- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 8, 2019

ANNAPOLIS — Noah Song leads Division I baseball in strikeouts. His fastball occasionally touches 98 mph, and he’s been named national player of the week five times by Collegiate Baseball magazine. His next stop is the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft — but the big leagues will have to wait until he serves his country.

Song, the U.S. Naval Academy’s 21-year-old pitching ace, is one of a handful of elite athletes affected by the rules governing when military academy graduates are allowed their shots at the big leagues, an issue President Trump revived this week.

Between military service and his baseball potential, Song’s future is borderline unplannable at the moment. But that doesn’t appear to weigh on him at all.

“I’ll have fun doing either [career], and that’s really the best part about this whole thing, is that I just really have two Plan A’s,” Song said.

Since 2017, athletes from military service academies such as Navy, Army and Air Force who wish to turn pro have been required to first serve two years of active duty. Some of the best athletes to graduate from Annapolis — including Roger Staubach and David Robinson — completed their required service before going on to have memorable professional careers.

But baseball, with its grueling minor league system, presents an added layer of challenge for someone like Song. Major League front offices must weigh whether to take a chance on Song and wait for him to finish serving — based on rules that President Trump might change at any moment.

“I think every team is going to assess that differently,” said John Abbamondi, a former MLB assistant general manager and a Naval flight officer. “It’s sort of fundamental to this process that you’re having to make decisions in the face of uncertain information.”

Flourishing on and off the diamond

Song said he grew up in a “disciplined household,” but he was no military brat. Navy wasn’t on his radar until Midshipmen pitching coach Bobby Applegate saw him at a showcase game in Riverside, California, near Song’s hometown of Claremont.

“He wanted to get me up on a visit,” Song said. “I was a little skeptical at first. I didn’t even know where the Naval Academy was.”

Not only did Song wind up at Navy, but he also flourished there. He dominated the Patriot League with his arsenal of a fastball, a slider and a lesser-used change-up and curveball.

He was eligible for the amateur draft in 2018, but set an ultimatum for himself: If he was selected within the first two rounds, only then would he make the jump. Doing so would cancel out his service requirement, but he would have to pay back the Naval Academy for three years of tuition.

“Something important to note about that is it wasn’t necessarily about the round, but what the money was representing,” Song said, “which is really what I had established at the Naval Academy — a Naval Academy degree, all the people in the military that I was leaving and also my service time to my country, which I value very highly.”

Once that number wasn’t met, Song’s adviser informed major league teams that he would return for his senior year at Navy. Now, Song’s improvement appears most in his command.

“He can put balls on the inner third, he can put balls on the outer third and his slider has improved tremendously,” Navy coach Paul Kostacopoulos said.

Away from the diamond, Song thrived within the academy lifestyle, which consists of strict hours and briefings that can pop up on midshipmen’s schedules throughout the day. Song wanted to serve in aviation, but at 6-foot-4 was deemed too tall to pilot a fighter jet. More recently, he was told he was too tall for helicopters, which he had been studying.

Instead, he will be a flight officer — not the pilot, but the man in charge of weapons systems, “basically running the mission from the sky,” he said.

Being told he wouldn’t be a pilot was tough, but Song wasn’t discouraged, which may say something about how he is handling the uncertainty that awaits him.

“That was a little disappointing for me, but I’ll still be in the aviation community, which is something I wanted to do. … I guess sometimes things don’t work out all the time,” Song said.

Possible policy changes

Song and Kostacopoulos spoke to The Washington Times before the president expressed his support for a waiver for academy athletes, which would be the third such rule change in four years.

In 2016, the Department of Defense said it would allow military academy athletes to go straight to the pros, postponing their entire commitment. Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds was the only notable athlete to benefit; he now is a wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks.

That generous crack in the door closed the next year. Then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis reversed the policy, believing service must come first for midshipmen and cadets. Citing Staubach and Robinson, a representative for the Department of Defense argued that the pros can wait.

But Mr. Mattis is no longer with the Trump administration. The president brought up the waiver option Monday while honoring the Army football team’s Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy win at the White House.

“On behalf of the coach [Jeff Monken], who is a tremendous guy, we are going to look at a waiver for the service academies so they serve their time after,” Mr. Trump said. “It used to be five years, then four years and it’s a long time, it’s a long time.”

A high-profile athlete going pro can bring the military positive attention and aid recruitment. But Mr. Abbamondi said that is tougher to assert for a baseball player, who is likely to spend years at small-town, minor-league outposts before making the majors.

In 2007, Mr. Abbamondi was the assistant general manager for the St. Louis Cardinals when they drafted Navy pitcher Mitch Harris. They thought Harris had first-round talent, but he plummeted to the 13th round because of his military commitment.

Mr. Abbamondi guided Harris through the paperwork and wrote letters to the Pentagon on his behalf, but with the nation at war, Harris’ petition was never approved. He served almost five years and eventually cracked into the big leagues — a 29-year-old rookie.

From his experience with Harris, Mr. Abbamondi knows Song’s situation won’t throw MLB front offices for a loop. He likened it to drafting a high school student who may decline a team’s offer and play in college.

“It’s pretty common for teams to have to evaluate not only the player’s aptitude and baseball talent, but also the likelihood that they’ll be able to play or that they’ll choose to play,” Mr. Abbamondi said.

The ‘50-year storm’

Under the current policy, Song will be 24 by the time he can petition and report to spring training. Kostacopoulos doesn’t think the age factor is significant in Song’s case because he hasn’t thrown as many innings as the modern pitcher who plays travel ball year-round and because Song’s pitching arm has never needed an operation.

But there is more to the puzzle. If Song is working full time on a P-8 aircraft, how will he fit in bullpen sessions and keep his arm fresh?

“If time permits, obviously I’ll do my best to try to stay in baseball shape, but I always want to make it clear that I would never do it at the expense of suffering at my military job or doing poorly in my military career,” Song said. “I don’t want to ever be incompetent just because I’m trying to have a side job, basically.”

When MLB scouts talk to Song, he said, they are mainly curious about his military commitment.

“I just try to tell them all the options, all the information that can possibly happen,” Song said. “At the end of the day, there’s just not a whole lot I guess I can do about it.”

The draft begins June 3, 10 days after Song’s graduation and commissioning. Kostacopoulos, who called Song “the rock” of his program and a “50-year storm” type of player, has an optimistic take on his baseball future.

“We have policies. I think that’s really important to understand. But we also have conversations,” Kostacopoulos said. “I think he will fit into a policy, but he certainly is going to fit into a conversation because of his ability.” 

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