Hill prepared to change gears

From starter to reliever or from ballplayer to second lieutenant

(Everett AquaSox)

By Kevin T. Czerwinski / MLB.com | September 7, 2007 4:00 AM

EVERETT, Wash. -- Gary Wheelock took a step back and let the ball fly. It came down some 40 yards away on this sunny Friday afternoon before one of the Everett AquaSox retrieved it and brought it back to the club's pitching coach.

But Wheelock wasn't giving any pitching instruction. Rather, he was tossing a pink and black football, serving as the official quarterback in an impromptu game of three-on-three between some of the AquaSox. It was a spirited game with lots of shouting and plenty of laughs, during an afternoon seemingly better suited to a local park than to Everett Memorial Stadium.

Southpaw Nicholas Hill, a seventh-round selection by Seattle during the First-Year Player Draft in June, was one of the players participating. Hill hauled in several of Wheelock's passes and even batted one down -- yes, he did so with his left hand -- before the game broke up a few minutes later. He mopped his brow with the edge of his T-shirt and smiled as he walked off the field, pleased with his efforts on both sides of the ball.

"This was fun conditioning today," said Hill, who added that he had no fear of getting hurt.

The prospect of getting hurt while tossing a football around surely seemed a bit comical to Hill, considering where he's come from and where he could someday be headed.

You see, Hill didn't take the traditional route to professional baseball, getting drafted out of high school or out of one of the baseball factory schools down south. He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, graduating this year with the rank of second lieutenant in the Army.

While many of his fellow graduates and former teammates are either training for active duty or have already served tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, Hill spent the summer in the Pacific Northwest honing his skills on the mound.

Once Hill signed with Seattle he became eligible for the Army's alternative-service option. That means that instead of having the usual five-year hitch after graduating from the Point, he will be on active duty for four years and in the reserves for six, being stationed as a recruiter wherever the Mariners happen to send him.

"This is an unbelievable dream for me," said Hill, an engineering major who ironically would have been stationed at Fort Lewis in nearby Tacoma had he not chosen to sign a professional contract. "The Army is very generous to present me with this opportunity. And at any time, if they told me I couldn't play, I wouldn't.

"I know people who I went to school with and played with are thrilled for me and would be upset if I didn't take advantage of this opportunity. I'm a pretty lucky guy."

Hill left the team last week a few days before the season ended. He was headed home to Tennessee for some down time before going to Fort Benning in Georgia for officer training courses. He'll work out as often as he can this winter and expects to have completed the courses in time to report to Spring Training next year.

Based on what he's shown so far, the Mariners will be fortunate to have him in the fold. It was a bit of a gamble drafting a player from a military academy, but Hill has made that gamble pay off. A starter in college -- he holds or shares 46 records in the Patriot League and at West Point -- Hill has adapted well to life in the bullpen.

He had a 0.51 ERA in 32 innings, striking out 45 and walking only nine. The opposition hit .197 against him and he closed out the season on a 20 1/3 innings scoreless streak, one that included five shutout innings at Eugene on Aug. 19. He fanned 10 in that game, earning Northwest League Pitcher of the Week laurels in the process.

"He works hard, and he's gotten better since he's been here," Wheelock said. "His changeup is probably his best pitch. It's his strikeout pitch. He's not really overpowering, but he has three good pitches. He keeps his fastball down, and he has a sharp breaking ball.

"And the maturity is the one thing that sets him apart. You can tell he's very focused and serious. Not that we don't have other players who work hard and are serious, but he does kind of stick out. You could tell he's not out there to screw around."

Wheelock said Hill might very well end up starting again next season but was quick to point out that he had no such information. It was just a guess, but he did offer that recommendation to Seattle management.

Wherever they wind up putting Hill, he'll likely be a good fit. He's got good training, on the field and away from it. And he's never too far removed from life at West Point, even if he's traded his military uniform for one that says Everett.

"I've always wanted to do this," he said. "And I'm very fortunate that I'm allowed to keep playing."

Kevin Czerwinski is a 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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