Army baseball a brotherhood, but duty comes first
WEST POINT, N.Y. -- There is the college life, and then there's the Army life.
The Army athletic program's recruiting pitch is not what you might imagine, an ego-building exercise in which the incoming freshman is told they can be the team's future. It's just the opposite. West Point cadets are told that they can be part of a glorious tradition that may include intercollegiate sports but extends into life long after graduation.
Duty. Honor. Service. Respect. Army cadets are instilled with a code from the day they enroll, and the precepts of that code are rigorously enforced by their peers and by the expectations of the institution. There are no easy rides at a service academy, and cadets who play sports are just lumping another time-draining responsibility on top of a hectic schedule.
Army baseball coach Joe Sottolano has been at West Point since 1992, and he knows he's dealing with a higher caliber of recruit. He doesn't have to promise playing time or put names on the back of the jersey. Sottolano simply tells players that if they go to West Point, they'll win and they'll leave better men, and his words carry the weight of history.
"What name could trump the one on the front? Whose name are you going to put on the back?" asked Sottolano. "West Point's not for everyone, and that's the beauty of the place. It's for a person who understands they're committing to something bigger than themselves. These guys want to help people. That's why they come here. I believe -- and these guys believe it, too -- that the greatest resources in life are people. And the greatest gift you give people is time. The greatest self-fulfillment that you get in your life is by positively impacting someone else."
Time, if precious everywhere else in the world, is more of an endangered commodity at West Point. Service academies cannot offer athletic scholarships to their recruits, and cadets must carry at least 18 credit hours each semester. Classes begin at 7:30 a.m. and end at 3:00 p.m., and cadets who play sports have to head right to their complex after class.
And practice isn't exactly peaceful. Sottolano's players know they're not supposed to walk between the lines, and they're taught that a messy dugout or locker is seen as a sign of disrespect to themselves and their team. The players may not get home until 7 p.m. and they have to be indoors at 11, and the whole day starts again a scant eight hours later.
"This is a rewarding place, a hard place for all the right reasons," said Sottolano. "If you think about it, what do your parents want from you? They want you to be a responsible person. They want you to be a leader. They want you to be disciplined and a person of high character, morals and integrity. All the things your parents want, this place instills in you 10-fold."
Jon Crucitti, an outfielder on Army's baseball team and a running back on the football team, can speak to that phenomenon. Crucitti, on track to be an infantry officer, interviewed several of the Yankees when New York visited West Point for an exhibition game this spring, and he revealed an interesting truth in an exchange with first baseman Mark Teixeira.
Crucitti, a history major, said his fellow cadets have a brotherhood among them, that they spend their bus trips to games studying for subjects and vigilantly making sure that they're each on the right track. Crucitti had scholarship offers to play sports at some of the schools he now competes against, but he decided early on that he wanted another path.
"Mom was the one I had to sell on this place, because I came here and I fell in love immediately," said Crucitti of West Point. "She just didn't know ... her baby going to a military school during a time of war. She just was unsure. I brought her here, and she saw how excited I got. Not only playing Division I football and baseball; that was a given. That's something she knew I was capable of and knew I wanted to do, but when she saw how I felt about the Army, she was put at ease."
West Point, situated on a strategic bend in the Hudson River, has a history that most schools can't match. The academy is located near the scene of a crucial Revolutionary War battle and was created by legislation signed by President Thomas Jefferson in 1802. American generals like Ulysses Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson all walked the halls of West Point, as did modern-day generals Douglas MacArthur and Norman Schwarzkopf.
The baseball program at West Point hasn't produced a Major Leaguer since the First-Year Player Draft was instituted in 1965, but that's not for lack of talent. Army has won the Patriot League six times -- including last season -- and has seen several cadets taken in the Draft. The lone fly in the ointment, for potential pro athletes, is the academy's five-year military obligation.
Cadets can serve two years of their obligation and then request an early exit, and if they have a professional contract in place, there's a decent chance the rest of their service time will be converted to reserve duty. Perhaps nobody understands those in and outs better than J.T. Watkins, a senior on Army's team last year who is now stationed at Fort Sill.
Watkins, whose father Danny Watkins is an area scout for the Red Sox, said that Army recruits know what they're getting into when they enroll at West Point. Sure, they may have professional ambitions, but they learn to prioritize them. Professional baseball may be their dream, said Watkins, but they learn that serving in the military is an honor.
"I'm glad I made the decision I made," said Watkins last spring. "I have so much respect for this place and what it means and what it stands for and what it does to people. Coming into this place, you're expected to have good ethics and morals. They don't just accept anyone. It's not a factory. It's a place that reaffirms what you know and reinforces your good habits."
Those good habits, drilled down to every man, have found a focus in one of the program's former players. Stephen Reich, revered as one of the greatest pitcher in Army's baseball history, is known around West Point not just for the way he approached the game, but also for the way he loved his teammates and his peers away from the field.
Reich pitched for Team USA at the 1993 World University Games, and he briefly thrived for a low-level affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles after fulfilling two years of his military obligation. But Reich, a helicopter pilot, went on to serve four tours of duty in Afghanistan, and he was killed in action during a mission to rescue a four-man Navy SEAL team in 2005.
That memory -- of a man sacrificing his personal dreams to serve the greater good -- isn't somber at West Point.
Reich, who was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and the Meritorious Service Medal, is celebrated in a way that no winner of the Golden Spikes could be. His No. 20 is still on the Army jersey as a reminder eight years after his final flight, and Army's players learn to look up to his accomplishments in the game and the ideals he lived and died for.
"Steve Reich is what Army baseball should be about," said Watkins. "No. 20 means more to us than just about anything. The way he lived his life and gave his life -- not only for our country but for the other people that serve to protect our country -- it's a very honorable thing. Hopefully I can be half the man Steve was, and I think every one on our team aspires to be the same kind of guy. It's a shame that some other people give their lives for their country and go unnoticed, but I think Stephen's legacy will go on for a long time in Army baseball. I think No. 20's here to stay, and I think guys understand what it means."
Sottolano often talks about the Army Baseball Family -- sometimes shortened to ABF -- and it rings true in Reich's case. The program has unofficially renamed its recreation room "The Reich Room," and the left-hander's pictures and trophies are in full public view every day. And a couple times a year, you might even see Reich's actual family out at a game.
Ray Reich, Stephen's father, comes out to West Point a couple times a season, and he cherishes the way the program has embraced and remembered his son. The elder Reich, slight and bespectacled, resembles a physics teacher way before he reveals his former profession, and he said that his son wasn't raised in a military atmosphere.
Reich raised Stephen to play baseball, but a funny thing happened after his time at West Point. Reich, who had coached his son as a youngster, began to see that the Army was a better fit for him than the sport.
"He knew that he was not a Major League player," said Reich of his son's vision. "He saw that after two summers. He played with Team USA and fit in there very well. He knew what he could do, but when it became apparent he wasn't a Major League starter -- without spending years in the Minors -- I was relieved when the Pentagon said, 'Come back and fly.' I'd rather see him working hard in the Army than working hard for a Major League ballclub. It's what the country needs."
That perspective was entirely borne from the younger Reich's experience at West Point and the lifelong bonds he made with his teammates and coaches. Bob Beretta, executive athletic director at Army, has been on campus for 25 years, starting as an intern in the sports information office and rising to his current role where he oversees the sports information directors.
West Point's charm is its consistency, said Beretta, in the way that each class comes in and maintains the continuity of the institution. First-year cadets come in harried and overstressed, but they learn over time how to handle their responsibilities. And in this place, crucial to the country since before the nation existed, All-American carries a different meaning.
"Every one of them has a piece of Steven Reich in them," said Beretta of the team's current members. "He lives in the lives of all these young men, and Coach makes sure they're aware of his legacy. To this day, they wear his number on their uniform, and it's a fitting tribute. His legacy will never leave West Point. It's what this place has produced for 200 years, and it will produce that type of leader for another 200 years. I think that honor is very fitting in that it doesn't disappear. His memory, his spirit and what he stood for will live forever, because that's what West Point's bedrock foundation is built upon."