MLB phenom highlights military academies’ inconsistent policy

He is the greatest show in baseball.

He is the Dwight Gooden of 1984.

He is the Kerry Wood of 1998. 

He is the Stephen Strasburg of 2010.

He is Paul Skenes, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ phenom.

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The 21-year-old has made two big-league starts, and already has us scrambling to make sure we clear space on our calendars.

Skenes is that electrifying, striking out 18 batters in just 10 innings, lighting up the radar gun with 19 pitches clocked at 100 mph or higher. In his most recent start, he pitched six no-hit innings at Wrigley Field, striking out the first seven Chicago Cubs he faced.

And, to think, we came terrifyingly close to completely missing the show.

Skenes, you see, was more interested in serving his country than thrilling baseball fans across the world.

He chose to attend the Air Force Academy after being a two-way star at El Toro High School in Lake Forest, California, the same school as MLB stars Nolan Arenado and Matt Chapman. He had two uncles who served in the Navy and one in the Coast Guard. When he was trying to choose a college, it came down to two schools: the Air Force Academy and the Naval Academy.

Skenes, 6-foot-6, wanted to be an F-16 pilot.

He was the model cadet for two years, loved anything and everything about the academy, and cried when he informed his coach, Mike Kazlausky, that he needed to transfer after his sophomore season. If he stayed, he would have been forced to graduate from the academy and may not have been able to start his baseball career until serving five years of active duty.

So, he transferred to LSU, became the No. 1 pick in the country, received a $9.2 million signing bonus, and now has the baseball world fixated on him.

‘It’s amazing how his life would have been a lot different and our exposure to him in the big leagues would have been a lot different,’ Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said, “had he stayed at the academy.

“It makes you wonder how many other 100 mph arms are in the academy that we should have found.’

It also makes former St. Louis Cardinals reliever Mitch Harris, who in 2015 became the first Naval Academy graduate to appear in the major leagues in 100 years, scream to the heavens.

But there is no consistent policy when it comes to the cadets and professional sports.

One may get the option to spend four years at one of the service academies and postpone their active duty, while the next will be required to immediately serve in the military.

Look around.

There’s Griffin Jax, the first Air Force Academy graduate to reach the big leagues, who spent five games in the minors before being required to report to Cape Canaveral, Florida, for active duty in 2017. He thought he wouldn’t be back to pitching until 2019, but after six months was accepted into a program that allowed airmen to train for the Olympics. He got back to baseball in 2018 and made his big-league debut in 2021, currently a captain in the Air Force Reserves and a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins.

Noah Song graduated from the Naval Academy, spent three years in flight training school, and now is a pitcher in the Boston Red Sox organization.

And this past week, outfielder Jacob Hurtubise was called up to make his major-league debut with the Cincinnati Reds, becoming only the second graduate from West Point to reach the big leagues.

Who’d ever imagine the military academies would be a pipeline for major-league talent and just how many more potential major-league players are at the Air Force Academy, Naval Academy and West Point on Armed Forces Weekend?

‘Most of these guys want to serve their country or they wouldn’t have gone there in the first place,’ Harris told USA TODAY Sports. ‘They want to represent our academies. They want to represent the Armed Forces. But if an opportunity comes to play pro sports, too, why can’t we figure something out where both can be possible?

‘Everyone that goes to a service academy knows what we’re committed to, and we want to serve and fulfill our commitment. But the chance of being in the big leagues is so very small. You feel for those guys. It would be nice for the Department of Defense to figure it out for the men and women who want to do both if the opportunity presents itself.’

Certainly, none of the service academy graduates had a major league career on their mind or they likely would never have gone to the academies, knowing that there is a five-year commitment.

Hurtubise took advantage of a new policy in 2019 that gives the Defense Secretary the power to allow academy graduates to delay their active duty service commitment for a professional sports career.

He still will have to serve five years, but for now, it’s being delayed until his baseball career is over.

‘All we have to do now is have proof of a professional contract,’ Hurtubise said, ‘and just promote positive media relations for the military. So, I’m supposed to do five years of active duty when I’m done playing. I don’t know in what capacity. I’d love to be a coach at West Point … Whatever capacity they want. It doesn’t necessarily have to be on the front lines.’

If the government decides that all graduates can delay their military service until their professional careers are complete, they could have a huge boon in recruiting the most talented student-athletes in this country.

‘The academies take pride in having good sports programs,’ Hurtubise said. ‘So, it’s going to drive more athletes to come and play there. It’s exciting. I think it’s really going to help grow the number of kids who want to attend a school like that with the opportunity to go pro.

‘It takes special people to be able to go to the academies and want to do something like that. I know if I have the opportunity to do something with the Army, I’d be happy to do it.’

Skenes wishes he had the same opportunity at the Air Force Academy, and would have been graduating with honors alongside his fellow cadets on May 30 at Falcon Field.

‘He didn’t want to leave,’ Kazlausky told the Times-Picayune. ‘The Department of Defense at the time could not come up with a great solution for Paul to be able to be a professional athlete right after his junior year. …

‘He will serve his country in some manner moving forward. It’s just going to be a matter of when. Paul and I have spoken about that piece. We’ll get him back in the military once his professional playing days are over. It’s a big deal for Paul to be able to serve our country.’

Still, it was a golden opportunity missed by Defense Department. If officials had permitted Skenes to stay at least one more year and still be eligible for the baseball draft, the Air Force Academy would be generating all of this wonderful publicity heading Skenes’ way. Instead, LSU is the benefactor, with casual baseball fans having no idea he was a proud cadet at the academy.

‘We’re missing out on a great opportunity here,’ Harris said. ‘Look at the publicity the Air Force would be receiving if he were able to stay there. Everyone who saw him play there knew they had something special. Couldn’t they have come up with a creative plan that would have allowed him to stay there?’

Can you imagine watching Skenes throw his hat high into the air with the rest of the cadets in their great tradition?

‘It breaks my heart that everyone can’t come together and figure this out,’ Harris said. ‘We’re missing out.’

Heartwarming decision

It was a wonderful display of gratitude and emotion this week when Arizona Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo announced that Cincinnati Reds manager David Bell would be on his All-Star Game coaching staff.

Simply, Lovullo wanted to honor Bell’s younger brother, Mike Bell, who spent 13 years in the Diamondbacks organization, nine has a farm director. He died in 2021 at the age of 46, just two months after being diagnosed with kidney cancer.

‘I just wanted to honor Mike the best way I could,’ Lovullo said. ‘It just makes so much sense for me personally and professionally to ask David to join us. And it’s an honor for me to have him and be able to share with the world this great baseball story.

‘This is a great moment for baseball and it’ll be a lot of fun for me to sit next to him and tap into the Bell family a little bit more.’

Lovullo also played with David Bell on the 1995 Triple-A Buffalo Bisons team. Bell’s father, Buddy, was a coach and mentor in Cleveland when Lovullo was a minor-league manager.

Now, they can all be together at the All-Star Game in Texas where Buddy Bell was a four-time All-Star and six-time Gold Glove winner for the Rangers.

‘Mike would be happy and proud,’ said David Bell, fighting off tears. ‘What I’ve come to realize is I was the older brother, but I learned so much more about life and baseball and leadership through Mike than he learned through me. And I learned a lot about how to treat people, a lot about how to be vulnerable. A lot about leadership and what that really means.

‘I’m grateful for every minute I had with him and to be able to still share those moments in conversations with people that I know meant the world to him is really special.’

Around the basepaths

– While Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner said he’s interested in engaging in contracts talks with right fielder Juan Soto and agent Scott Boras to avert free agency, with Soto saying he’s willing to listen, the cold truth is there is absolutely zero chance Soto will sign before he’s a free agent.

He turned down a 15-year, $440 million contract offer from the Washington Nationals two years ago. So, what’s another six months? Soto can keep on hitting, sit back, and watch the bidding war emerge between the Yankees and Mets.

Let’s see who blinks first and gives him $500 million.

– It’s absolutely stunning what Shota Imanaga is doing this year for the Cubs.

53⅔ innings
40 hits
5 earned runs
9 walks
58 strikeouts
0.84 ERA.

It’s the lowest ERA by any pitcher in his first nine career starts in baseball history, eclipsing Fernando Valenzuela’s 0.91 mark.

Pretty good considering there weren’t many who believed Imanaga would be anything more than a No. 4 starter this season.

– Atlanta is keeping a close eye on Tampa Bay Rays veteran starter Zach Eflin if they decide they need another starter at the trade deadline.

– Baseball scouts expect the first eight picks in this year’s draft to be college players, led by outfielder Charlie Condon, who was actually a walk-on at the University of Georgia before becoming the school’s all-time home run hitter.

– While the Mets say they still have intentions of being a playoff team this year, GMs remain convinced the Mets will still make first baseman Pete Alonso and DH J.D. Martinez available in talks before the July 30 trade deadline.

– One of the primary reasons for today’s lack of offense, according to a high-ranking team executive, isn’t being nearly talked about enough.

‘It’s the scouting and information we have now,’ he said. ‘By the time a guy is at (Class) AA, we already know all of his tendencies and holes where he can be pitched. The information we have with reports and videotapes and the defensive positioning has never been greater. So you combine that with the unbelievable quality of pitching, no wonder guys are just trying to launch balls now, knowing you get paid for slug now, not making contact.’

– Not to take anything away from the Philadelphia Phillies’ sizzling start, but do you realize they haven’t played a team with a winning record since March 31 when they opened the season against Atlanta?

They don’t play another team with a current winning record until June 3 when they face the Milwaukee Brewers in a three-game series at Citizens Bank Park.

– Zack Greinke, 40, still is not ready to call it quits. He faced Arizona Diamondbacks’ rehabbing hitters at their complex this past weekend.

‘I was trying to get as good as I could at golfing the past two months,’ Greinke told the Arizona Republic, ‘and I was like, ‘Why am I trying to be a pro golfer when I’m already kind of a pro baseball player?’ So, I figured I’d throw a little and see how it goes.’

– Kirk Gibson returned to Chase Field in Phoenix as the Detroit Tigers’ color commentator this weekend for the first time since he was fired as the Arizona Diamondbacks manager in 2014.

Gibson laughed when he was told that he was the answer to a trivia question about post-game clubhouse regulations.

Reporters used to be allowed immediately into clubhouses after games, but the Tigers implemented a 10-minute ‘cooling off’ period acting upon Gibson’s request in 1987.

Gibson simply thought it was unfair for reporters to see their raw emotions so quickly after games.

‘It’s good to be remembered for something,’ Gibson said, laughing.

– Milwaukee Brewers veteran starter Wade Miley, 37, on undergoing his first elbow surgery last week:

‘It kind of sucks. If I knew it would hurt like this, I probably would have just retired. Seriously. The first few days have been brutal. I won’t have any more, unless I’m about to die, and they’ve got to do it.’

– Chris Sale pitched only 151 innings for the Boston Red Sox from 2020-23.

He already has pitched 49⅔ innings this season with Atlanta, and has been lights out, yielding just two earned runs in 25 innings his last four starts while striking out 34 batters. Atlanta is 6-2 this season in Sale’s starts.

‘I’m obviously happy with where we’ve been and where we are,’ Sale told reporters, ‘but we have a long way to go. I’m appreciative of where we are, but it’s nothing to hang your hat on quite yet.’

– Cardinals rookie shortstop Masyn Winn showed his respect for Los Angeles Angels manager Ron Washington, asking to meet him, shake his hand, and even getting an autograph.

Winn told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he wanted to meet him as one of the few Black players in baseball while Washington is one of only two Black managers.

What was the best advice he received from Washington?

‘Never be afraid to ask questions,’ Winn said, ‘and never be too good to get an answer you don’t like.’

– Tigers manager A.J. Hinch, upon seeing Diamondbacks radio analyst Tom Candiotti, immediately recalled his major-league debut: April 1, 1998.

Hinch was the starting catcher for the Oakland A’s and he was given the responsibility of catching Candiotti, a knuckleballer, and a nightmare for catchers.

The pitcher he faced that day?

Boston Red Sox Cy Young winner Pedro Martinez.

‘Welcome to the big leagues,’ Hinch said, laughing.

– The Washington Generals may have a better shot of winning a game against the Harlem Globetrotters than the Minnesota Twins ever do of beating the Yankees.

Since 2002, the Twins are 44-120 against the Yankees. Really.

– San Diego Padres starter Yu Darvish needs just one more victory to reach 200 between his Major League and Nippon Professional Baseball leagues career. Only Hiroki Kuroda (203) and Hideo Nomo (201) have more combined victories in the two leagues.

– Free-agent outfielder Tommy Pham kept trying to tell teams they were missing out by not signing him.

Well, the Chicago White Sox finally listened, and man, are they reaping the benefits.

Pham is hitting .346 with a .886 OPS in the 20 games he has played, with the White Sox going 11-10 since he signed compared to 3-22 before his arrival.

The White Sox could receive a nice prospect or two for him plan when they trade him to a contender in July.

– Just two days after Tigers shortstop Javier Baez received a vote of confidence that he wouldn’t be benched, despite having worst on-base percentage (.200), slugging percentage (.222) and OPS (.422) in the big leagues, he responded with a three-hit, five-RBI game.

It hardly justifies his six-year, $140 million contract, with $73 million owed the last three seasons, but who knows, at least now he provides a glimmer of hope.

‘I’m going to keep playing hard,’ Baez said. ‘No excuses.’

– Shohei Ohtani bobblehead dolls given out to the first 40,000 fans at Dodger Stadium are already on eBay with asking prices as high as $5,000.

– New York Mets closer Edwin Diaz has already blown three saves and has given up eight earned runs in seven May appearances.

Certainly, he is not yet the same in his first season returning from his torn patellar tendon knee surgery.

– Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who remade his body during the winter to become leaner and quicker, certainly is seeing the dividends.

He is healthy.

In 2019, he went on the injured list just three games into the season with a strained biceps.

In 2020, he went on the IL after 14 games with a strained hamstring.

In 2021, he went on the IL after 33 games with a strained quad.

In 2022, he went the IL after after 40 games with right ankle inflammation.

In 2023, he went on the IL after 13 games with a strained hamstring.

In 2024, he has 11 homers, 26 RBI, and is perfectly healthy 47 games into the season.

– So what does Washington Nationals outfielder Joey Gallo remember about Phillies star Bryce Harper when they were kids playing on the Vegas Desert Storm traveling team?

‘People were getting Bryce’s autograph at 10 years old,’ Gallo told the Washington Post. ‘I mean, there were crowds surrounding our field when he played. He was huge. … He was like how LeBron was, but for baseball. Really, like, he was this generational, game-changing type of talent.’

– Remember all of the hype about those rookies who were supposed to take baseball by storm this year?

Well, it’s time to slow our rolls, at least for awhile:

Jackson Holliday, Baltimore Orioles: .059, 0 HRs, 1 RBI, .170 OPS (demoted to Triple-A)
Jackson Chourio, Milwaukee Brewers: .226, 5 HRs, 15 RBI, .626 OPS
Wyatt Langford, Texas Rangers: .224, 1 HR, 11 RBI, .588 OPS (injured list)
Colt Keith, Detroit Tigers: .190, 0 homers, 12 RBI, .468 OPS.

The truth is that it hasn’t been a whole lot better for the sophomore players this season, particularly in the National League. Arizona Diamondbacks rookie of the year winner Corbin Carroll is hitting .189 with a .538 OPS while Dodgers center fielder James Outman, who finished third in the voting, was demoted to the minors this week after hitting .147 with a .516 OPS.

There were 17 players who received rookie of the year votes last year, and the only three who are having better seasons are Cincinnati Reds shortstop Elly De La Cruz, Baltimore Orioles shortstop Gunnar Henderson and New York Yankees shortstop Anthony Volpe.

– Just nine months ago, Jurickson Profar was so bad that he was released by the Colorado Rockies.

Today, he’s the MVP of the San Diego Padres, signing a one-year, $1 million contract to replace Juan Soto, and is hitting .325 with seven homers, 30 RBI and a .922 OPS.

Profar and Soto will meet up next weekend in San Diego when the Yankees visit Petco Park.

Follow Nightengale on X: @Bnightengale

This post appeared first on USA TODAY