From Army to AFL for Mariners' Hill
West Point graduate shows calm under pressure on mound
PEORIA, Ariz. -- For most of the players in the Arizona Fall League, Veterans Day doesn't hit home quite the way it does for Mariners Minor League pitcher Nick Hill.
Just a few months after completing his two-year active duty commitment with the U.S. Military Academy, the left-hander's mind could wander more than usual on Wednesday when he and the Peoria Javelinas play the Peoria Saguaros in an 11:35 a.m. PT game at Peoria Stadium.
As some of his best friends fight wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, putting their lives on the line every day, Hill is living his dream of playing baseball.
But out of sight does not mean out of mind.
"I keep in touch with so many of the guys that I went through school with," Hill said. "A lot of them have been, or still are, overseas. I think about them every day. They are fighting for our freedom."
Thanks to a policy adopted by the Army in 2005 called an "alternative service option," Hill and other West Point and ROTC graduates with professional sports contracts are allowed to play immediately after graduation instead of being committed to traditional active-duty service.
After graduation in May 2007, Hill remained at West Point in the athletic department, assembling recruiting material for prospective cadet-athletes. He received a leave of absence in the spring and summer to play for the Mariners.
A seventh-round Draft choice in '07, Hill has advanced through the farm system, starting at Class A Everett that summer. He had stints with Class A High Desert and Double-A West Tennessee in '08 and played for West Tennessee again this past season.
He had a 5-6 record and 3.10 ERA in 36 appearances -- including nine starts and three complete games -- for the Diamond Jaxx and pitched one inning for Triple-A Tacoma in the Pacific Coast League playoffs.
Partly because he missed six weeks of the '09 season while completing his active duty assignment at West Point, and partly because the Mariners have high regard for him, he was one of seven Seattle prospects invited to play for the Javelinas in the AFL.
He went into Wednesday's game with a 0-1 record and 8.16 ERA in five starts, striking out 11 and walking eight in 14 1/3 innings.
Hill was a natural AFL invitee, said Pedro Grifol, the Mariners' farm director, and the high numbers are not at all discouraging to the organization.
"To start off, his stuff is pretty good," Grifol said. "He has average to above-average stuff on four pitches, and when you add all the intangibles, like his makeup, composure on the mound and discipline, it makes everything above average."
Hill was far above average during his senior season at Sullivan (Tenn.) East High School, going 10-1 with a 0.78 ERA. But he was not selected in the First-Year Player Draft.
He was, however, lured to West Point and said he fell in love with the place the second he visited the campus along the scenic Hudson River in New York. So the 4.0 GPA high school student accepted the athletic scholarship presented to him and has absolutely no regrets.
"I am the person I am today because of the people there," he said. "They do so many things for you every day and work with you in every aspect of life to become a better person."
Hill, indeed, credits his West Point experience for his calm under pressure.
"His presence and demeanor are off the chart," Grifol said. "I don't what know what kind of emotions are going through him on the mound when he's in a tough situation, but as far as we can see, he seems to handle things pretty well internally."
Hill became perhaps the best baseball player the Academy has produced. He holds the school record for wins (33), strikeouts (336) and shutouts (7). The Red Sox selected him in the 47th round of the First-Year Player Draft after his junior season, but military regulations prevented him from turning pro until after his four-year commitment.
Then the Mariners made him their seventh-round choice in '07.
Now, with his active military obligations behind him, Hill can concentrate on becoming a better pitcher. The experience in the Arizona Fall League has given him a chance to measure his talent against some the game's best prospects.
"Just being here is a great challenge," the 24-year-old said of the highly regarded league where more than 1,700 alumni have reached the big leagues.
"Any time you get selected to play in something as prestigious as this, it's exciting," he added.
Although it's practically unheard of for a West Point graduate to play in the Major Leagues, Hill hopes to use his Academy experience to lead the way. He learned about composure and discipline, two things that could be instrumental in the Tennessee native fulfilling his dream.
"He's a guy who we believe is a prospect and are counting on him doing big things for us," Grifol said. "He's left-handed, and there are not many of those in the organization, and he can start and relieve. He's done both."
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.