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Tacoma Rainiers pitcher Nick Hill served in the Army Reserves

Serving his country and fast balls

2nd Lt. Nick Hill. Courtesy photo

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The crack of the bat, the magical "pop" of a 95-mile-per-hour fastball finding the catcher's glove, that first view of the field as you find your seats. These things signal the arrival of spring and the hopes that come with a new baseball season.

In Tacoma, it also means the renewal of the bond between the Rainiers and our service men and women at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. For years, Cheney Stadium has welcomed soldiers and their families to cheer on the Rainiers and receive the recognition they deserve on a nightly basis. It may even be a bit more special when Rainiers left-hander Nick Hill takes the mound, as he does so with military experience that few ball players can equal.

Hill, 29, can add the title U.S. Army second lieutenant to his credentials. A graduate of the United States Military Academy, Hill was able to hone his pitching skills as well as receive an education and experience that few institutions beyond the armed forces can provide.

He received baseball recognition at East Sullivan High School in Tennessee as a three-time letter winner and set the state record with 56 consecutive scoreless innings. As a senior, he was an all-state selection and faced the decision most families would love their students to face: Should he take the offers and enter minor league baseball or go the college route?

Hill had some big help with that choice.

"It was a huge decision. I think any college choice at that time is a big decision. My parents were instrumental in helping me decide where to go," Hill said. Once I got up there, it's a place like no other."

Hill continued to find success on the mound at West Point, taking the Patriot League Pitcher of the Year trophy three seasons and earning First-Team All-Patriot League honors four times. The accolades kept coming, along with the attention of Major League teams.

While at West Point, he was named to second team All-America squads by the American Baseball Coaches' Association and Collegiate Baseball in 2005. He was selected to the 2006 United States national baseball team, becoming the first Army player since Steve Reich to play for Team USA. That was another big moment in his career.

"It's a huge honor. I got to represent my country in two different fields. To have ‘USA' across your chest is truly an honor," Hill said.

Team USA wasn't the only organization to recognize Hill's ability and character. The Boston Red Sox selected him in the 2006 baseball draft. Luckily for the Seattle Mariners, however, he could not sign at the time due to his military obligations. Seattle nabbed him in the 2007 draft, and Hill made his professional debut with the Everett Aquasox, posting an impressive 0.51 ERA in 18 appearances.

Since then, he has spent time as both a reliever and a starter, working his way up in the Mariners organization. Now, fans at AAA Tacoma can cheer for Hill and his teammates as the Rainiers chase the Pacific Coast League pennant.

Taking a moment to look back, Hill certainly has plenty of distinguishing events to remember, but if he were to choose his favorite at West Point, what would it be?

"Graduation is probably a big one," he said. "Honestly, just the day to day, looking back on it. When you're going through that grind of getting through school and your military obligation. You lose sight of the fact that, looking back on it now, those are some of the best times. The simple things like hanging out, studying one night with a couple of my teammates getting ready for an exam. Those are the things that you remember more so than winning the Championship."

It should be no surprise then, that Hill keeps things in perspective and stays focused as he approaches his baseball career.

"This is a game, and you have to enjoy it. Sometimes, while we're in this and it is our job and it's our livelihood trying to make it to the next level, you can lose sight of the fact that this is a kid's game. We're out here having fun, and there's people doing a lot worse things in this world to give us the opportunity to be here. Remembering that and remembering what I've been through and remembering my classmates and what they're doing right now. That's a motivating factor," explained Hill.

It is easy to see that while determined to be the best at baseball, how Hill looks at West Point and his classmates are just as important as sitting his opponents down 1-2-3, which he has been known to do often.

"It's an honor just to be associated with West Point and to graduate," he said. "I originally got recruited for baseball. Once you get up there and you get around the military family, it's hard to turn down."

When you are at Cheney Stadium this spring and summer, be sure to take in that spectacular view of Mt. Rainier and cheer a bit harder for 2nd Lt. Nick Hill, West Point graduate. It only takes a second to realize that he cheers for our soldiers and their families.

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