Minor league baseball player returns from service

By Jake Kaplan

Taking a break after a normal day of work in early June at Fort Hood, Cole White received a puzzling text message from an old friend.

It was from Caleb Campbell, a classmate from their days at West Point. The message read: “Congratulations.”

Moments later, White received a phone call from the United States Army’s Human Resource Command. White soon understood Campbell’s message — the Army was going to let White pursue his professional baseball career.

Knowing his service time was nearing the obligatory two-year-mark, White had applied for an early release from the Army in January. Five months later, the 25-year-old, whose unit was set to deploy to Iraq in February, finally found out which direction his life would be going.

And it wouldn’t be overseas.

Instead, it would be in the New York-Penn League with the short-season Class A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the State College Spikes — the same team he played 21 games with two years ago.

On June 20 — exactly two years to the day after he debuted in State College — White was back in town, having added about 10 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-2 frame.

He arrived at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park the next day and did something he hadn’t done since leaving State College — hit a baseball on an actual field.

“It didn’t really set in until I was taking batting practice here in State College,” White said. “And then I was like ‘Wow, I’m back.’ ”

The West Point experience

White didn’t know much about West Point — until the tragic events of 9/11.

“I kind of felt like a greater purpose and I just felt like I needed to do something,” White said. “I talked to my dad and I said that I wanted to join the Army.”

His father, Jeff, suggested his son, then a junior at Midland High School in Midland, Texas, take a look at the United States Military Academy, a place where he could join the Army and play Division I baseball.

White, who helped his team win the Texas 5A State Championship as a sophomore, visited West Point the summer before his senior year. Passing up offers from Texas Tech and several junior colleges, White committed around Christmas during his senior year of high school, a decision Jeff White said his son never wavered from.

“When you go through the gates there at West Point, it will kind of take your breath away,” Jeff White said of the visit. “It’s kind of a sacred place, and after that I don’t think there was any question that’s where he was going to go.”

Once at West Point, baseball acted as White’s getaway from the long, grueling days at the academy. A typical day for a freshman entailed waking up at 5:30 a.m., followed by formation before breakfast, classes all morning, formation before lunch, more class and then finally, baseball practice.

“As a freshman you’re getting yelled at in the morning cause your shoes aren’t shined, or you didn’t shave well enough, or your hair is too long and all this stuff,” he said. “You just want to get away from that so practice was like the best time to kind of get away and say ‘Hey, were playing baseball today so nothing can be that bad.’ ”

From being named the 2005 Patriot League Rookie of the Year to the 2007 conference player of the year, White excelled for the Black Knights. He finished what he called “the best four years of his life” baseball-wise by leading his team to the 2008v Patriot League regular-season championship, primarily as a pitcher and outfielder.

White graduated from West Point that spring, an experience he called “indescribable.”

“Getting into West Point was great. Player of the year, all that stuff is great,” he said. “But graduating from West Point, and throwing my hat was by far the best feeling I’ve ever had in my life.”

A dream put on hold

In 2008, White was told entering the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft that he probably wouldn’t be selected as high as he should because he had gone to the Military Academy and at 23-years-old, he was older than many of the other players in the draft. He was expecting to be selected between rounds 15 and 20.

Watching the draft-tracker online, White still hadn’t seen his name pop up on the computer screen after 20 rounds had passed. Or 30. Or 40. It was a nerve-wracking day for the whole family. If White’s name was not called, he would have to report straight to the Army.

Finally, the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted White in the 42nd round — 1,254th overall.

The Pirates also drafted White’s four-year college teammate Chris Simmons one round earlier. The two signed their contracts and arrived in State College for a three-day minicamp just days after the draft.

It didn’t take long for White to get settled in. Playing left field and designated hitter, the right-handed hitter led the Spikes with a .338 batting average and put together an impressive 17-game hit streak through the second month of the season.

“When he got up to State College, he was banging the baseball around just like he did at Army,” Jeff White said. “He never really missed a beat.”

However, the Spikes would soon be without their consistent leadoff hitter.

One night on the road after the team played the Lowell Spinners, the league’s Boston Red Sox affiliate, White and Simmons, roommates while with the Spikes, flipped on ESPN and were surprised with what they saw.

Featured on SportsCenter was their friend Campbell, a former Army football player. News had broken that Campbell, who the Detroit Lions drafted in the seventh round of the 2008 NFL Draft, was not going to able to report to training camp because the Army had revised its interpretation of the U.S. Department of Defense Alternative Service Option.

Every graduate from West Point owes the Army five years of service. Though previous rules allowed graduates drafted to play a professional sport to compete right away, the new interpretation of the rule requires two years of service to Army before the athletes can begin their sports careers.

“Chris and I were just kind of both sitting there silently,” White recalled of that night. “All of a sudden I kind of looked over at Chris and Chris looked over at me and we were like ‘Do you think that’s going to affect us?’ ”

The two made phone calls to West Point the next day and were given similar news to Campbell’s: They were going to have put their professional baseball careers on hold and report within four or five days to their respective duty stations. White reported to West Point and Simmons to Kentucky’s Fort Knox.

Though Simmons said the way they found out wasn’t ideal, it was not a total surprise. Rumors had floated around that the interpretation of the rule might be altered. In all, there were five baseball players affected.

“We had an idea that it might come, so we were kind of thinking about what would happen if it did,” Simmons said. “Obviously kind of disappointed, but at the same time we both went in knowing you don’t really go to West Point to be a professional baseball player.”

White and Simmons came back to State College for its series against the Batavia Muckdogs. Simmons played one game before departing and White played two before heading back to West Point, where he would be a graduate assistant. White said he thinks everyone else took the news harder than he and Simmons and he was just glad he got to play some games before he started serving.

“I mean playing professional baseball you just can’t beat,” White said. “Of course you don’t want to leave. We were having a great time playing the game that we grew up to love.”

Serving proudly

As a graduate assistant for Army’s baseball team, White helped out around the office, on the field and with recruiting.

After nine months he traveled to Fort Sill in Oklahoma to go through a seven-week Basic Officers Leaders Course. Then White moved to Fort Knox for four-and-a-half months where he learned specifics about his position as a First Lieutenant and a platoon leader. He spent the remainder of his two-year commitment at Fort Hood in Texas where he was in charge of 12 soldiers.

During his two years of service, White did not have the opportunity to play much baseball. However, the Army kept him in good physical shape. White was awake at 6:30 every morning either running, lifting weights, doing pushups, pull-ups or sit-ups.

Knowing there was always a chance he could return to baseball, he would try to swing a bat at least a couple of times per week, depending on how busy he was.

“I tried to do as much as I could with minimal facilities of just hitting and seeing a pitch come in and feeling my swing,” White said.

Returning to State College

Spikes manager Gary Robinson called his new outfielder into his office on June 22nd.

“I said ‘What do you want me to do? You want another day of [batting practice] or do you want to go hot?’ He said, ‘I’m used to it hot, let’s go.’ That was all I needed to hear,” Robinson recalled of their conversation.

Just one day after being placed on the Spikes roster, White started in right field and batted ninth. Though he went 0-3, in the fifth inning he put the barrel of his bat on a first pitch fastball and flew out to deep left field, a ball Robinson said after the game he just missed from hitting it “way, way, way out” of the ballpark.

“After that at-bat, I started to feel like ‘All right, I’m good now,’ ” White said.

But the next day, set to get another start in the outfield, White tweaked his back during batting practice and was forced to sit. The injury was a little worse than thought. He had a small tear in his cartilage between one of his ribs. White was placed on the seven-day disabled list.

“It was pretty tough for him,” Jeff White said. “He waited all that time to come back and then went down again.”

On July 9, White finally returned again. He started the next three games, hitting safely in all three.

Aside from White, Nick Hill, a pitcher in the Seattle Mariners organization, is the only other baseball player to come back this year after serving two years because of the new rule interpretation. Simmons recently came home from a six-month tour in Iraq. White hopes now that he, Hill and Campbell, who is set to report to Lions’ training camp this month, are back in sports, it will ultimately help the Army.

“You may lose one or two here or there, but the whole idea for this program is to show how great the military is and the things they can do for you,” White said. “It was a great experience for me.”

Others have taken notice of White’s story, too.

“He stayed with it and battled and it’s great to see him on the baseball field,” Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington said Tuesday. “It’s a great story what he’s gone through and to see him back out and in uniform for the Spikes is a lot of fun.”

Currently on inactive reserve, White still owes the Army three years of service. His main goal right now, though, is to continue to improve in State College and keep climbing the ladder on his way to his goal: playing Major League baseball.

“I think about it from time to time and think about how amazing it would be to finally, after all these years of hard work, especially having two years off and not knowing if I was ever going to play the game of baseball again,” White said. “I think making it to the major leagues, it would be nothing short of amazing.”

Read more here: http://www.collegian.psu.edu/archive/2010/07/16/spikes_player_returns_from_ser.aspx
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