April 12, 2006
It was the first time he'd stepped onto the diamond at Fifth Third Field, and while he relished everything he saw -- the big scoreboard, the lush outfield, the waiting seats that would hold tonight's season-opening crowd of some 8,700 -- he wasn't overwhelmed like some Dayton Dragons new arrivals.
"I guess you could say I've been around the block," Josh Holden said Tuesday. "I've experienced a lot."
He's played in the Superdome, the Liberty Bowl and in front of almost 80,000 at the Meadowlands for the Army-Navy football game a few years ago.
But don't think he's dissing this Dragons experience. Quite the opposite.
In fact, it's because of a fairy-tale sequence of events that he's here. He could be fighting in Iraq right now or even getting ready for a second tour.
And he's had some mixed feelings about that, too. Especially since many of his West Point teammates are at war and a few friends have been injured and killed in action.
The Dragons new outfielder is a 25-year-old lieutenant in the U.S. Army and a pioneer in the marriage of sports and service.
He's the first -- and only -- person using the Army's ground-breaking Alternate Service Option, which allows officers and enlisted soldiers to serve their country and be pro athletes simultaneously.
The policy went into effect just two years ago and wasn't around when Holden came out of Hudson High with first-team All-Ohio football honors -- he rushed for 2,005 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior -- and chose West Point over Miami University football and the New York Yankees, who made him a late-round draft pick.
Playing two sports at Army, he won the Patriot League batting title as a junior (.398) and was a two-year starter at running back, rushing for 153 yards and three touchdowns against Holy Cross and 151 yards and two scores against Houston.
And yet it's the annual Army-Navy games -- one at Giants Stadium, the rest in Philadelphia -- that he remembers most:
"After the game, each team sings its alma mater while the other stands next to them. Senior year is special because you know afterward, you have a higher calling."
Holden's plan was to become an Army Ranger, but while at Fort Sill, Okla., a friend told him about a Cincinnati Reds tryout in Tulsa.
There, he so impressed Reds scouts that he was offered a contract over 149 others. He took a one-month leave to play 26 games in the rookie Gulf Coast League, then figured baseball was done, because West Point grads must serve five years of active duty.
But with almost 40 percent of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan being reservists, National Guard and second-tour regular units, the Army has taken innovative measures to bolster recruiting.
The Alternative Service Option requires athletes to first do two years of active duty -- Holden was an artillery officer -- serve six years in the Selected Reserve, reimburse the government for education and be subject to call-up at any time.
Thanks to that, Holden played at Billings, Mont., last season and now is in Dayton, where he'll also do some Army recruiting.
"Initially I worried about this," he said. "I thought I belonged with my friends in Iraq. But they've said I can do more for the Army by doing this. It's a way to let people know the Army has special people."
People who not only have been around the block, but can get around the basepaths.