White trying to be all he can be with Pirates
First Lieutenant in Army returns to Class A to pursue dream
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The Pirates' Minor League system contains former high school phenoms, former collegiate All-Americans and former Major League players.
Then there is Cole White, whose journey has spanned five states, three forts and two different worlds.
"I go from playing professional baseball to riding on a tank," White said. "Kind of two extremes, but all in all it's been a great experience."
White returned to the State College Spikes, the Pirates' Class A short-season affiliate, on June 21. The move came two years after White's first stint with the Spikes, when he left the club because the Army revised its interpretation of the U.S. Department of Defense Alternative Service Option.
Now the 25-year-old is back at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, where he debuted last Tuesday in right field. The Pirates' 42nd-round pick in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft has been out with back spasms since, but is nevertheless pleased to be back on the diamond.
"It's very rare that you get a second shot at pursuing your dream," White said. "Ever since I can remember, I wanted to play professional baseball. And having it kind of pause for a while, not knowing if I was going to get back to the game, it definitely put doubts on if I was ever going to get to put a Major League uniform on again. And just putting it on and playing and doing what I love, I'm just very fortunate to have that."
White completed 24 months of active duty after graduation before requesting an early release from his five-year commitment to the Army. He is now on inactive reserves.
Feeling that he "needed to do something" after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks during his junior year of high school, White eventually turned down Texas Tech and several junior colleges in favor of the Army. Following 21 games with the Spikes in the summer of 2008, he then went to West Point, N.Y., Fort Sill in Oklahoma, Fort Knox in Kentucky and Fort Hood in Texas.
The only member of White's family with any military experience is his grandfather on his mother's side, Michael Carroll, who was in the Navy during World War II.
"My dad was real proud of Cole going into the military, and they had a conversation when he was back in high school, but nothing heart to heart," said Anne Phillips, White's mother.
On the surprise of her son's decision, Phillips added, "That whole thing was just kind of new to all of us."
Situations like White's have drawn attention in the past, most notably when the Detroit Lions drafted linebacker Caleb Campbell out of the Army in the NFL Draft in April 2008. Other service academies saw this as a recruiting tool, since Campbell could have skipped a two-year active duty requirement because of his "exceptional skills" as part of the Alternative Service Option.
The Army revised its interpretation that July, and Campbell was forced back to service one day before he was supposed to begin training camp with the Lions. Two years later, Campbell now has a chance to make the Lions' roster as a free agent.
In baseball, Chris Simmons, a catcher the Pirates selected one round before White in the 2008 Draft, is currently serving in Iraq. Nick Hill, a 2007 Army graduate, is currently pitching for the Mariners' Double-A affiliate in West Tennessee. And Milan Dinga, who pitched his way up to the Angels' Triple-A affiliate in Salt Lake in 2008, is back at West Point rehabbing an injured shoulder.
Dinga, who also graduated from the Army in 2007, regularly checks in to see how his former teammates are doing, adding that many of his friends serving in Iraq will call him for updates.
"It's pretty cool to see both worlds," Dinga said. "But it helps you keep everything in perspective. Baseball is just a game. If you go 0-for-3 or 0-for-4, it's not the end of the world."
His former teammate knows that, and White wouldn't be back in State College if he felt his baseball journey would not go any further.
White, a First Lieutenant who still owes the Army three years of service, hit .338 and had a 17-game hitting streak in his first stint with the Spikes. He's hoping he can pick up right where he left off and become familiar with even more states, this time on the road up to Pittsburgh.
"If I didn't think that I had the ability to make it to the big leagues, I wouldn't be here right now -- I would have continued with my five-year commitment into the Army," White said. "But I think being here and having a little bit of success in the small amount of time that I played two years ago, and seeing really what I want to do on a day-to-day basis, playing professional baseball, you just can't hardly beat it. I think as long as I stay healthy and work hard, if you can swing it, you can swing it, and the ultimate goal is to make it to the big leagues."
Matt Fortuna is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.