Still making his pitch
August 13, 2010
By Don Kramer
JOINT BASE LEWIS_MCCHORD, Wash. - At 37, Bill King is not the youngest first lieutenant in the Army, but probably the only one under contract with a Major League Baseball franchise.
He came close, but never got his coveted call up to the big leagues a decade ago.
He is certainly the only Army officer to have coaxed a spring-training pop flyout off the bat of Ken Griffey Jr. in his prime - King's closest whiff of the Show.
Today he serves as executive officer of C Company, Special Troops Battalion, I Corps. But until age 26, the Florida native lived his dream of a career in professional baseball, playing alongside Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez, and hanging out during spring training with Jason Giambi and Hall-of-Famer Rickey Henderson.
King pitched six years in the Oakland Athletics organization, progressing from Low A in Medford, Ore. all the way in 1998 to AAA Edmonton in the Pacific Coast League - the door-step to the bigs. But after toiling through mediocre 1998 and '99 seasons in Edmonton and Vancouver, it was apparent his career had stalled.
"I had made a decision with myself that if I ever had to repeat the same level or if it just didn't look like it was going to work out, I was going to get out," King said.
In his final year, he was the spot starter and long reliever on the team that won the AAA World Series, competing for starts with Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Kevin Gregg. All four went on to become top-tier MLB players. An injury from a wicked line drive in Edmonton didn't help King's prospects.
With a year left on his contract after the 1999 season, he began weighing other options. He had seen the danger in following baseball dreams and not quite attaining them. He didn't want to end up like one of the minor-leaguers who refused to face reality.
"There are guys in the minors 40, 42, 43," King said, "still hanging on trying to play, and it was not going to happen. They needed to move on with their lives."
Stifled in finance
He was hired by a firm in Marianna, Fla. as a stock broker and financial adviser and, with a year left on his contract, informed the Oakland organization that he had voluntarily retired from baseball. Fortunately, he had gone back to school and finished his finance degree after signing with the A's.
He studied and earned his series 7 and 67 licenses in 2000. But six years and two companies later, after building a client list of more than 700 and managing more than $43 million in assets, he realized the downward market trend wasn't soon recovering. More importantly, though he was making money for his clients, he felt stifled.
"(I) just got tired of sitting behind a desk. There was no way I could take that on a regular basis," he said.
After an active career as a professional athlete, King knew he needed to find work somewhere he could stay physically as well as intellectually active, and find it soon.
"I was helping people, but it got to the point to where 'This isn't a road I want to keep going down.' If I wanted to make a switch, I had to do it pretty quick. I was getting to the point where age was becoming an issue."
He considered the Army a way to "blend" inside and outside work, remembering fondly his year of Junior ROTC as a sophomore at Carroll High School in Ozark, Ala.
He talked to an Army recruiter, and what he heard about military life appealed to him. At 34, he went to basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., then drove directly across the post after graduation to Officer Candidate School. Fourteen weeks later he was named an honor graduate and commissioned as a second lieutenant. It was difficult at his age, he said, but he accomplished every task.
King left Fort Benning November 2007 for Signal Branch training, then went on to Fort Lewis to join the I Corps G-6 as the platoon leader of the tactical element of the Joint Network Node.
After a year in Iraq with I Corps Headquarters, King returned to take the XO position in Charlie Company in the STB.
He has no regrets about giving up baseball, King said, but a lot of memories.
All star at all levels
He grew up in the Florida Panhandle and southern Alabama, the son of a United Methodist minister who moved every two or three years to a different church.
"I guess it prepared me for military life," King said.
Everywhere he lived, he excelled at baseball. He played outfield, first base and pitched through Little League and Babe Ruth League, making all-star teams at every level.
Local bird-dog scouts noticed the 6-foot, 5-inch, 215-pound right hander and told a cross checker, a higher-level scout who constantly travels, comparing talent levels among different regions of the country.
The Chicago White Sox selected him out of high school in the 56th round of the amateur entry draft, but he instead accepted a full baseball scholarship from Birmingham (Ala.) Southern College.
When he was in college, King played in the Cape Cod (summer) League, a wooden-bat league for the cream of the college crop. He made the all-star team in that league also, and played alongside future Major Leaguers Jason Varitek, Nomar Garciaparra, Aaron Boone, Todd Walker and Darin Erstad.
"It was like a Who's Who of baseball," he said.
In 1994 after two years of college ball, the Oakland Athletics rewarded his patience, drafting him in the third round and initiating his six-year minor league whirl-wind. He quickly learned there wasn't much glamour in the daily routines of minor league baseball, particularly at the lower echelons.
"It's a very tough lifestyle," he said. "You're gone, always in different places. A lot of sacrifices have to be made along the way."
King was a sinker-slider right-hander with good control, an above-average changeup and a fastball in the low 90s that occasionally topped out at 95 mph. With those tools, he steadily climbed the professional baseball ladder.
He began in a Low A-level, short-season league after the draft, playing briefly at Southern Oregon before his assignment to Western Michigan through the end of the 1995 season. In 1996, he moved up to Modesto, Calif. into a High-A league, and had his best season at AA Huntsville in 1997. His career path appeared to be on schedule.
By 1998, he made it to Edmonton in the AAA Pacific Coast League. For the second year in a row he was named to Oakland's 40-man roster, which earns players retirement money and other benefits.
Spring Training 1998 provided his most memorable inning as a professional pitcher. A schedule change brought Seattle Mariners' starters to the plate in the sixth inning in place of the normal "scrubs." King stood on the mound facing a lineup of Griffey, Jay Buhner, David Segui and Glenallen Hill, the heart of the Mariners' lineup.
He managed to get out of the inning without giving up a run, even striking out Segui, who broke his bat in frustration. But Buhner hit "the hardest ground ball in the history of the world" for a single, and Hill hit a rocket that "nearly tore my center fielder's head off."
King's career plateaued in 1998 in Edmonton, and he followed it with an even more frustrating 1999 in Vancouver. He saw the handwriting on the wall when the A's chose not to put him on the 40-man roster and no other teams claimed him in the Rule V draft, which requires a commitment to keep players on the Major League roster.
The now-1st Lt. King insisted he has no regrets about trading his spikes for desert boots, though he misses the sport and learned valuable lessons from it.
"I remember being caught off guard, but I got through it," he said of his pitching days. "Now as XO from Charlie Company, where I walk into meetings to brief the G-3, colonels, sergeants major who (lieutenants) don't normally have to interface with, I (say to myself) 'Just relax, you can get through this.' After I've been through that, there aren't too many situations that are going to overwhelm me where I'm feeling like I'm totally lost or too overwhelmed to do the task."
After all, the G-3 can't hit a curveball like Ken Griffey Jr.
Don Kramer is a reporter with Joint Base Lewis-McChord's weekly newspaper, the Northwest Guardian.
The Bill King file
Born: Feb. 18, 1973 in Tallahassee, Fla.
Ht: 6 ft., 5 in, Wt: 215
Bats: Right Throws: Right
High school: Carroll H.S. (Ozark, Ala.)
College: Birmingham Southern
Drafted: Selected third round, 65th overall in 1994 amateur entry draft by Oakland Athletics