Navy Pitcher Awaits the M.L.B. Draft, Weighing Fastballs and Flight Training

Noah Song, a rare military academy baseball prospect, was named as one of four finalists for the Golden Spikes Award, given to the nation’s top amateur player. 

Noah Song, a rare military academy baseball prospect, was named as one of four finalists for the Golden Spikes Award, given to the nation’s top amateur player. Credit Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox, via Getty Images

By Billy Witz

  • June 3, 2019

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — For the 15 to 20 scouts who routinely turned out to watch Noah Song pitch against college batters this season, there was a lot to like: a fastball that routinely crackled above 95 miles per hour, sharp improvement in his curveball, and plenty of room for growth in his sinewy 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame.

But as Major League Baseball’s teams prepare for the amateur draft, which begins Monday, there is one additional variable to account for when it comes to Song: he pitched at the United States Naval Academy.

This means that teams not only must project what Song might become as a pitcher. (Most have him pegged as a second- or third-round talent.) They also have a more uncertain calculation to make about an investment that could run above $1 million: Because of Song’s military commitment, just when might he be able to pitch for them?

“It’s complicated,” said one team’s amateur scouting director, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to reveal his team’s evaluation of Song. “On most guys it’s about talent, it’s about performance, athleticism, makeup — things like that. With Noah, you have to take into consideration: how long is he going to be away?”At this point all anyone — including Song — can say with much certainty is that he will report Nov. 1 to Pensacola, Fla., to begin training as a Naval flight officer, and that after two years he can petition to serve the remainder of his five-year military commitment as a reservist — a status that might more easily allow him to pursue a career in professional baseball.

How an athlete’s duty in the military plays out depends on a number of factors, including whether the United States is at war and political considerations far up the chain of command. And Song knows as well as anyone that those can change on a whim. The latest example came last month, when President Trump, unprompted, suggested that athletes in the service academies who had professional ambitions ought to be able to serve once their sports careers are over.

Song, 21, who graduated last week with an engineering degree, is hardly the first star athlete to leave Annapolis with his athletic career in limbo. Roger Staubach won the Heisman Trophy but waited five years to embark on his career as a Dallas Cowboys quarterback. David Robinson was the first overall pick in the N.B.A. draft but served two years in the Navy before joining the San Antonio Spurs.

Song, though, is the rare military academy baseball player with pro prospects. He was named last week as one of four finalists for the Golden Spikes Award, given to the nation’s top amateur player. It was an acknowledgment of a dominant season: an 11-1 record with a 1.44 earned run average and 161 strikeouts and 31 walks in 94 innings.“This is not an everyday occurrence,” Navy Coach Paul Kostacopoulos said. “Noah is really, really good.” Song, RHP, Navy Credit Video by

A Navy graduate has never been drafted higher in baseball’s draft than the 10th round, and the only two who have played in the big leagues are Mitch Harris, a pitcher who spent 2015 with the St. Louis Cardinals after a five-year military commitment, and Nemo Gaines, who pitched four games for the Washington Senators shortly after graduating in 1921. (Oliver Drake, a reliever with the Tampa Bay Rays, left Navy after two seasons.)

“I guess the easy way of saying it is I’m used to my day being planned out by somebody else at this point,” Song said with a smile. “In my mind, I’m not worried about it because I have two Plan As. There’s no such thing as a backup plan for me at this point. Both are fantastic opportunities.”

Not long ago, it was hard to see either one coming.

Song’s arrival at the academy was hardly auspicious. On induction day, when freshmen spend the day getting processed (haircuts, paperwork, uniforms, running shoes and the like), their gear — about 75 pounds stuffed inside white cloth bags — is dumped atop the steps of the dormitory, Bancroft Hall, with their name on it. Their minds overloaded already, the plebes are ordered to hustle to their rooms, change into their new uniforms and organize their belongings.

But Song could not find his bag: another freshman with the same last name had taken it.

The start of baseball practice that September also did not unfold without wrinkles. The 15 pounds Song had gained for baseball disappeared after six weeks of pull-ups, situps, push-ups and conditioning runs. His fastball velocity had dropped several clicks, to 82 miles per hour.

“We were like, ‘Oh, no,” said Bobby Applegate, Navy’s pitching coach.

Steadily, though, Song regained his strength, and by the end of his freshman season had worked his way into the starting rotation. The blossoming on the baseball field continued, even amid the rigors of academy life. Song earned an invitation to the prestigious Cape Cod summer league after his sophomore season and garnered enough attention from pro scouts that he asked them not to draft him unless they were willing to pay him a $1 million bonus: the value he placed on his Navy degree, which he would not have been able to earn if he withdrew from the academy early to chase a pro baseball career.

“In my mind, this had to be an absurd amount of money, something that’s almost unfathomable in order for me to leave,” said Song, who, not surprisingly, went undrafted.

Marc Stein’s Newsletter

Marc Stein has covered Jordan. He’s covered Kobe. And LeBron vs. the Warriors. Go behind the N.B.A.’s curtain with the league’s foremost expert.

His Navy future might now be just as muddy as his baseball options. Exposed to a variety of fields at Navy, Song became enamored with aviation, wanting to pilot helicopters on rescue missions. He was accepted into the exclusive Navy pilot program, but last month he was suddenly dropped from it: at 6-4, he was belatedly informed, he was simply too tall. He was transferred into a flight officer program, which will allow him to serve in helicopters, but not with his hands at the controls.

“It was a rough day when I got the news,” said Song, whose height has not changed since he arrived at Navy. “If they had denied me in the first place it might have made it a little easier. They led me on a little bit and I got really excited for it, but everything happens for a reason.”

That reason may turn out to be baseball. If Song had trained to become a pilot, the Navy would have required a longer service commitment, eight years. As it stands, Song most likely will spend this summer playing minor league baseball before heading to flight officer training.

The team that selects him, though, will have a lot to consider first.

“He’s got major-league weapons,” said one team’s national crosschecking scout, after watching him pitch against Army. “But like a lot of guys he needs to be more consistent.”

Another consideration is that once Song signs a contract, the clock will start on the four years before a team must add him to the 40-man roster or risk losing him in the Rule 5 draft. If Song spends a large portion of that time in active service, the team will get little from him in those years.

And yet Song has gotten where he is without being able to make the same full-throttle commitment to baseball that other top prospects can make. Given the opportunity to focus on the sport, his coach, Kostacopoulos, said: “He’s not just going to flatten out. I think there’s a lot more in him.”