DH Nolan Cork at bat; and fourth from left is on verge of breaking Army home run record.

Making his Point The hard way


Heavy-hitting Cadet takes long way to top




WEST POINT - On his second time through college and the third time through the batting order, a strapping 23-year-old freshman with straw-colored hair and skin as white as milk stood strong and straight in the right-handed batter's box of Doubleday Field.


This was last weekend in the Hudson Highlands, in the heart of the U.S. Military Academy campus. Army was playing its Patriot League rival, Bucknell, and Nolan Cork, Army's DH and sometimes first baseman and catcher, was standing in against Matt Daley, star pitcher of Patriot League rival Bucknell. Daley threw an 85-MPH fastball, Cork measured it and turned on it and launched it toward the Hudson, the ball crashing three-quarters of the way up the columned front of Cullum Hall, maybe 50 feet high, and 460 or 470 feet from home plate.


Mel Ott, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle all played at Doubleday Field, a verdant jewel as rich with history as the rest of West Point. So have other Hall of Famers. It could be that nobody has hit a ball farther than Nolan Cork did.


"It's the best one I can remember hitting," Cork says, smiling faintly. He is sitting in a dugout, surrounded by the intermittent sound of his teammates' spikes clacking on cement. Rain is coming down hard. It is about the only thing that has gone wrong this season for the Army baseball team and for Nolan Cork, college graduate turned plebe, job hunter turned Cadet. His teammates call him Blue, after the octogenarian character in the film "Old School" who becomes a fraternity brother. He is a 6-3, 215-pound country boy from Lawrenceville, Ill. (pop. 4,500), four miles from the Indiana border, the son of a game warden. He leads the team in home runs (seven) and leads the nation in implausible educational paths.


Cork graduated from Eastern Illinois University last spring, with a degree in economics. The same day he got his diploma, he got a letter from the Academy, informing him that he had been admitted to the Class of 2007. He would be a freshman all over again, this time with reveille, and 5:30 a.m. wakeup calls. There were some 12,500 applicants for the class. Only about 1,300 made the cut.


Of the 1,300, Cork is believed to be the only one who already has a college degree.


"He couldn't speak for a half-hour when he got the letter," says his father, Brian Cork. "He was stunned."


Schuyler Williamson is Army's co-captain and starting catcher. Like many at West Point, Williamson has an intimate connection to the realities of war; his younger brother, Nick, has been in Iraq since January. Says Williamson of Cork, "I didn't understand his thinking about coming here, but I didn't question it either. When it comes down to it, he's after the same thing I am. You can't beat a West Point education."


Cork's route to the Academy was the product of pure happenstance. He played in a collegiate baseball league upstate in the summer of 2002, and he and his father decided to swing south to visit New York on the way home to Lawrenceville. They stopped at West Point. A 45-minute tour changed Cork's life. He had always considered the option of going into the service. Being at the Academy, feeling the discipline and the history and the challenge, touched something deep within him.


"It just kind of grew from there," Cork says.


He applied for admission, got a letter of reference from his congressman and told Jim Schmitz, his baseball coach at Eastern Illinois, about his plan. Cork had a year of baseball eligibility left, having missed his sophomore year with a broken wrist that required three surgeries. Schmitz calls Cork "a tremendous person and a true gentleman," a kid who would always stay steady and industrious, through all manner of ups and downs. The coach assumed he would have Cork for another year, as a fifth-year senior.



"My jaw just about dropped out when he told me," Schmitz says. "I kind of wanted to say to him, 'Do you know that means starting college all over?'"


Cork knew, which isn't to say it wasn't a big adjustment. At Eastern Illinois, he had a car and lived off-campus with three friends, and always tried to get classes after 10:30 a.m., because he's not a morning person. He came and went as he pleased. Though quiet by nature, he was renowned for his antics, goofing around and letting his baseball teammates pummel him with tennis balls. He went from there to Cadet Basic Training, six grueling weeks of physical and mental demands, a crash course in stress and sleep deprivation aptly known as Beast Barracks.


Suddenly, Nolan Cork couldn't talk outside his room unless spoken to. He had to walk along the walls of corridors. Upperclassmen two years his junior screamed at him, and he learned there were only four acceptable answers to questions:


"Yes, sir."


"No, sir."


"No excuse, sir."


"I don't understand, sir."


Cork smiles. "Even if there is a perfectly good excuse, there is no excuse," he says. "You have to learn to bite your lip every time."


After Beast came the regimented routine of Academy life, including Saturday A.M. Inspection (SAMI), when you better have your shoes spit and polished, your bed made, your life in absolute order.


"After one of the first SAMIs he had he'd been up all night studying and he was kind of down," Brian Cork says. "But by the next weekend, he got recharged."


Joe Sottolano, Army's Brooklyn-born baseball coach, has the team on course to one of its best seasons ever this spring, the Black Knights going into the weekend with a 25-9 record, a school-record 15-game winning streak and a solid grip on first place in the league. An aggressive, high-energy coach who recruits hard all over the country, Sottolano didn't even know who Cork was until he saw him taking batting practice on Doubleday Field last summer. It was during Mass Athletics, when plebes showcase themselves in an array of sports, from intramural to intercollegiate. It was a coach's favorite kind of surprise.


"Nolan has been a blessing," Sottolano says. "He's brought a physical presence and a mental presence and a maturity to our team. I think the decision he made to come here has demanded the respect of everyone at West Point."


Cork is hitting .261 with 25 RBI in 32 games, and is in sight of the school home-run record (12). It has been a charmed season, and it just seems to get better. Five days ago, the team got a locker-room pep talk from Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, an Army pitcher from the class of 1976, and the commanding officer of the operation that led to the capture of Saddam Hussein last Dec. 13.


"It's amazing the people who have come out of here," Cork says. Two days later, the Cadets fell behind 10-0 to Pace, and won, 17-13. Cork had a hit and two RBI. You could feel them coming on the entire game. Even in a big hole, Sottolano kept calling for steals, hit-and-runs, a late suicide squeeze.


"I've never been on a team like this in my life," Cork says. "It's awesome to be a part of it. There's just a sense that if you give us a task, we'll get it done."


Before the comeback was highlighted by a three-run, opposite field home run by Milan Dinga, a promising freshman from Tampa, and before Williamson followed with his own shot in the same direction, the game was stopped and the Army players emerged from the dugout. It was 6 p.m. It was time for Retreat, the nightly ritual in which a bugle blows, a cannon sounds and the American flag is taken down until morning. Cork stood at attention with his teammates, facing east.


The game resumed, and the 15th straight victory was assured. In the locker room, Cork wolfed down a pizza and headed back to his room and studied until midnight. He slept in, to 6:05 a.m, and then got into his battle-dress uniform that is worn every Friday. College wasn't like this the first time around. For Nolan Cork, 23-year-old plebe, that is precisely the point.


"This type of place, it makes stronger people," Nolan Cork says. "I can see how much it has helped me already."


Generally, he loves the game


The guest speaker was standing in the center of the Army baseball locker room last week, his head shaved, his imposing body dressed in combat fatigues. Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno was back in one of his favorite places, all 6-5 and 250 pounds of him, not so much as a heroic two-star general as a former south paw and member of the West Point baseball brotherhood, class of '76.


Members of the West Point baseball team limber up before meeting Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno , the man who headed operation in Iraq that led to capture of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein.

Odierno returned from 11 months in Iraq two weeks ago, a hero far beyond the Hudson, or his native Rockaway, N.J. Twelve days before Christmas, as commanding officer of the Army's Fourth Infantry Division, he led the operation that resulted in the capture of Saddam Hussein.


Odierno had spent months tracking the deposed dictator, and got word that he'd been found in a covered hole in the ground, at 20:00 hours (8 p.m.), on the night of Dec. 13. He was asked if he saw Saddam up close. A long pause followed. His rising anger was palpable even as he sat in a Doubleday Field dugout.


"I saw him," Odierno said quietly. He opted not to say anything to him. He turned him over to interrogators. "It was a very emotional time. I was so happy we got him."


Odierno joked with the 2004 Army baseball team about the thrill of striking out Ed Kranepool and Dave Kingman during a Doubleday Field exhibition game against the Mets, and of escorting Joe Torre around the Academy. He was much more serious when he said that in war, as in baseball, teammates need to stay together and look out for one another.


"Nobody can do it by themselves," he said.


New York Daily News - http://www.nydailynews.com

Making his Point

the hard way



Saturday, April 17th, 2004