Phillies pitcher Noah Song on both of his journeys and passions

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Noah Song, a pitcher who is perhaps the most intriguing storyline at Phillies camp this spring, didn’t pay much attention to last year’s postseason. He watched one of the World Series games on TV, but felt no particular attraction to either team. Lately, however, he’s been re-watching bits of the Phillies’ unexpected pennant run when he suddenly finds himself sharing a Clearwater clubhouse with these cult South Philly heroes.

Watching movies helps him catch up on a sport he may have missed. Once a particularly promising fourth-round draft pick and most recently a 0-2 lieutenant junior grade in the US Navy, Song is watching to learn more about his new team and teammates, and “because in all honesty,” he said on the Tuesday before a spring training game, “I’m just trying to get back into the pitching experience and mindset of pitching.”

Song never really expected to be drafted. Growing up outside of Los Angeles, he was a misguided Minnesota Twins fan who cheered for Joe Mauer and dreamed of one day playing pro baseball. But he didn’t drop out of high school, and Bobby Applegate, the pitching coach at the Naval Academy, convinced him to come to Annapolis for a visit.

“It kind of changed my perspective on everything,” Song said.

On that visit he stayed in the barracks with a student who wanted to go into aviation. Song had never intended to do military service – nobody in his family had – but it was something he hadn’t considered: “As an 18-year-old, it sounded great. I wanted to fly.”

Which, he was well aware, meant eliminating the possibility of playing professional baseball in the future. A US Naval Academy scholarship carries a commitment of at least five years of military service.

“When you go into the academy, you know you’re going to play baseball for four years and you’re going to finish, and that’s going to be the deal,” he said. “That’s what you signed up for, and that’s what you’re preparing for.”

Then, in the four years that Song worked up for midshipmen and studied to be a Navy pilot, two things happened: he blossomed into a top MLB talent and developed a passionate commitment to the US military.

The confluence of those things — his promise to serve as a pitcher and his commitment to serve — resulted in the Red Sox selecting him in the fourth round of the 2019 draft, lower than his deserved potential but higher than anyone had ever been drafted from the Navy Academy. Song then allowed two runs in 17 innings in short-season A-ball before leaving for flight school in Pensacola, Fla. There, his baseball status in the Red Sox system languished while he was too busy training anti-submarine warfare to mourn that parallel life.

“I think by the time I’m done playing in 2019 you’ll miss it a bit. But the good thing about flight school is that it kept me so busy that I got over it pretty quickly, or at least got distracted by it,” he said. “And then enough time had passed that I was like, well, the game doesn’t really miss me anymore, and I…”

He stopped before saying he didn’t miss it either.

During his first year in the Boston system, Song had applied to have his military service suspended, but it had been denied. During his flight school, he didn’t talk much about his short but promising pro baseball career. He viewed it as irrelevant to the task at hand and a source of potential bias or distraction among instructors.

Occasionally someone would recognize that he was the one being drafted by the Red Sox, but they preferred it when they didn’t have a clue. When you lead a mission, it doesn’t matter who you are or what your name is.

“You have a life outside of baseball,” he decided instead.

*** *** ***

It was in that state — curious about keeping the door open to baseball, Song had made a request to switch his time from active duty to reserve duty after getting his wings, but he was also ready to pursue his future in accepting the Navy – this song barely saw the World Series and was caught completely off guard when the team that won it all in two games in November drafted it in the Rule 5 in December.

After a certain amount of time in a team’s minor league system, players must be included in the 40-man roster. Otherwise, they can essentially be recreated (for a fee) by the other 29 teams. Perhaps the Red Sox didn’t expect anyone to pick a player with a long military commitment ahead of them and left Song unprotected. Phillies President of Baseball Operations Dave Domborowski, who oversaw the Red Sox draft, which included Song, while in Boston, took the opportunity to recapture the talent he had seen promising 3.5 years ago.

Song found out when Applegate, his college coach, texted him the news. A little later, Phillies General Manager Sam Fuld called.

“They were very clear about their expectations, which wasn’t much at the time,” Song said. “They didn’t know if I would come back to play. No one knew if I would come back to play or not.”

Song was due to be deployed to Japan in January. When he was detained, he found that his request had been granted; Instead of six years on active duty, Song is now committed to serving 12 years in the naval reserves, serving one weekend a month and two weeks a year.

And so it went for him at the age of 25 to his first spring training session. He asked his roommate in Pensacola to play catch with him and told his military friends that he was leaving to try to be a pitcher for the Phillies.

One of them showed an image of the Liberty Bell logo. “The Phillies?” they asked.

“Yeah,” Song said, “that’s the Phillies.”

*** *** ***

On Tuesday, Song threw off the mound in Clearwater for the second time since reporting to camp. Dombrowski, Fuld, manager Rob Thomson, other members of the coaching staff and a camera crew from the MLB Network were present to watch. It’s been nearly four years since he pitched competitively. And as much as Song has changed in that time, so has baseball. This spring the rules are different, but more than that, the technology used to track and train pitchers has grown, the analytical evaluation applied to their approach has evolved.

“It feels like I’m going back to a different game, to be honest,” Song said. “I think luckily for me, the military does a good job of adapting you to new situations. That’s one of our great things about resource management: adaptability and flexibility. And I think whether I’m the player I used to be or not, I can adapt to what the game is now.”

But Song isn’t just struggling with his own conditioning – his goal so far is just staying healthy and making progress – and the ability to catch up. He’s also racing against the clock, at least as far as his future with the Phillies is concerned.

Rule 5 selections must spend the entire following season on the team’s 26-man roster or be placed on exceptions. If a player deletes waivers, they revert to the original team. Fielding a pitcher with 17 pro-innings and a three-year gap on his baseball résumé would be unprecedented, especially for a competitive team like the Phillies. Whether some leeway can be found in the small nuances of the rules, as reiterated at The Athletic, remains to be seen. But the Phillies have already bet on Song’s strength and talent — the same things that made him suitable for the Navy — and for now, all they can do is give him one chance.

“If I could physically do both, I would,” Song said of his two paths and passions, which are mutually exclusive at the highest level. And so he’ll turn his attention to baseball for now – a game played by a young man he may already be too late for to achieve what could have been. But he doesn’t see it that way.

“From the day I was drafted, every baseball day after that was just one more day than I was guaranteed. So I was just happy to play every day,” he said.

“I still see it that way to this day.” Phillies pitcher Noah Song on both of his journeys and passions

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