By David Willis, email@example.com
---- — LOWELL — With his Army service about to commence, and a deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan in the near future a real possibility, U.S. Army Lt. T.J. Watkins could be spending his leave from the military relaxing on a beach or visiting family.
But, in his heart, Watkins knows there is only one place he truly wants to be.
“Playing professional baseball is something I have always dreamed of,” said Watkins. “I would rather be on the baseball field than anywhere else in the world. I know I may be sent to Iraq or somewhere overseas at some point, but for now I want to be here.”
Lt. Watkins, who graduated from West Point in the spring, is spending his summer playing catcher for the Lowell Spinners, before reporting to begin his military duty at the close of the season.
“The military is the most rewarding and challenging thing I have done in my entire life,” said Watkins, generously listed at 6 feet tall, but standing with the pride befitting a military officer. “And it is every boy’s dream to play professional baseball, and it sure was my dream growing up.”
It was through baseball that Watkins first became inspired to attend West Point.
A star at Hillcrest High School in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he set the set the school record for home runs in a season (14) and led his school to the 6A state title, Army was among the schools that heavily recruited the backstop.
“Growing up I had never considered a life in the military,” said Watkins, who does not come from a military family. “Then I got a call from the coach and was very impressed by my visit to the school. I thought it was an amazing atmosphere and I knew that was my decision.”
Watkins enrolled at West Point in the fall of 2008, and what began as an admiration of the military quickly turned into a way of life.
“I woke up every day at 6:30 a.m., shaved and walked outside for formation,” he said. “Breakfast at 6:45 every morning and class started at 7:30 a.m. Maybe I’m biased, but I believe the military is more challenging than institutions that just focus on sports and academics. Having that third pillar of military adds another level, but I loved it.”
While he took a beating in his 195 games behind the plate as a four-year starter for the Black Knights, it was nothing compared to the demands of his military training.
“It is very physically strenuous,” he said. “We had to take boxing classes and combat classes, all types of physical classes on top of the demands of baseball. Plus, you had to pass the Army physical fitness test twice a year.
“I’d say the most demanding was the swimming class. You had to jump off a slide with your full (equipment) kit and boots on. You jumped into a wave pool and you can’t see anything because they turned the lights off. They are playing gun shots over the speakers and you have to make it to the end while downing (shedding) some of your gear but keeping control of your rifle.”
Despite the demands of the military, Watkins excelled as a catcher for the Black Knights. As a senior this year he hit .316 with and team-high five homers and 31 RBIs.
The Red Sox made Watkins a 10th round selection, No. 331 overall in the June draft. The son of Sox regional scout Danny Watkins, he quickly signed for a $1,000 bonus and reported to Lowell.
But the backstop knows that his baseball career may be short-lived.
“Upon graduation you have five years back in the service,” he said. “Right now I am playing on my leave. Right at the end of the season I leave to return to West Point and start my service. I will work there for a while, before being sent to Fort Sill (in Oklahoma) for 4 1/2 months of training, then to Fort Stewart in Georgia.” Following that training, Watkins may well receive news of deployment to a war zone. My future very well may mean going to Afghanistan or Iraq,” he said. “It is something I have thought about, but I will cross that when I get there. It is something that goes with attending West Point. It may be part of my future, and I accept that.”
For the moment, however, Watkins is focusing on baseball. Through Friday he had appeared in nine games for the Spinners, hitting .222 (6 for 27) with the highlight his first professional home run on July 6 against Auburn.
“I honestly didn’t think it was going out,” said the 180-pounder with a laugh.
“It felt good off the bat, but I don’t hit many out so when I did see it go over it was pretty neat. The guys were giving me a lot of trouble. They were saying they didn’t expect that out of me, which was fine because I wasn’t expecting it either.”
While he knows, with his military service about to begin, this season may well be the end of his baseball career, Watkins has not let the dream of returning to the diamond one day go away just yet.
“Some athletes can earn options,” he said.
“We have had athletes earn that, so I hope to keep playing at some point. But that will be up to others and is out of my hands. I am here now and I wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else. I love this game, and I love being around others that are working towards a personal goal and a team goal. I am living a dream.”
Baseball in his blood
Lowell Spinners catcher T.J. Watkins may have found his passion for the Army on his own, but his love of baseball was inherited from his dad, Red Sox scout and former Georgia Tech baseball player Danny Watkins .
“I definitely got my passion for the game from my father,” said T.J. “He is my mentor and we talk on a daily basis. If I have a rough day he’s there to pick me up, and if I have a good day he’s there to bring me back down to earth. It’s awesome having him there to talk to.” ...
David Willis is an Eagle-Tribune sportswriter/videographer. You can see his video features at eagletribune.com/sports.