Mariners pitching prospect Nick Hill hoping to go from lieutenant ... to majors?
Being forced out of bed at 5:30 each morning was the easiest part of how Mariners pitching prospect Nick Hill spent his offseason.¶ offseason.¶ Then came the...
Seattle Times staff reporter
PEORIA, Ariz. — Being forced out of bed at 5:30 each morning was the easiest part of how Mariners pitching prospect Nick Hill spent his offseason.
Then came the push-ups, the wind sprints, not to mention the 5-mile runs before breakfast. Later on, after that first meal of the day, Hill sat in a classroom learning how to build bridges and homes. Then, in other classes, he'd learn how to blow them up.
Army life isn't for everyone.
But for 2nd Lt. Hill, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and an active Army regular, it's the only life he knows when not in a baseball uniform. Hill is one of a handful of participants in the Army's two-year-old Alternative Service Options program, enabling athletes to pursue careers in professional sports while fulfilling their military obligations.
And so the 23-year-old left-hander was given the chance to impress the Mariners with a solid first season at Class A Everett last summer. But once that season ended, as teammates prepared to go fishing or sun themselves on a beach someplace, it was back to the barracks for Hill.
"To be honest, spring training is fun," Hill said this week. "Anything we do here seems like fun."
Indeed, it must all seem relatively easy compared to what Hill could be doing.
On evenings here in Arizona, when he's done throwing bullpen sessions with the other minor-leaguers, Hill will exchange e-mails with former Army teammates like Danny Cappello, Justin Kashner and Nate Stone. The first two were pitchers and the latter a second baseman, having graduated two years ahead of him.
All three are now first lieutenants commanding platoons in Iraq.
"They're real busy," he says. "I'm sure hearing back from the United States helps them out a little bit. At least, I hope so."
Others from Hill's graduating class of 2007 are joining units of their own in the United States. After that, depending on where those units sit in the Army's deployment cycle, they too, could be shipped to Iraq, Afghanistan or some other trouble spot.
Hill knew the Army's requirements when he agreed to go to West Point. But he has no regrets. And no trepidation, he insists, that he might someday get shipped overseas.
"I've grown in so many ways since getting there," Hill says. "And if I had to do it again, I'd definitely jump at the opportunity. Now, what I want most is to give something back."
There's less of a chance of Hill "giving back" in a combat zone than before, when he would have been forced to serve five years of active duty upon graduation. He now has to fulfill two years of offseason duty — mostly in a recruitment capacity — and then, if he stays in pro ball, can buy out his remaining three years of active duty in return for spending six years as a reservist.
Army reserves are being shipped overseas more frequently, helping to spell exhausted regular troops. So, despite being given a unique opportunity, Hill hasn't exactly dodged the combat bullet just yet.
"Nick is not the type of guy to duck anything," says Lt. Col. Daniel McCarthy, one of Hill's regular instructors at West Point his senior year as a cadet.
"In fact, if you talk to Nick, I think you'll find he has a lot of mixed feelings about what he's doing right now," McCarthy adds. "It's got to be a bit of a funny time because most of the guys he graduated with are just hitting that first unit, that first division waiting for their assignment."
Hill certainly wasn't ducking when he agreed to go to West Point in 2003, just as the war in Iraq was beginning. A pro baseball career seemed remote at the time, and the Army's somewhat controversial program for athletes didn't even exist.
"It's on the news every day, so you're always thinking about it," Hill said of the Iraq conflict. "But it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The war was going on then, as it still is now. But the place prepares you to deal with that."
As the son of an accountant father and a school-teacher mother, growing up in eastern Tennessee, there had been no family military legacy for Hill to live up to. No childhood spent hearing about the mystique of West Point.
In other words, no good reason at all for a straight-A student and top athlete to want to go anywhere near the Army with a war raging. That is, until some Army baseball recruiters came by, offering Hill a Division I scholarship.
Hill promptly immersed himself in West Point literature and became obsessed with the school.
"The school itself has such a great reputation, and I think he wanted to test himself," says Hill's father, Lee. "Nicholas doesn't compete against other people. He tends to compete against himself."
The elder Hill and his wife, Tina, were a tad concerned about their son embarking on a military career just as the U.S. was invading Iraq. But they could see there was no stopping him.
"Of course, as a parent, you always have some apprehension," he said. "We knew what was going on overseas, and so did he. But we could see this was something he really wanted to do, and we're happy he's done it."
McCarthy said Hill's drive helped him stand out on the field, where he became Army's first two-time All-American, as well as away from it. A huge sports fan, McCarthy regularly took his four sons to watch Hill pitch.
"He was a star on the field," McCarthy said. "One of the best we ever had."
But McCarthy also saw Hill's star quality during the operations management classes he taught at West Point, where students learned things like business operations strategies, product quality control and scheduling of workloads.
"He was a self-motivating kid who wasn't shy about coming in after class to ask more specifics about a project that was due," McCarthy said. "It might have been due a month from then, but he'd be champing at the bit to get it in early."
Hill could have taken a scholarship from other schools. As things stand, with his new status under the Army's program, he'll be forced to pay back part of the free tuition he received at West Point while majoring in systems engineering.
But his education continues.
Hill is currently undergoing his basic officer's training to attain first lieutenant.
His winter was spent primarily at Fort Benning in Georgia, learning to build homes and other infrastructure that could be of use in the field. He was part of two platoons of 70 officer trainees like himself, each of whom would take turns leading the morning's physical training regimen.
Beyond learning to build things, part of Hill's instruction was on implementing explosive devices like C-4 plastique. There were combat exercises, using blank ammo rounds and paintball guns, where troops would have to carry out missions in the rural Georgia terrain.
Hill was on the receiving end of some paintball blasts.
"It didn't really hurt," he says.
Later on, they put their newly-learned construction techniques to use in Missouri, building homes for Habitat for Humanity.
All the while, Hill attempted to adjust to his new offseason schedule. While playing baseball at West Point, he'd had the opportunity to work out regularly on the mound. Not as much now that he's in active Army service.
"I'm a little behind in my throwing," he said. "I didn't really start throwing until early February, where normally I'd have been doing it just after Christmas."
The Mariners are eager to see how Hill follows up his short rookie season, in which he went 1-3 with an 0.51 earned-run average in 18 outings while being broken in as a reliever. He struck out 45 batters and walked only nine in 35 innings.
Whether Hill remains a starter, as he did while breaking or tying 46 school and league records at Army, or moves into relief will depend on how well he hones his change-up and curveball to go with a high-80s fastball.
"I'm definitely a finesse pitcher," he says, chuckling.
McCarthy says military officials hope that Hill can use some of that finesse as a recruiter to help bolster Army ranks. They all remember the public relations coup that former NBA star David Robinson was for the U.S. Navy in the 1990s.
And even if Hill and others in the fledgling program don't become megastars like Robinson, the Army figures using pro athletes as recruiters can't hurt enlistment at a time when the military isn't the most popular career move.
For now, at least, the military bug seems to be spreading in Hill's family. His younger brother, Carl Lee, 18, is in ROTC training at Virginia Tech.
But Hill says that, in the end, it's really all about choice. The choice to pursue a military career, reap its rewards and accept the consequences.
Hill knows all about Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinals safety killed by friendly fire while serving with the Army Rangers in Afghanistan. He knows that other athletes, like those in the Navy or Air Force, won't get the same chance as he did. Knows that, if not for a God-given ability to throw a baseball, he could be on the receiving end of buddy e-mails from the U.S.
"If they said I had to go, then I'd go, no doubt," he says. "But the people that I know over there support me 100 percent and want me to do this. They told me if I got this opportunity I should jump at it.
"That's what I'm doing. If, down the road, I'm needed someplace else, I'll do that, too."
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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