BRADENTON -- To say Cole White is the happiest Bradenton Marauder on the roster would be bordering on hyperbole.
But that doesn’t mean the statement doesn’t have merit.
This isn’t to say the other players who frequent the team’s home clubhouse at McKechnie Field aren’t pleased to be playing baseball with the high Single-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, blazing a trail they one day hope leads to a long career.
White, however, knows he could be in far worse places than Bradenton -- and we’re not just talking about low Single-A West Virginia, which is where he was shipped following a slow start this summer with the Marauders.
A first lieutenant in the Army and a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, White missed most of 2008 and all of ’09 while on the Military List.
So, as bad he may beat himself up after going 0-for-3, or failing to scoop a low throw while playing first base, White knows things could be worse.
“I’ve got a ton of friends who are deployed right now, and they’re always checking up on me to see how I’m doing, and I’m checking up on them to see how they’re doing,” White said prior to Monday’s game against Jupiter. “I could be in their shoes right now. I could be in Iraq or Afghanistan. I always say a prayer during the National Anthem, just kind of saying, ‘Thank you for this opportunity.’
“I know where I could be right now.”
Several of his West Point classmates have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just the other day, White received word one of his classmates stepped on a landmine.
“He lost both his legs from the knees down,” White said. “Good lacrosse athlete. Now he’s going to have wear prosthetics for the rest of his life. So it really puts things into perspective.”
White, 26, doesn’t hail from a military family. He always had an interest in the United States Military Academy at West Point, and decided to see the place for himself.
“It was kind of an eye-opening experience,” he said. “I’ve never seen such a place with the history and the tradition.”
Then came Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks on New York City, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., occurred when White, a native of Midland, Texas, was a junior in high school.
“It was kind of that crucial point where you’re trying to decide what path you want to take in life,” he said. “It was a big challenge, and it was me just wanting to give back a little bit.”
The Pirates chose White in the 42nd round of the ’08 draft, and watched him hit .338 in 21 games in State College. But then the Army made a revision in its U.S. Departmet of Defense Alternative Service Option -- professional athletes had to serve two of their five years before embarking on their careers.
So White returned to West Point before reporting to Fort Sill, Okla., Fort Knox, Ky., and eventually, Fort Hood, Texas.
Then in June of last year, the Army granted White the early release he applied for in January. He still owes the Army three years of service.
“I met awesome people, I’ve got to meet people from all over the world,” he said.
White played baseball at Army, where he became the Black Knights’ all-time leader in home runs (28), doubles (44), total bases (380) and slugging percentage (.588).
But he struggled this summer with Bradenton, hitting just .206, and was demoted to West Virginia.
White, however, considered it a good thing. Getting a chance to play every day with the Power, he hit .288 with 23 RBIs in 35 games. And after Marauders first baseman Aaron Baker was dealt to Baltimore on July 30, White returned to Bradenton.
He entered Monday batting .444 (8-for-18) with a home run and five RBIs since his arriving from West Virginia.
“I was starting to do things kind of counterproductive when I was up here because I wasn’t playing every day. I was trying to get hits rather than just trust the process,” White said. “Down there (West Virginia), I got to relax a little bit, and I focused on seeing a lot of pitches.”
That being said, he is happy to be back.
“I really enjoyed my first part of the season with these guys,” White said. “No one ever wants to get demoted, but it was kind of a blessing in disguise.”