Air Force graduate Griffin Jax’s professional baseball career has taken flight again.
The right-handed pitcher was granted a spot in the military’s World Class Athlete Program, which allows active-duty personnel to make training for the Olympics their full-time responsibility.
Jax reported to Minnesota Twins extended spring training April 24 and hopes to be placed on a minor league roster within the next two weeks.
“It was just an awesome feeling hearing, 'yes,' finally,” the 2017 graduate said.
Jax's former classmate Bradley Haslam, whose 44-game hitting streak with the Falcons was the sixth-longest in NCAA history, has also been accepted into the program and has a free agent deal in principle in place with the Philadelphia Phillies though it is not yet official.
For Jax, this is the latest twist in a baseball career full of them. He was drafted in the 12th round by the Phillies out of Cherry Creek High School in 2013, but opted not to sign. He then excelled at Air Force and was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the third round in 2016. That was during the time that the Department of Defense had opened the door for graduates to immediately pursue professional sports after graduation, so Jax gave up his final year of NCAA eligibility and signed for $645,600 though he was obligated to remain at the academy for his senior year.
In April 2017, with Jax a month from graduation, the DoD reversed its policy, again requiring at least two years of active duty before graduates can apply to serve out their time on reserve status for the purpose of playing pro sports. Jax pitched 30 1/3 innings on his leave time last year in the Twins system, posting a sterling 2.61 ERA, before reporting for active duty in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
But just as timing worked for, and then against him at the academy; this time it was again in his favor. The World Class Athlete Program must be tied to an Olympic sport and it only works within a two-year window of those Games. With baseball officially returning for Tokyo in 2020 after an eight-year hiatus, Jax became eligible for the WCAP when the calendar flipped to 2018. He applied in December and waited four months to learn he had been accepted.
The delay, he said, came as the result of legal wrangling. Jax explained that the Air Force does not allow active-duty personnel to have a second stream of income, but baseball rules would not allow Jax to play in the Twins system without being paid. An agreement was ultimately struck that allows the Twins to outfit, feed and cover Jax’s travel, but the Air Force will pay him.
“It was a lot of work to make sure we weren’t breaking any rules,” he said. “It was long and confusing.”
Being accepted into the WCAP will not prevent Jax from applying to be switched to reserve status after two years, so his time in the program could end well before the Olympics. In the meantime he’ll be based out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., but allowed to live wherever the Twins assign him – most likely the High-A team in Fort Myers, Fla., which is where much of his draft class is currently located.
Haslam’s case had a different wrinkle to it. Generally the WCAP has been utilized by competitors in track and field or swimming who can show concrete benchmarks that indicate they are Olympic-caliber athletes. Jax had his high draft position and contract with the Twins to prove his case. Haslam, however, went undrafted when scouts scattered following the DoD reversal last year.
But Haslam gained approval, he learned Tuesday, and found mutual interest with the Phillies to jump-start a professional career.
“I’m beyond excited,” he said. “I’ve worked hard for this. I’m ready to get back in the batter’s box.”
Haslam’s last time in the box came last May when a 90 mph fastball to the face left him with a broken bone and with bruises and visible seam marks for graduation pictures. This was just weeks after scouts bailed following the rules change.
“The timing did not work out well for me,” Haslam said.
Haslam is serving as a contracting officer at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. If all goes as planned with outprocessing and the deal with the Phillies, the third baseman will report to MacDill and begin extended spring training in Clearwater, Fla., just a short drive from where Jax is currently located.