Air Force grad gives academies MLB trifecta

June 9th, 2021

There are unique challenges for amateur baseball players with dreams of reaching the Major Leagues after playing their college ball for one of the five major military academies in the United States: the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.; the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.; the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.; the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.; and the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y. Depending on military service requirements, it can be a stop-and-go process.

On Tuesday night at Target Field, right-hander made history by becoming the first graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy to appear in an MLB game. Jax made his debut in the top of the ninth inning of the Twins’ 8-4 loss to the Yankees, giving up homers to Gary Sánchez and Miguel Andújar but also picking up his first Major League strikeout by fanning Tyler Wade in between.

Jax follows a handful of other players to reach the Majors after attending the three service academies that play Division 1 baseball. On Aug. 12, 2017, another right-handed pitcher, Chris Rowley, made his MLB debut with the Blue Jays, becoming the first graduate of West Point to reach the big leagues in almost 100 years (outfielder Walt French played for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1923-29). He started against the Pirates at Rogers Centre and went five strong innings. He gave up one run on five hits, walking one and striking out three in a 7-2 Toronto victory.

Rowley originally signed with the Jays in 2013, but served in the Army from 2014-15, and picked up his baseball career with Toronto again beginning in ’16. He struggled after that and was placed on waivers, being claimed by the Rangers and later signing with the Padres, but not finding success with either organization. Rowley tried to catch on with the Twins last year, but never appeared in a professional game for the organization with the Minor League season canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Three players drafted out of the Naval Academy have reached the Majors: Nemo Gaines, Mitch Harris and Oliver Drake. Gaines graduated from Annapolis in 1921, and that same year pitched in four games for the Washington Senators. The left-hander threw 4 2/3 scoreless innings, but that was the extent of his Major League career.

Harris was selected in the 13th round of the 2008 Draft by the Cardinals. He spent the next five years in military service, after which he resumed his pitching career. The right-hander did well, moving up through the Minors quickly and reaching the Majors on April 25, 2015. He appeared in relief of Adam Wainwright that day, and in all, appeared in 26 games for St. Louis that season, posting a 3.67 ERA over 27 innings.

About a month after Harris reached the Majors, his former Navy teammate, Drake, made his MLB debut on May 23 for the Orioles. He did not have a service requirement because he had gone to the Naval Academy prep school and was Draft-eligible after his sophomore season. Baltimore selected him in the 43rd round in 2008. He pitched three scoreless innings in his debut, a 1-0, 13-inning loss to the Marlins. In 13 relief innings that year, the right-hander had a 2.87 ERA.

Beginning in 2018, Drake became a journeyman reliever, going on to pitch for a record five teams in the same season -- the Brewers, Indians, Angels, Blue Jays and Twins. The Rays purchased Drake’s contract from the Twins prior to the ’19 season, and he’s been with Tampa Bay since then.

No one has yet reached the Majors from either the Coast Guard Academy or the Merchant Marine Academy, though one player has been drafted from the Coast Guard Academy -- the Nationals selected right-hander Cory Anderson in the 43rd round in 2006, but he never appeared in a Major League game.