Air Force cadets more than just ballplayers
At first glance they blend in, just a couple guys on a baseball diamond enjoying their summer. They're indistinguishable during batting practice, another pair of genial, fun-loving ballplayers loafing around in the heat. They'll dance during pregame warmups and go wild in the dugout during run-scoring rallies.
They're consummate members of the Marysville Gold Sox, jersey Nos. 20 and 22 on their backs, smiles across their faces. Summer break is fleeting for this duo, so every morsel of free time must be savored. A greater calling than baseball is beckoning, a calling they remind us of when the national anthem is played before first pitch.
This is the moment Alex Bast and Ben Bertelson stop folding into the mesh. They're cadets at the United States Air Force Academy, and there's procedure to be followed, a sense of duty to embody.
As their teammates stand casually, they're at parade rest, then full attention. They present arms. They salute the flag beyond the centerfield wall. They won't break from their solid, stoic stance until the final note of "The Star-Spangled Banner" has passed through the stadium's speakers. Where they get their education, that's how it's done: perfect, prideful and patriotic. It resonates.
"They're awesome; I've asked Bast probably a million questions about what it's like to be in the Air Force," second baseman Casey Coy said. "Just hearing some of the stuff they do ... it's gotta be pretty grueling."
It's simple to focus on and laud their public displays of patriotism. But it's just the glimmering surface. A perceptive fan could pick up on the saluting and see "Air Force" next to their name in the game program. Ask a few questions, dig a little deeper, and you'll discover both these 20-year-olds operate in a different orbit.
You learn about their 18-hour days. They would train in the morning at Travis Air Force Base, drive to Marysville for game time, then commute back to Fairfield. They'd get home after midnight and do it all again the next day.
You learn about their way-too-short summer. Three weeks, that's it. Three weeks where there's no survival training or stress. They could have gone home to Texas (Bertelson) or Florida (Bast). They could have partied like most kids their age. But they chose to play baseball here, and will be departing after the team's road trip to Neptune Beach concludes on Wednesday.
Duty calls, and both will enter their junior year as student-leaders on the Colorado Springs, Colo., campus. Next week, as the Sox continue on with their YMCA dances and kangaroo court, they'll be in charge of whipping incoming freshman into shape and enforcing honor code violations.
You learn how proper a ballplayer's manners can be. With a title like Cadet 2nd Class, you'd expect discipline. But they're almost too polite: "Yes sir. Yes sir. Yes sir." As they sat in a dugout known for shenanigans and spit, they almost seemed out of place discussing their futures.
Bertelson, a left-handed pitcher, will transfer to the Marine Corps upon graduation. He wants to see action, lead on the front lines. Without pause, he said "infantry" is his career.
Bast, a hard-charging, .300-plus hitting center fielder, wants to fly. Helicopters are his preference. He envisions a life of transporting special-operations soldiers in and out of "places they're not supposed to be."
They both have that military-look, the type you see in recruiting commercials. Confident, brave, proud — it radiates off them. It was felt by their teammates when they used to walk into the clubhouse wearing their cadet uniforms. While baseball is obviously important to them, it's ultimately secondary. In two years, they won't be hoping for calls from scouts or toiling away in independent ball — they'll be lieutenants.
All of which is why it's nice to see them enjoying their time on the Gold Sox. Both are soaking up the relaxing pace of life at Appeal-Democrat Park. For three short weeks, life doesn't have to be completely regimented; nor do dress codes need to be explicitly followed. It's OK for Bertelson to "freak out" after every single run.
Like all players interviewed about their experience with team, they quickly mentioned "atmosphere" and the big crowds at the ballpark. Bast even enjoys getting heckled.
Manager Jack Johnson has a relationship with the coaching staff at the Air Force Academy and helped get the duo to the Mid-Valley. Gold Sox owner Tom Lininger opened up his Ellis Lake apartment to them after their training finished at Travis AFB. Both sang superlatives about the cadets.
Two other AFA players have worn the Gold Sox uniform in the past and Johnson will welcome more in the future. Before Bast and Bertelson depart, he plans to address the team on the importance of their sacrifice. Then they'll be immortalized on the clubhouse wall.
Like all players who eventually sign a pro contract, their names will be taped to the hallway just outside Johnson's office. But instead of denoting a future in baseball, it will read: "GONE BACK TO FLY JETS ... Bast ... Bertelson."
"If they're afraid of something," Johnson said, "I don't know what it is."