Tough decision to leave Navy pays off for Norfolk Tides pitcher

Oliver Drake followed his dream of a major league career after two years at the Naval Academy. (Courtesy Les Treagus)

Deciding to turn pro is rarely a tough decision for college baseball players.

Most of the time, moving on to play professionally in the minor leagues is simply the next step toward the ultimate goal.

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But not many people have to choose between serving their country and playing pro baseball, as Oliver Drake had to do when the Baltimore Orioles drafted him in 2008 out of the Naval Academy.

“The academy is such a special place,” said Drake, 28. “It was definitely the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. I kept flip-flopping back and forth. Ultimately, it came down to the fact that the timing seemed right. At all service academies, you can leave before your junior year. So, I was in the right place at the right time. And I realized I could always go back if baseball didn’t work out.”

Drake, a right-handed reliever, chose the Orioles and expects to return to the active roster of the Triple-A Norfolk Tides soon. He was sidelined with a torso strain.

After six minor-league seasons and a switch from starter to reliever after shoulder surgery, Drake made his MLB debut in May.

A Worcester, Mass., native, Drake grew up a Boston Red Sox fan. When the team visited historic Fenway Park, Drake made his way to the Green Monster, the left field wall, to sign his name on it like hundreds of players before him.

“It was pretty dusty and dirty, but very cool to see all those signatures,” said Drake. “I grew up in a family that always thought there was something very special about the game and its history.”

Although the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder played hockey as well, his first and favorite love remained baseball.

It also happened to be the sport at which Drake excelled the most, drawing interest from mainly Division II and Division III colleges and Division I Navy.

“We saw him pitch his junior year (at Northfield Mount Hermon School),” Navy head coach Paul Kostacopoulos told in 2011. “He came to our camp and then we saw him as a senior, and he just got better and better. He has a pro body. He has a great frame. He has broad shoulders and a loose arm.”

“While I was being recruited by Navy, my (older) brother Elliott’s best friend was a senior at the academy,” Drake said. “Plus, I went to a prep school, where I lived, so I was kind of used to that kind of lifestyle anyway.”

Drake had one of the best freshman seasons in Midshipmen history, going 3-3 with a 3.22 ERA. As a sophomore, he continued to improve, going 6-3 with 3.70 ERA and an 8.74 strikeout per nine-inning ratio before being drafted.

Four seasons into his minor-league career, Drake developed a right shoulder injury after three starts at Double-A Bowie. When rest and rehabilitation didn’t take care of the problem, he underwent surgery to repair his labrum and tighten the shoulder capsule.

When he finally returned to the mound eight months later, the Baltimore brass converted him to a reliever. From there, Drake’s climb up the minor-league ladder sped up.

On the night he was called up in May, Drake made his major league debut, in the ninth inning of a scoreless tie. If he was nervous, he didn’t show it. Drake went on to toss three scoreless innings, limiting the Miami Marlins to two hits while striking out two batters in the Orioles’ eventual 1-0,13-inning loss.

Before being optioned back to Norfolk June 3, Drake made five appearances for Baltimore spanning 7.2 innings with a 3.52 ERA.

“Pitching in the big leagues was a dream come true, and then some,” he said. “It was the culmination of a very long — but very worth it — road.”

If not for baseball, Drake would not have dreamed of leaving the Naval Academy before graduating and serving his military obligation.

“I honestly can’t say a bad thing about the academy,” he said. “There are difficult days, for sure. But overall, it’s such an incredible place to be a part of.”

The same can be said for the major leagues. Fortunately for Drake, he’s had the honor of experiencing both.

Stephanie Storm Lariccia

Stephanie Storm Lariccia is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.