Former Naval Academy athletes face tough choice: play baseball or serve

Alex Azor
Alex Azor

Two former Naval Academy stars — center fielder Alex Azor of Miami Braddock and pitcher Preston Gainey of Fort Lauderdale’s Calvary Christian — are proving how much they love baseball.

No Navy baseball player has ever been selected in a higher round than Azor, a 10th-round pick in the recent MLB draft.

Azor, a senior, signed for only $1,000 — way under slot — just for the opportunity to play pro ball.

“I would have signed for a hot dog,” said Azor, a 5-11, 190-pound lefty hitter who was picked by the Toronto Blue Jays.

Gainey, a sophomore right-hander, was drafted in the 11th round by the Milwaukee Brewers and signed for somewhere north of $100,000, including money that he can use to complete his degree in Economics.

But Gainey also gave up a potential career as a Navy officer.

“I tossed and turned over the decision for an entire week,” said Gainey, who went 3-3 with a 3.25 ERA in 10 starts last season. “It was a back-and-forth deal. Do I leave the academy where I have a great education and a lot of friends? Or do I follow my dreams and play pro baseball?

“Ultimately, I felt God was calling me to play pro baseball.”

It’s interesting to note that Navy’s only two draft picks this year are from South Florida.

Azor, 23, has been assigned to play in a rookie league in Bluefield, W.Va., but his stay in the minors figures to be short. In April, he is expected to report to Marine Corps headquarters in Quantico, Va., where he will begin serving his five-year military obligation. (The Marine Corps is a component of the U.S. Department of the Navy.)

“My dream is to play baseball, but I also want to serve my country,” Azor said. “I feel like I have a debt to my country.”

Azor is grateful that the U.S. took in his parents and grandparents. His father, Michel Azor, is a native of Camaguey, Cuba. His mother, Helida, is a native of Cali, Colombia.

Then again, most would agree that Michel Azor, who served in the Vietnam War, has already paid his so-called “debt.”

But, like most of the men and women in the military, honor is a big word for Alex Azor.

“Alex was the first unanimous team captain we’ve ever had,” said Navy coach Paul Kostacopoulos of Azor, who led the team with a .322 batting average last season. “That honor is voted on by the players, and it’s almost impossible to have everyone vote for you, especially on a team full of leaders. But Alex manages to connect with everyone.”

One of the players he connected with is Gainey, 21, who has three relatives — including both his grandparents — who served in the military.

Gainey, a 6-3, 205-pounder, throws his fastball in the low 90s and has an “electric” slider that comes in at 80 to 82 mph.

The Brewers flew him up to Milwaukee for a pre-draft workout and were so impressed, they started calling him in the fifth round of the draft, telling him that his selection was imminent.

Gregg Mucerino, who coached Gainey as a senior at Calvary Christian, credits the Navy with teaching him the slider and developing the pitcher’s command.

“His mechanics and command have gotten a lot better the past couple of years,” Mucerino said. “He is the hardest working pitcher I’ve ever coached. If he stays healthy, he has the body and the work ethic to be special.”

Because of his commitment to the military, Azor’s baseball future does not appear to be as bright. The best-case scenario would be for him to spend 2013 and 2014 in the Marines before applying for early release of his obligation.

If all goes well, he would be 26 when he would be allowed to resume his baseball career. That’s considered old for a prospect, especially one with little pro experience who will have been away from the game for two years.

Kostacopoulos called it a “long shot” but also warned not to bet against Azor.

“Every time Alex has been faced with a challenge,” the coach said, “he’s come out on top.”