'If I could physically do both, I would': Phillies pitcher Noah Song on his two paths and passions

The Phillies prospect and Naval Academy grad is finally pursuing his MLB dream at 25 years old.

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Noah Song, a pitcher who represents perhaps the most intriguing storyline in Phillies camp this spring, didn’t pay much attention to last year’s postseason. He caught one of the World Series games on TV but felt no particular affinity for either team. Lately, though, he has been rewatching bits and pieces of the Phillies’ unexpected pennant run, as he suddenly finds himself sharing a clubhouse in Clearwater with those South Philly cult heroes.

Watching film helps him play catch-up on a sport that might’ve passed him by. Once an especially promising fourth-round draft pick and most recently an 0-2 Lieutenant Junior Grade in the U.S. Navy, Song watches to learn about his new team and new teammates and “because quite frankly,” he said Tuesday before a spring training game, “I'm just trying to get back into the pitching experience and mindset of pitching.”

Song never really expected to get drafted. Growing up outside Los Angeles, he was a misplaced Minnesota Twins fan rooting for Joe Mauer and dreaming of someday playing professional baseball. But he went undrafted out of high school, and Bobby Applegate, the pitching coach at the Naval Academy, convinced him to come to Annapolis for a visit.

“It kind of changed my perspective on everything,” Song said.

On that visit, he stayed in the barracks with a student who planned to go into aviation. Song had never intended to pursue military service — no one in his family had — but this was something he hadn’t considered: “As an 18-year-old, it sounded awesome. I wanted to go fly.”

Which, he was well aware, meant foreclosing the opportunity to play professional baseball in the future. A scholarship to the U.S. Naval Academy comes with a commitment to a minimum of five years of military service.

“Going into the academy, you know you're gonna play four years of baseball and be done, and that's going to be the deal,” he said. “That’s what you signed up for, and that's what you're preparing for.”

Then two things happened during the four years that Song pitched for the Midshipmen and studied to be a naval pilot: He blossomed into a top-round MLB talent, and he developed a passionate commitment to the U.S. military.

The confluence of those things — his promise as a pitcher and his obligation to serve — led to the Red Sox selecting him in the fourth round of the 2019 draft, lower than his potential merited but higher than anyone had ever been drafted out of the Naval Academy. Song then allowed two runs in 17 innings in short-season A-ball before he headed off to flight school in Pensacola, Florida. There, his baseball status languished in the Red Sox’s system while he was too busy training in antisubmarine warfare to mourn that parallel life.

“I think right when I finished playing in 2019, you miss it a little bit. But the good thing about flight school is it kept me so occupied that I got over it pretty quick or at least was distracted by it,” he said. “And then enough time passed where I was like, well, the game doesn't miss me really anymore, and I …”

He stopped before he said he didn’t miss it, either.

During his first year in the Boston system, Song had applied for and been denied a request to delay his military service. While in flight school, he didn’t talk much about his brief but promising pro baseball career. He saw it as irrelevant to the task at hand and a source of potential bias or distraction among instructors.

Occasionally, someone would realize he was the guy who got drafted by the Red Sox, but he liked it better when they had no idea. When you’re running a mission, it doesn’t matter who you are or even what your name is.

“You have a life outside of baseball,” he decided instead.

*** *** ***

It was in this state — curious to keep the door open to baseball, Song had submitted a request to transfer his time from active duty to reserve duty after he’d gotten his wings, but he was also ready to embrace his future in the Navy — that Song barely watched the World Series and was caught completely off-guard when the team that came within two games of winning it all in November took him in the Rule 5 Draft in December.

After a certain amount of time in a team's minor-league system, players must be placed on the 40-man roster; otherwise, they become eligible to be essentially re-drafted (for a fee) by the other 29 teams. Perhaps not expecting anyone to select a player with a lengthy military obligation ahead of him, the Red Sox left Song unprotected. Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Domborowski, who oversaw the Red Sox draft that included Song during his time in Boston, seized the opportunity to retake the talent he’d found promising 3.5 years prior.

Song learned of this when Applegate, his college coach, texted him with the news. A little while later, Phillies general manager Sam Fuld called.

“They were very clear about the expectations they had, which was not a whole lot at the time,” Song said. “They didn’t know if I was gonna come back to play. Nobody knew if I was gonna come back to play or not.”

In January, Song was supposed to be deployed to Japan. When he was held back, he realized his request had been approved; instead of six years of active duty, Song is now obligated to spend 12 years in the naval reserves, serving one weekend per month and two weeks per year.

And so, at 25 years old, he was headed to his first spring training. He asked his roommate in Pensacola to start playing catch with him and told his friends in the military that he was leaving to try to be a pitcher for the Phillies.

One of them pulled up a picture of the liberty bell logo. “That Phillies?” they asked.

“Yeah,” Song said, “that’s the Phillies.”

*** *** ***

On Tuesday in Clearwater, Song threw off the mound for the second time since he reported to camp. Dombrowski, Fuld, manager Rob Thomson, other members of the coach staff and an MLB Network camera crew were on hand to watch. It has been almost four years since he pitched competitively. And as much as Song has changed in that time, so has baseball. This spring, the rules are different, but more than that, the technology used to track and train pitchers has grown, the analytical evaluation applied to their approach has evolved.

“It feels like I'm coming back to a different game, to be honest,” Song said. “I think, fortunately for me, the military does a good job of having you adapt to new situations. That's one of our big resource-management things is adaptability and flexibility. And in my mind, whether or not I'm the player I used to be, I can adapt to whatever the game is now.”

But Song is battling not just his own conditioning — his goal so far is just to stay healthy and make progress — and ability to catch up. He’s also racing against the clock, at least as it pertains to his future with the Phillies.

Rule 5 selections have to spend the entire subsequent season on the team’s 26-man roster or else be placed on waivers. If a player clears waivers, he returns to the original team. Rostering a pitcher with 17 pro innings and a three-year gap in his baseball résumé would be unprecedented, especially for a contending team such as the Phillies. Whether there’s some wiggle room to be found in the nitty-gritty nuances of the rules, as iterated at The Athletic, remains to be seen. But the Phillies already took a gamble on Song’s fortitude and aptitude — the same stuff that made him a fit for the Navy — and for now, all they can do is give him a shot.

“If I could physically do both, I would,” Song said of his two paths and passions that, at the highest level, have become mutually exclusive. And so for now, he’ll turn his attention to baseball — a young man’s game for which he might already be too late to achieve what could have been. But he doesn’t see it that way.

“From the day I was drafted, every day of baseball after that was just one more day than I was guaranteed. So I was just happy to play every day,” he said.

“Even to this day, I still kind of see it that way.”