.

All academy grads are required to fulfill a five-year military commitment. At this point, Ensign Matthew Foster, USN, is set to report to Nuclear Power School in Charleston, S.C., in two weeks and remain there for a year. But he has asked the Navy to allow him to play baseball the rest of the season and then report to spring training. Foster said he can fulfill his Navy commitment in other ways, such as recruiting, while not playing baseball.

Foster admits his “heart is torn” because he wants to serve his country “whether it’s for five years or 20 years. But baseball has been a childhood dream. I want to do both. Both are important to me.”

Although he can’t be sure, Foster is convinced his performance in Pulaski will affect the Navy’s decision. If this is true, he is shipshape. Foster followed his first outing with two more shutout innings and got his first win.

It also helps that the Navy has modified its stance on athletes over the years. Heisman Trophy winners Joe Bellino (1960) and Roger Staubach (1963) had to serve four years before starting their NFL careers. Napoleon McCallum, drafted by the Los Angeles Raiders in 1985, also put in four years but was allowed to play in 1986, often showing up late for practice after commuting from nearby Long Beach. He then served full time for three years before returning in 1990.

Another football player, defensive tackle Bob Kuberski, was drafted in 1993 by Green Bay and served in the Navy for two years before playing for the Packers. Because of his size (6-foot-4, 290s), he was removed from active duty and served four years in the reserves.

The most famous example, of course, was David Robinson. Taken by San Antonio with the No.1 pick in the 1987 NBA Draft, the Admiral served two years before starting a 14-year, Hall of Fame-bound tour of duty with the Spurs that ended with a second NBA championship this year. While playing, he put in four years in the reserves.

By the time he graduated, Robinson had grown seven inches to 7-1. Remaining active in the military was impractical, and the Navy also knew that Robinson would generate immeasurable positive public relations by playing for the Spurs.

This is what Foster, who planned on attending Submarine School when he didn’t think he would have a pro career, wants to do. He wrote to acting Navy secretary Hansford Johnson asking that he be allowed to divide his baseball and military commitments. He also applied for the World Class Athlete Program, which permits active-duty members to train and try out for the Olympics. Foster said he believes if he is accepted, he will be cleared to play.

“Baseball is different,” he said. “You just can’t take two years off and then go play. I’d like to be able to play baseball from February to August and then, in the five or six months after that, do anything the Navy wants me to do. I just want to play baseball.”

Foster is expecting to hear some news at any time.

Perhaps a better comparison than McCallum, Robinson or the others is 2nd Lt. Mike Thiessen, USAF, the first baseball player drafted from the Air Force Academy. The Arizona Diamondbacks took Thiessen, an infielder/outfielder who also played quarterback for the football team, in the 42nd round of the 2001 draft. He since has enrolled in the World Class Athlete Program and has been allowed to play while taking military leave.

“The main purpose is recruiting,” Thiessen, currently with the Diamondbacks’ Class A affiliate in Lancaster, Calif., told the Modesto Bee in March. “It’s a public relations stunt. But more than that, it’s a sign the military is willing to take care of its people. It shows the integrity of the military that they allow people to pursue once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. That says a lot about the organization the military is.”

Foster is heartened by a Navy memo he keeps that states “exceptional personnel with unique talents may be released from active duty when there is a strong expectation they will provide the Navy and Marine Corps with the significant favorable media exposure likely to enhance national recruiting or public affairs efforts.”

• • •

Foster finds himself in this situation because his career path took a sudden turn a few years ago. In other words, he hurt his arm. He was a star at Buena High School in Ventura, Calif., and by his junior year college recruiters and pro scouts knew where to find him. But the consistently favorable Southern California weather had a nasty side effect. Foster said he played three years practically without taking a day off. Too much work and poor pitching mechanics helped cause his left biceps tendon to tear loose. He recalls with painful clarity when he learned he needed arthroscopic surgery.

“The worst day of my life,” Foster said. “I was completely crushed.”

The procedure was a success — a pair of screws repaired the damage — but his senior season was ruined. So were any plans to attend one of the big baseball schools like Miami or Stanford that were recruiting him hard.

Time for Plan B.

“My baseball dreams were shattered,” Foster said. “Then I started to think about how important other aspects of my life were. That’s why I chose the academy. It has the best academics in the nation, and it still has a Division I baseball program. I had the chance to play baseball and still go to a great school.”

Foster endured a rigorous rehabilitation, not just to pitch again but to grunt out all the push-ups required during plebe summer. He began throwing that summer. “It was probably the hardest time in my life,” he said. “I sat there some nights crying, just like every other kid.”

A good hitter, Foster played center field as a plebe but never took the mound. He essentially had to learn how to pitch all over again.

“Matt basically took it upon himself to show the coaching staff he plans to get back on the mound and contribute,” said Navy coach Steve Whitmyer, who was starting his first season. “It didn’t take too long to see he had a lot of ability. He was very competitive.”

Foster had what he calls a “decent” sophomore season and continued to improve. But barely into his junior year, his arm started to hurt. Whitmyer decided to take Foster out of the rotation temporarily to give him a little rest.

Everyone who has met Foster notes his intelligence and maturity, which makes what happened next so stunning. When Whitmyer gave him the news, Foster, who so badly wanted to pitch, freaked out. He punched a wall with his left hand. His pitching hand.

“I never hit anything in my life,” he said. The next day, the hand was killing him. X-rays revealed a broken bone, and Foster missed the next six weeks. “I learned my lesson,” he said.

Foster returned in time to help pitch, and bat, Navy into the NCAA tournament. In the Patriot League tournament, he worked seven strong innings to beat Lehigh and went 4-for-4 with a grand slam and six RBI in the clincher against Lehigh the next day. Foster then pitched the Midshipmen to a win over George Washington, Navy’s first NCAA tournament victory in 20 years.

But the turning point was still to come. During the offseason after his junior season, Navy assistant Chris Murphy was trying to get some of his players placed on summer league teams. This was unusual because Navy players usually have to serve on a cruise ship.

“Normally we’re not interested in guys from the Naval Academy because they have a history of not playing summer ball,” said Derek Hacopian, who played at Maryland and coaches the Bethesda Big Train of the Clark Griffith Summer League.

But Murphy was recommending some of his players for at least part-time action, especially infielder Matt Lukevics. Hacopian was interested but then backed off when he learned Lukevics could play for only a month. While watching the Mids in the spring, Hacopian noticed Foster.

“What about that guy?” he asked Murphy. Foster not only could pitch but, better yet, he could pitch for most of the summer. “Matt just stood out,” Hacopian said.

After Foster reported to the Big Train, pitching coach Kelton Jacobson immediately noticed something.

“He basically wasn’t using his body at all,” Jacobson said. “He needed to work on his posture and keeping his weight back. He was pretty much throwing just with his arm.”

The Bethesda coaches said Foster’s fastball was clocked in the mid-80s. Foster said he had reached 91 at the end of his Navy season. Regardless, his velocity improved after he worked with Jacobson, changing the “bounce point” — the split-second when the pitcher brings his leg up — and learning to push off the rubber more effectively with his back foot.

After the season, the league champion Arlington Senators were allowed to add to their roster for the national tournament in Johnstown, Pa. Foster was picked — after he was granted permission by the academy to keep playing.

Pitching against a powerful squad from New Orleans, Foster struck out seven and gave up two hits in five innings and hit 94 mph on the radar gun.

“After the game, about five scouts came up to me,” Foster said. “From that point, I started getting letters from different scouts. … It was the best summer of my life.”

Said Murphy: “One thing that’s nice about the summer is [players] get a little more freedom and there’s more time to concentrate on baseball. At the academy, there’s only so much time in the day.”

Foster anticipated a big senior season. But like a kid with a new toy, he was enamored with his fastball and tried to blow hitters away. He relied less on his changeup, his best pitch. “I didn’t realize till midseason it wasn’t the best way to pitch,” he said.

He also became distracted now that hope for a professional baseball career had re-emerged.

“I had a lot on my mind,” said Foster, who finished with a 4-5 record. “I was thinking about what I wanted to do if I got drafted, what I’d do with the Navy. It was on my mind constantly.”

Yet the Mids were just four outs from making the postseason for a second straight year. Needing just one more victory in the Patriot League tournament, they led Bucknell 4-2 with one out in the top of the eighth.

Foster seemed to be in command. But then Navy gave up eight runs, seven unearned, in the last two innings and lost 10-4. Demoralized, the Mids lost the second game 20-9.

“That was probably the most heartbreaking thing that happened to me in the last four years,” he said. “But physical mistakes are gonna happen, and they happened at the wrong time.”

Major league scouts were not deterred.

“We liked his athleticism, his size [6-3, 205 pounds], his arm and his makeup,” Toronto scout John Ceprini said.

“Makeup” is baseballese for a player’s character, his toughness.

“It’s not easy for a student-athlete, especially at a service academy, to excel,” Ceprini said. “That says something about him. … He has a great confidence level, and he makes a great appearance. When you speak to him, he’s a very polished young man.

On the mound, “what we saw was a fellow who didn’t give anything away,” Ceprini said. “Whether the count was 3-0 or 0-2, you couldn’t tell by looking at him.”

Ceprini added that Foster will have “every opportunity to be a big league pitcher for us.”

Much of that will depend on the Navy’s view of things.

“I’ve pretty much taken the long road,” Foster said. “But I’m here, and that’s all that really matters. Hopefully, I’ll get an opportunity to keep producing.”

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