On May 1, an amendment to a United States Department of Defense policy changed Griffin Jax's life.
The 22-year-old had nearly completed his degree at the U.S. Air Force Academy, after which he would begin his second season in the Minor Leagues with Minnesota. Selected by the Twins in the third round of the 2016 Draft and ranked as the club's No. 30 prospect, Jax sought to become the first Air Force graduate to reach the Major Leagues.
Now that goal had encountered a roadblock.
Upon completing their time at any U.S. military service academy, graduates owed a minimum of two years of active duty but that changed in 2016, just before Jax entered the Draft. The Department of Defense passed a rule that would allow military members who received a professional sports contract to serve their time in the reserves and continue to pursue their athletic careers.
At the time, Jax could not believe his good fortune.
"They said if you get a professional contract and you get drafted, we'll allow you to go play professional sports," he said. "That was really exciting for me at the time because it was right when it needed to be."
Those plans changed after last year's presidential election. Newly appointed Defense Secretary James Mattis reversed the ruling and instituted the two-year service requirement for all new graduates, including those pursuing professional sports careers.
After finishing up at the Air Force in late May, Jax had 60 days of paid leave before he must report on July 29 to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, where he would spend the next 22 months as an acquisitions officer for a missile and satellite launch squadron. His baseball career would have to go on the back burner.
"It was a really hard pill to swallow," Jax said. "I don't want to say that it was like I was lied to, but it was as if they turned their back on me at the last second. But at the same time, I understood the commitment I gave to the academy as soon as I showed up."
With baseball season already well underway, Jax was on the clock. While his fellow graduates embarked on extended vacations or relaxed at home, the right-hander reported to the Twins' training facility in Fort Myers, Florida, to prepare to pitch in the Minors. He made his season debut with Rookie-level Elizabethton on June 26, after which he immediately earned a promotion to Class A Cedar Rapids. Mere hours after his plane landed on July 2, he tossed seven scoreless innings -- allowing three hits, walking one and striking out four -- in his Midwest League debut against Clinton.
| "Everyone has always asked me if I wanted to be in the military and if I wanted to fly planes. But my goal and my dream since I can remember was to play professional baseball, and that's going to stay that way for as long as it can."
Through three starts, Jax sports a 3.12 ERA with 15 strikeouts and only one walk over 17 1/3 frames across two levels. He has impressed his coaches along the way with his work ethic and intense workout practices.
"He's one of the first guys out there getting his arm care work in and getting his pregame work in," Cedar Rapids pitching coach J.P. Martinez said. "He asks good questions, and he takes feedback well. … He has a pretty good feel for what he's doing -- I'd say a little bit more than most guys at this level."
While Jax said knowing his season's end date has felt strange at times, the deadline has changed little about his daily routine with the Kernels.
"There's no accelerated time scale for someone who is only going to be here a month or two," Martinez said, "but we do know if there is a question of if we're going to pull him this inning or that inning, we'll try and see a little bit more what he can do. We'll give him more of a chance to work out of some jams because he may not have that opportunity in a month."
The Twins have expressed their support to Jax, even discussing an arrangement whereby he could make the roughly three-hour drive from the base to Fort Myers on weekends to work out and occasionally pitch on Saturdays.
Either way, Jax plans to continue his ascent toward the big leagues as soon as he returns. Though he has known since enrolling in the Air Force Academy that his path toward the Majors would feature more obstacles than many of his peers, that has remained his primary destination.
"Everyone has always asked me if I wanted to be in the military and if I wanted to fly planes," Jax said. "But my goal and my dream since I can remember was to play professional baseball, and that's going to stay that way for as long as it can."
For now, the son of former NFL linebacker Garth Jax is focused on learning as much as he can before leaving Iowa to head south.
"I'm just trying to be as big of a sponge as I can be here," Jax said. "When I'm gone for the next 22-ish months, I can keep polishing those things. When I show back up, I'll be even better than I am today.
"I'm going to give my time to the military and serve my time there, and as soon as I'm done I'm going to come back and hopefully make a career out of baseball."