‘If I could physically do both, I would’: Phillies pitcher Noah Song on his two paths and passions
CLEARWATER, Fla. — Noah Song, the pitcher who is introducing perhaps the most intriguing storyline in the Phillies’ camp this spring, didn’t pay much attention to last year’s playoffs. He watched one of the World Series games on TV, but didn’t feel much attachment to either team. Lately, though, he’s been revisiting snippets of the Phillies’ surprise pennants as he suddenly finds himself sharing a Clearwater club with these iconic South Philadelphia heroes.
Watching the movie helps him catch up on a sport that may have passed him by. Once a particularly promising fourth-round pick and most recently a 0-2 junior lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, Song is watching to learn about his new team and new teammates, and “because frankly” he said Tuesday before the spring practice game. “I’m just trying to get back to the experience of serving and the mindset of serving.”
The song never expected to be drafted. Growing up outside of Los Angeles, he was an inappropriate fan of the Minnesota Twins, rooting for Joe Mauer, and dreaming of one day playing professional baseball. But he wasn’t called to high school, and Bobby Applegate, a pitching coach at the Naval Academy, convinced him to come to Annapolis for a visit.
“It kind of changed my perspective on everything,” Song said.
On that visit, he stayed at the barracks with a student who planned to go into aviation. Song never intended to enlist in the military—no one in his family did—but he didn’t think about it: “At 18, it sounded amazing. I wanted to fly.”
Which, he knew full well, meant losing the opportunity to play professional baseball in the future. The US Naval Academy Scholarship is subject to at least five years of military service.
“Going into the academy, you know you’ll be playing baseball for four years and you’re done and that’s a deal,” he said. “This is what you signed up for and this is what you are preparing for.”
Then, in the four years that Song applied for the rank of midshipman and trained as a naval aviator, two things happened: he turned into a top-notch Major League Baseball talent and became passionate about the US Army.
The confluence of those things – his promise to be a pitcher and his obligation to serve – led to him being selected by the Red Sox in the fourth round of the 2019 draft. lower than his potential merited, but higher than anyone ever called up from the Naval Academy.. Song then allowed two runs of 17 innings in a short A-ball season before heading to flight school in Pensacola, Florida. There, his baseball status languished in the Red Sox system while he was too busy training in anti-submarine warfare to mourn this parallel life.
“I think when I finished playing in 2019, you miss it a little. But what’s nice about flight school is that I was so busy that I got over it pretty quickly, or at least got distracted,” he said. “And then enough time passed and I thought, well, the game doesn’t miss me anymore, and I…”
He stopped before he said he didn’t miss either.
During his first year in the Boston system, Song applied but was denied a request to defer his military service. While in flight school, he didn’t talk much about his short but promising career as a professional baseball player. He considered this irrelevant to the task at hand and a source of potential instructor bias or distraction.
From time to time, someone realized that this was the guy who was drafted by the Red Sox, but he liked it better when they did not know. When you are on a mission, it doesn’t matter who you are or even what your name is.
You have a life outside of baseball, he decided instead.
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It was in this state — he was curious to leave the door open for baseball — that Sun applied for a transfer of his time from active duty to the reserves after he received the wings, but he was also ready to accept his future in the Navy. This Song barely watched the World Series and was caught off guard when a team that was only two games away from winning in November took him in the Rule 5 draft in December.
After a certain amount of time has passed in the team’s minor league system, players must be placed on a roster of 40; otherwise, they are entitled to a significant roster change (for a fee) by the other 29 teams. Perhaps not expecting anyone to pick a player facing long-term military service, the Red Sox left Song unprotected. Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Domborowski, who managed the Red Sox draft that included Song during his time in Boston, seized the opportunity to bring back a talent he considered promising 3.5 years earlier.
Song found out about this when Applegate, his college coach, told him about it. A little later, Phillies general manager Sam Fuld called.
“They were very clear about their expectations, which were few at the time,” Song said. “They didn’t know if I would come back to play. Nobody knew if I would come back to play or not.”
In January, the Sun was to be sent to Japan. When he was detained, he realized that his request had been approved; instead of six years of active duty, Sun is now required to spend 12 years in the Naval Reserves, serving one weekend a month and two weeks a year.
And so, at 25, he went to his first spring workout. He asked his roommate in Pensacola to start playing ball with him and told his friends in the army that he was leaving to try to pitch to the Phillies.
One of them pulled out an image of the Liberty Bell logo. “What Phyllis? they asked.
“Yes,” Song said, “this is Phyllis.”
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In Clearwater on Tuesday, Song threw down an embankment for the second time since arriving at camp. Dombrowski, Fuld, manager Rob Thomson, other members of the coaching staff and an MLB Network film crew were there to watch. It has been almost four years since he competed. And just as the Dream has changed over that time, so has baseball. The rules are different this spring, but more than that, the technology used to track and train pitchers has grown, the analytics applied to their approach has evolved.
“Honestly, I feel like I’m going back to another game,” Song said. “I think, fortunately for me, the military adapts you well to new situations. This is one of our important things in resource management – adaptability and flexibility. And in my mind, whether or not I’m the player I used to be, I can adapt to any game now.”
But Sun is struggling not only with his fitness — his goal for now is simply to stay healthy and make progress — but his ability to catch up. He’s also racing against time, at least as far as his future with the Phillies is concerned.
Rule 5 elections must spend the entire following season as part of a 26-man squad or they will be eliminated. If a player performs waivers, he is returned to the original team. Listing a pitcher with 17 pro innings and a three-year hiatus from his baseball resume would be unprecedented, especially for a rival team like the Phillies. Is it possible to find any room for maneuver in the smallest nuances of the rules repeated in Athleticremains to be seen. But the Phillies have already gambled on Song’s fortitude and ability – the very things that made him fit for the Navy – and for now, all they can do is give him a shot.
“If I could physically do both, I would,” Sun said of his two paths and hobbies, which have become mutually exclusive at the highest level. In the meantime, he will focus on baseball, a young man’s game for which he may be too late to achieve what could have been. But he doesn’t see it that way.
“From the day I was drafted, every day of baseball after that was just one more day than I was guaranteed. So I was just happy to play every day,” he said.
“Even to this day, I still see it that way.”