AT-TAQADDUM, Iraq --
Chasing a lifelong dream for a career in professional baseball … It’s a story as distinctly American as apple pie.SPAN>
Now add a dramatic twist: the pitching prospect is a U.S. Marine deployed to Iraq. He has his ball, glove and an intense desire to overcome a past elbow injury. Peers are cheering him on, pushing him to new levels in the gym and putting themselves on the receiving end of increasingly faster pitches.
The desert has become his sandlot.
"In a lot of ways, I’ve always rooted for the underdog,” said Lance Cpl. Scott “Ski” Halisky, a 30-year-old from Clearwater, Fla. The 6-foot-3-inch, 235-pound Marine started to smile. “Given my age and former injury, I would think I’m an underdog.”
Halisky is a mortuary affairs specialist with Personnel Retrieval and Processing Detachment, Headquarters and Service Company, 1st Marine Logistics Group. His unit returns American, Iraqi and Coalition personnel killed in action to their families, sometimes entering the kill zone to provide the “angels” a dignified transfer home.
Fortunately, they’re not as busy as past deployments. Iraq is more stable than it’s been since the start of the war, with May 2008 seeing fewer fatalities than any month since February 2004, according to an Associated Press count based on military figures.
Halisky said the mission will always come first at the PRP Detachment, but fewer casualties means more spare time, and he’s able to spend a substantial amount of it throwing pitches, hitting the gym and running sprints. He also takes time to think about his future.
“It’s easy to take things for granted back in the states … Being out here I get a lot of quiet time to myself, do a lot of thinking, and (I ask myself) what do I really want to do?
“Every spring comes around with different memories of playing ball, and me not being able to get those memories out of my mind … It recently started hitting me that (pursuing this career) is where I need to be,” said Halisky. “I just enjoy being out there (on the field). There’s something about running around on the green grass.”
He caught a glimpse of the green grass and a professional baseball career a little more than eight years ago. He was pitching for the Front Royal Cardinals, a collegiate-level team in Virginia, when a scout watched him strikeout six batters in two innings of play. He signed with the Baltimore Orioles’ rookie team four days later.
Halisky was consistently throwing 92 mph, with his fastball topping out at 96, but “twinges of pain” in his right elbow were becoming noticeable. The coach watched the radar gun drop to 86 mph and asked what was wrong. Halisky started physical rehabilitation immediately and attempted to return to the bullpen two weeks later, but the injury persisted.
He pitched a total of three games with the Gulf Coast Orioles before submitting to the injury and leaving the team to finish his senior year of college.
“Yeah, I was bitter about it, I thought long and hard about it, and I made the decision to move on … It wasn’t a good time to pursue baseball,” Halisky said. “I had to get on with my life, get a job, start paying school loans.”
He entered the work force, taking jobs in insurance sales and eventually becoming a carpenter. He took the position of dorm supervisor at Randolph-Macon Academy, a military school in Front Royal, Va., before enlisting in the Marine Corps Reserve but was never able to shake the dream to play baseball.
When Halisky deployed to Iraq in January he was thousands of miles from a professional ballpark, but that did nothing to ease his “spring fever.” He decided to do something about it. One of his fellow Marines decided to help.
“I am his catching partner and aspiring agent, so anybody who wants to make an offer has to go through me,” said Cpl. Robert Rens, also a mortuary affairs Marine with PRP Detachment. He’s just one of the Marines in PRP Detachment who are supporting Ski’s efforts, but he’s the only one brave enough to catch for him.
Halisky was always known for his fastball, but lately he’s been concentrating on off-speed pitches. Rens played baseball competitively in high school, and said he’s surprised by the repertoire of pitches rolling off Ski’s fingers.
“Watching the balls he can throw is amazing,” Rens said. “Watching the tails and the breaks and the spin, from a technical standpoint he’s just a phenomenal baseball player.”
Rens has been earning the position of “aspiring agent” the hard way, selflessly stopping Ski’s increasingly faster pitches with the only other glove the detachment has.
“It’s actually a first baseman’s mitt,” said Halisky, starting to laugh, “for softball.”
“There’s really nothing to stop the sting from all his pitches,” said Rens, 23, from Kennesaw, Ga. “We need to get something else out here if we want to stay competitive with the field and not break my hand in the process.”
Halisky said new equipment is on its way, but he appears to enjoy the temporary loss of feeling in his catching partner’s hand, at least a little. “He’s a tough kid, he can handle it.”
Toughness is also something Halisky looks for when picking his heroes. Nolan Ryan, arguably one of baseball’s most resilient figures, pitched until he was 46.
“He was my idol growing up,” Halisky said. “I read all his books, tailored my work ethic off of his, everything he did I tried to emulate.”
At 30 years old, Ryan still had 16 years and a few thousand strikeouts left in his right arm.
“I’ve been away from the sport for so long, and some might say that hinders me in the long run, but I don’t see it that way. That’s eight years I haven’t been throwing and abusing my arm,” Halisky said.
“Being out here allows me to gradually get back into it … and I know exactly what it takes to get back to that top-notch level.”