Mike Kazlausky doesn’t mince words when talking about military matters.
While many at the Air Force Academy talk about service and sacrifice, the baseball coach often skips to “killing bad guys.”
And when this academy grad, longtime C-17 pilot who served in war zones and father of a daughter who just completed her freshman year at the academy turns the conversation to policies that would allow service academy athletes to immediately pursue professional sports, he’s just as direct.
“I hope we do revoke it and I hope kids do have an opportunity right out of the chute to play,” he said. “When you’re trying to recruit young men and young women to come to the greatest school in the world, any of the academies, we want the best of the best. The better athlete you get, I truly believe, the better officer you’re going to make as well.
“Why not? Give a kid a chance. We’re not talking many every year. If that could happen, I think that would be a tremendous leap, and not just in regards to athletics at the military academies, but more important in the development of leaders. That’s my perspective on it.”
That policy has changed a bit in recent years. The longstanding norm was that athletes had to serve two years of their five-year commitment on active duty before applying to switch to reserve status to free up their schedule to play professionally. Then, in 2016, that changed and the two-year wait was removed for that switch. Then, just as the NFL Draft began in 2017, the two-year requirement was reinstated.
In May, President Donald Trump told Army football coach Jeff Monken that he would consider a policy that would allow athletes to defer their service time until after they’ve tested the pro waters athletically.
Nothing yet has come of that suggestion, but it might be tested quickly as Air Force longsnapper Austin Cutting was just drafted in the third round by the Minnesota Vikings. And now, in the next few days Kazlausky could have two players – third baseman Nic Ready and right-handed pitcher Jake Gilbert – plucked in the draft. Navy pitcher Noah Song, one of four finalists for the Golden Spikes Award, could also go high in the draft.
For now, the baseball players can apply for the World Class Athlete Program, which makes their military assignment to train for the Olympics. But that wouldn’t impact Cutting, and the baseball players would find themselves back in flux in June 2020 if they don’t make the squad bound for Tokyo.
“I’m hearing from some teams and I feel like I’m going to have the opportunity to play at the next level, just with the way things are working out right now,” Ready said. “Some teams are showing some interest and I’d really like to pursue a professional career.”
Ready doesn’t know when that call might come in the draft that begins Monday and runs through Wednesday.
“Hopefully earlier than later,” he said, “but the draft is a monster of its own and you never really know until you get the call.”
“One thing I want to adamant about, though, is he does want to serve his country,” Kazlausky said when discussing Ready, who could be taken as high as the sixth round after setting Air Force records for home runs and RBIs. “There’s no doubt about that piece. He knows what he signed up for, and he wants to wear his nation’s uniform at the end of the day.”
Kazlausky has seen both sides. He’s had former players like Trent Monahan turn down a chance at professional baseball because “he wanted to fly jets and kill bad guys. Now he’s flying RPAs and killing bad guys for us.”
He’s also seen pitcher Griffin Jax, a third-round selection by Minnesota at a time when the policy allowed players to play immediately, serve in the World Class Athlete Program and have success in the minor leagues. Jax has a 1.79 ERA in 45 1/3 innings for Double-A Pensacola, though he hasn’t pitched since May 16 because of an injury.
Kazlausky sees both as benefiting the military. And that’s never a small issue with him. His graduating class of 12 players this season included eight who received pilot-training slots. Center fielder Drew Wiss will train as a special warfare officer (Air Force’s version of the Navy SEALS). The other three include Jacob Saucedo, who will go to Japan as a maintenance officer, Steven Plaskett, who will fly unmanned aircraft, and Ready, who is slated for a logistics job at Charleston Air Force Base if baseball isn’t in his future.
By the way, Kazlausky missed Ready being called on stage at graduation last week by Trump. The coach was touring Air Force One on invitation from a 2003 graduate and baseball player who flies the famed aircraft.
He knows more of his former players may someday earn that distinction. And he hopes some excel in baseball as professionals. He sees room for both in what the academy can produce, and he thinks each can benefit from the other.
“It’s a lot bigger picture,” Kazlausky said. “How cool is it that you can go to one of the most prestigious schools in the world. Everything is paid for. You get paid $1,000 a month. You have an opportunity to play the sport that you love, and your Plan B, when it’s all said and done, is maybe you’ll go play baseball. Your Plan A truly is to go serve. If Plan B comes along, you might say, ‘Ooh, I’m going to take that opportunity.’ That’s awesome. Most kids at a Division I university who play sports have one plan. If that plan doesn’t work out, they put their hands up and say, ‘Now what am I going to do?’ Here, they get the best of both worlds.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of the baseball guys as a whole. That’s an unbelievable class. We’re doing it right. … The country is in good hands.”