FORT MYERS, Fla. — When the Red Sox drafted J.T. Watkins three years ago, it wasn’t just as a favor for his father Danny, an amateur scout with the team since 2004. J.T. was an accomplished college catcher with a strong arm who twice led his team to a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
His school happened to be the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Understand that no West Point graduate has ever played in the major leagues. Seventeen Army players have been drafted over the years, 11 since 2005, but none have advanced beyond Triple A. Missing time because of a mandatory military commitment has so far been a hurdle impossible to overcome.
“We play a good brand of baseball here and I’m proud of what we’ve done. But West Point is producing officers, not baseball players,” coach Matt Reid said.
J.T. Watkins, now 25, is out to change that. Which is why an expert in field artillery tactics puts on a different uniform these days trying to convince the Red Sox their pick wasn’t wasted after he spent two years in the service away from the game.
“I’m not afraid of a challenge. If anything, I want to step into one to see what I’m made of,” Watkins said.
Watkins was an all-state high school player in Alabama who considered attending South Alabama or a junior college in Texas, before visiting the West Point campus. That changed the direction of his life.
“It’s not an easy decision and it’s not for everybody,” Watkins said. “I definitely didn’t take that decision lightly. But fortunately for me, I had a very supportive family. My mom and dad let me make that decision on my own.”
Danny Watkins, who travels through Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee in search of players — “Living the dream,” he said, his voice a bit muffled over the phone as he drove to another game with his radar gun and clipboard at the ready — had friends who attended West Point and the Naval Academy. In his son, he saw similar qualities and a sense of dedication.
“As a parent, you’re proud that he had that opportunity, but at the same time you know the commitment it takes and you have concern what could happen,” he said. “In the end it was his choice and I knew he would do the right thing. Heck, he’s smarter than I ever was.”
Watkins entered West Point in 2008 and endured the rigors of being a plebe, or freshman. New cadets are subjected to physical and mental tests as part of the “Beast Barracks” basic training course.
“There’s good times and bad times, I’m not going to lie to you,” Watkins said. “You make the best of it and you get through it with your teammates. They say ‘cooperate and graduate’ there, and it couldn’t be more true.”
On the baseball field, Watkins was a standout. He was a four-year starter and twice named All-Patriot League. Army was 127-79 during his tenure and Watkins was a cocaptain his senior year. He is among Army’s all-time leaders in games, hits, and throwing out runners.
“A special player for us,” said Reid, an assistant when Watkins played. “J.T. stepped in as a freshman and you could see he knew the game and what needed to be done.”
In 2009, Army advanced to the final of the Austin Regional and led No. 1 seed Texas by four runs in the championship game before losing. Watkins was one of the best players on the field.
“I loved it. Baseball was the greatest part of the day, when you could go to the field and play the game,” he said. “I had no idea I would be a four-year starter. It was a tough go and it took a lot of learning on my part.”
The Red Sox took Watkins in the 10th round after his final season. Just prior to making the pick, scouting director Amiel Sawdaye called Danny Watkins at home with the news.
“Amiel said to me, ‘We’re going to take this Watkins kid out of Army. Think we can sign him?’ That was something I’ll never forget,” Danny Watkins said.
Sawdaye said the Red Sox were impressed with Watkins’s defensive skills and saw him as a player with potential.
“We had scouts at our games to see him,” Reid said. “He was an excellent catcher. He controlled the game, threw runners out. The leadership was everything you’d expect. He was so coachable.”
Danny Watkins laughed when asked to give a scouting report on his son.
“Can’t do it,” he said. “I’ve never been able to look at him that way. He’s my son, and when he’s playing I forget my stopwatch, and when he asks me what his time was to first base I have no idea. I know other scouts who have sons that play feel the same way. You can’t look at your boy as anything but that. He’s your son.”
Watkins played 17 games for Rookie League Lowell after he was drafted before returning to the Army. Commissioned a lieutenant after graduating, Watkins was assigned to Fort Sill in Oklahoma for artillery school. He then graduated from the rugged Ranger School at Fort Benning in Georgia before an assignment as a field artillery officer at Fort Stewart in Georgia.
Watkins was a fire support officer, which required the ability to coordinate mortars, close air support, and naval gunfire.
“You get to do a lot of fun stuff that not a lot of people get to do,” Watkins said.
Doing his duty
West Point requires five years of active duty for graduates and three more in the reserves. Watkins is now in the Individual Ready Reserve, having been granted the opportunity to pursue his baseball career. That commitment will last at least six years and he could be called to active duty at any time.
“It’s a decision you can’t take lightly,” Watkins said. “Clearly for me, I always wanted to be a professional baseball player. But at the same time, I graduated from West Point. I was under the assumption that I would have to serve five years of active duty.
“There are a lot of people I know who are deployed, so it’s something I thought long and hard about.”
Watkins was able to keep his baseball skills somewhat sharp over the last two years, working out with former Army teammates or asking to practice with local college teams. He was always welcomed.
“You’d be surprised how much I was able to do,” he said. “I did miss a bunch of live at-bats but now I’m looking forward to competing for a job. First and foremost, I want to be a player. Until somebody pries the cleats off my feet, I want to play. If it gets to that point, I’d love to be around the game in some way possible.”
Watkins said there are surprising parallels in the two worlds he has straddled.
“The military is a higher calling, but baseball is a dedication to something bigger than yourself,” he said. “The Red Sox are bigger than any one of us. Being part of a team, being disciplined, there is a lot of common.”
Watkins plays with a bearing that reflects his training and character. On Thursday, when he entered a game for Single A Greenville in the middle innings, he stopped to shake hands with the umpire. A visit to the mound ended with an authoritative thump on the pitcher’s chest with his mitt. He goes through every step of the day with purpose.
“He has a life experience no other kid can replicate,” Sawdaye said. “It’s impossible to quantify how that military experience helps.”
Still, Watkins faces long odds of ever making the majors. Two of the catchers on the 40-man roster, Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez, are younger than he is. It’s uncertain whether the two years away can be overcome.
Mookie Betts, a teammate at Lowell in 2012 who was signed by Watkins’s father, made it to the big leagues as Watkins served his country.
“It’s not something we’ve ever encountered,” minor league director Ben Crockett said. “He was away and doing something noble. To come back and play baseball again speaks to his passion for the game. But that time away is going to add to the challenge he has.”
Watkins embraces the idea of again being tested. As before, he has the support of his parents, and now that of his wife, Holly.
“A lot of people here look at me like I have five heads when I tell them what I’ve been doing the last few years. But that’s OK,” he said.
Perspective helps. Baseball is now his job, but one he can put in its proper place.
“I have a greater appreciation for the game now than I ever did before,” he said. “But as much as I love it, I know what really is important.”