Taking flight: Military training, Air Force Academy experience gives MLB prospect Griffin Jax an edge
By PHIL MILLER | The Star Tribune | Published: February 27, 2020
FORT MYERS, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Griffin Jax was once dropped by parachute into the Rocky Mountains with a group of cadets, and ordered to locate and reach a certain pickup point within six days, all while staying hidden from “searchers” trying to flush them out.
So yeah, he’s probably got the nerves and focus required to work out of a bases-loaded jam.
Jax is the most successful pitcher in the history of his college, which is unusual in itself. That the school is the U.S. Air Force Academy makes his story even more remarkable — and challenging.
“It takes a different kind of person to go that avenue. The military is not meant for everybody,” the 25-year-old righthander said. So when did he know it was right for him?
“I didn’t. I still don’t,” he said with a laugh. “Don’t get me wrong, I got what I wanted — I went there to play Division I baseball and to get a top-tier education. But ‘fun’ is not a word I would use.”
He’s having a lot more fun these days, working his way up through the Twins’ system. Last season, Jax became the first Air Force graduate ever to reach Class AAA, and it’s possible he could make even more history by winding up in Minnesota later this summer.
“He’s an impressive young man,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He’s the kind of player you want to root for. He worked hard to get to this point, He’s got a lot of maturity, which is exactly what you would expect from someone with his background.”
Not a bad pitch mix, either. Jax has a basic fastball/slider/changeup repertoire with velocity around 92 miles per hour. His control helps set him apart, said Ryan Jeffers, who caught Jax at Class AA Pensacola last year. “His fastball command, it’s very good. He hits his spots with it and the slider,” Jeffers said. “He’s a hard-nosed guy, too. Very disciplined, which you’d expect.”
It’s taken a certain discipline for Jax to stay focused despite some extra hurdles his military service has required. When the Twins, impressed by his 2.05 ERA in the Colorado Springs altitude, drafted Jax after his junior season at the Academy in 2016, Department of Defense policy allowed cadets to defer their five-year active duty commitment until after their sports career ended.
But by the next spring, about the time Jax returned to school and completed his degree, the policy changed. Military service members had to serve two years of active duty immediately upon graduation, then could apply for a transfer to the reserves. Second Lieutenant Jax pitched while on leave from his assignment as an acquisitions officer, but he was limited to only five games and 31 innings.
“At first, I didn’t know what my future would be, what the Air Force’s plans were. I was kind of going back and forth,” Jax said. “It felt like I spent a lot of time in limbo, which was tough.”
Another policy change cleared the way for him to play for the Twins in 2018, however: He was allowed to apply for a special Department of Defense program, the World Class Athlete Program that allowed military members to be reassigned to training for Olympics as their full-time duty. With baseball restored to the 2020 Games, Jax was approved — though he couldn’t accept a salary from the Twins, only from the Air Force — and he played a full season at Fort Myers, posting a 3.70 ERA, and then in the Arizona Fall League.
Last year, he climbed two more levels, and in November, he became an Air Force Reservist, his military service now amounting to 24 days a year, scheduled after the baseball season ends. He still makes hospital visits, teaches at baseball clinics and helps recruit for the Air Force, but his mind is on one thing this spring.
“Now I’m focused only on baseball, and I’m excited to see where it takes me,” Jax said. His military background — he’s made over 200 parachute jumps, done plenty of marching, and taken combat training — helps him, he believes.
“It [gives me a] mental edge for sure. The discipline, the work ethic, kind of was instilled in me at the academy,” he said. “I also understand what a privilege this is, playing baseball for a living, so while I’m here, I’m going to be putting everything I can into it.”