Hill doesn't miss a beat after return from Army

Diamond Jaxx hurler relishes opportunity to play baseball

The Mariners selected Hill in the seventh round of the 2007 Draft. (West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx)

By Bailey Stephens / MLB.com | July 25, 2009 6:00 AM

When he was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the seventh round of the 2007 Draft, pitcher Nick Hill began living his double life.

Two years later, after graduating from West Point, 1st Lt. Nick Hill still juggles two very different lives: one as a professional baseball player for the Southern League's West Tenn Diamond Jaxx and the other as a member of the United States Military.

Hill participates in the Army's "alternative service options" program, which allows soldiers to compete in professional sports in lieu of active duty service on the strong recommendation that they provide a positive image, helping in recruiting and public affairs efforts.

While he constantly walks a tightrope between the two parts of his life, ultimately his commitment to the Army takes precedence -- both legally and personally. That's why when the Army, faced with the continuing pressures of a war in Iraq, called him back from baseball at the end of the 2008 season, he was surprised but not shocked.

"I understood when I went to school there," Hill said. "This is what I committed to. Playing baseball has been icing on the cake. I went there to serve the country and help out, but I've been fortunate to have this opportunity."

But Hill had even more good fortune on the way. With the pressures of the war in Iraq, the policy which allowed athletes to begin playing professionally immediately and forgo any active duty time was reformed. Now service members were required to spend two years on active duty before trading in their remaining time for six years of reserve service and their athletic pursuits.

So, Hill was sent back to West Point where he worked in the athletic department, stuffing recruiting brochures by morning and staying fit with his collegiate club in the afternoons. Lucky for Hill, the Army decided his two years of Minor League service counted as time served. By June, Hill was allowed to take the mound again for West Tenn.

Despite missing Spring Training, the left-hander is not much worse for the wear after a stint in extended spring training. Now in his third season in the Mariners organization, Hill is 3-3 with a 2.58 ERA and is trying to break into the rotation. Hill made his first start of the year for the Diamond Jaxx on July 19 and impressed by tossing six shutout innings and earning a win. While he admits it's been a tough year from a developmental standpoint, Hill is happy to be back.

"It was good being back with the team and the routine and everything and getting a feel for the game," he said. "It's been up and down. I've just been trying to help the team out when I can and just get back in the flow of things."

The Mariners have proven more than willing to wait for their southpaw with an above-average fastball to get back in the groove. And having his organization's support has made all the difference to Hill, who can't imagine undertaking his dual responsibilities without the club's flexibility.

"They knew from day one my situation, and they have always said that [my service] is priority," he said. "I know this is a business, and when I come back I have to perform. It's just a huge help that I don't have to worry about the situation."

As complicated as his own predicament can be at times, Hill won't let himself forget about the situation that many of his West Point classmates are in on the front lines in Iraq.

"It's something that I still think about everyday," said Hill. "Those guys are so close to me. I always wonder if I made the right decision. Really, them being as supportive as they are constantly reinforces that I am doing the right thing."

Support, from all angles of his life, consistently reminds Hill that he has a rare opportunity to pursue baseball as a career.

"Some people have said that it almost gives them something to look forward to, reading about how I'm doing online," he said. "My success is their success as well. It's pretty neat in a way. I really feel like I am doing the right thing and I am having an impact."

Hills said he can already see the positive impact of his connection with the Army in his baseball life.

"I think in the clubhouse, its almost instant respect, which obviously you have to keep earning. But it is respect for all the women and men who are over there serving and knowing what they do and how I am connected to them," he said. "I think [the arrangement with the Army is] working great, and hopefully it will continue. Maybe other people down the road will get a similar opportunity."

Hill's opportunity is subject to end at any point for a variety of reasons, including changing needs overseas. That sobering thought is always in the back of his mind.

"I believe it's unlikely, but it's always a possibility," he said. "I knew that. That's always been priority number one. That's why I went to school there: to be an officer in the Army. Just having an opportunity to play is extra. I can't thank the people enough who have worked for me to have the ability to play. I hope I can make it worthwhile."

Bailey Stephens is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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