A 19-year-old in desperate search for a path marveled at another 19-year-old who had found his.
In 2005, Joey Falcone, a little more than a year removed from his decision to forgo college and join the military, sat in a restaurant and watched Seattle Mariners wunderkind Felix Hernandez confound Major League hitters. Both were 19. One was playing baseball for a living and would go on to post a microscopic 2.67 ERA in his rookie season. The other would have no stats beside his name – no home runs or on-base percentage to define him – for the first time in his life.
Though he was the son of former Major League pitcher Pete Falcone, Joey hadn’t garnered any interest from college scouts. And his subpar grades did him no favors. So, certain that he couldn’t find success on the diamond or in the classroom, he enlisted in the military to seek discipline and direction. What he found – initially, at least – were only envy and emptiness, feelings personified by that 19-year-old in white and blue and teal who could make a stadium erupt with the snap of his wrist.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m 19, too,’” Falcone said. “And even though a 19-year-old person in the big leagues is extremely, extremely rare, for some reason, it really kicked me in the face. Man, I’m 19 and I didn’t have the courage – I don’t know how to word it – I didn’t give baseball a shot.”
Through six years in the military, that image of Hernandez never left him. And, to Falcone’s surprise, neither would the sport he loved. After three tours of duty as a Navy Corpsman (medic), the final two spent in the thick of battle alongside Marines, Falcone changed profoundly. Not only had he found the discipline and toughness he sought, but he’d sprouted from a 5-foot-9 high schooler to a 6-foot-5, 225-pound athlete with a tight end’s build. Now 26, Falcone is one of the offensive cornerstones of the Columbia baseball team, which, this season, won the Ivy League for the first time since 2008.
“After my last deployment, I thought, man, I still have all my fingers and my arms and my legs and my feet. I still have my eyesight. My heart is still beating,” he said. “Let me see if I can go play baseball.”
But Falcone’s road from rudderless high school student and average baseball player to an Ivy League education and the middle of Columbia’s lineup was treacherous. After managing only a C+ GPA in high school, Falcone couldn’t bear the thought of being stuck in classrooms for four more years. So, even though his country was locked in a pair of prolonged wars in the Middle East, Falcone committed to the armed forces.
“I was probably a little bit too naïve to be deterred by (the wars),” he said.
Before he was sent overseas, Falcone worked alongside military nurses at a hospital in Bethesda, Md. where he helped treat returning wounded. There, Falcone’s transformation began. The physical growth spurt had taken place in boot camp, but as he worked with the nurses, he learned everything he could about the job as quickly as he could. Without realizing, he’d finally embraced the role of diligent student. Falcone had no choice. It was his duty, he understood, to be a sponge during his medical training, because soon the men he was treating wouldn’t be safe in a hospital bed in the United States; they’d be on the verge of death on a battlefield in Afghanistan. By February of 2007, after more than two years of physical and mental preparation, it was time to go.
“At that point, you’re so trained for it and you’re expecting to see it,” he said. “It’s a job and the objective is to clean the wounds, treat the wounds…Of course you see it as a tragedy, but you see it more as something you’re trained to treat instead of an, ‘Oh my God’ thing.”
Through three separate tours, each lasting seven months, Falcone survived more than a few close calls. To cope, he said, he and fellow Marines would joke about having nine lives. Every time one of them had been a few feet away from a blast or a bullet, but emerged unscathed, one of those “lives” would expire. Morbid banter, but necessary, Falcone said, to maintain sanity during a life spent in a place where the ground indiscriminately swallowed men whole.
“The best way I can describe it – stepping out on a mission every day – is playing Russian roulette,” Falcone said. “You never know who is going to step on it.”
But Falcone’s biggest fear wasn’t death, he said, it was the prospect of being unable to reach a fallen comrade in time. Usually, he’d have only a matter of seconds to dash to a wounded soldier and stop the bleeding before his body ran dry. Sometimes, he’d be pinned down by gunfire. Others, he’d have to rush onto earth that could be brimming with IEDs, hoping he could tend to an injured Marine in time, hoping the ground wouldn’t punish him for doing his job.
In the time between those three tours, Falcone returned to his base in Hawaii. As relaxing as that might seem, the island offered no respite. He was subject to constant training to keep him sharp for his next deployment. And the specter of having to go back to a place he felt lucky to have escaped loomed over every day in paradise. Before he even set out on his third tour, he “was out of gas” emotionally, he said, almost numb to the grim consequences of war. He’d been lucky to escape injury and death for 14 months, he knew, but wondered if that luck would hold for seven more.
But amid the numbness and the worrying and the emotional exhaustion, Falcone found comfort in one place on that base – the batting cage. He would hit balls in solitude as often as he could, 30 minutes at a time, relishing the power his new frame generated.
“Something inside of me would just jump, would just go crazy. My blood would boil as soon as I would pick up a bat and put on a helmet and put the quarters into the machine and start taking swings,” Falcone said. “I got addicted to it.”
So when he returned from his third deployment uninjured, Falcone decided he had endured enough. If he was sent back for a fourth, he saw “no light at the end of the tunnel.” His nine lives had expired.
It was time for baseball, which meant it was time to go back to school. The focus he lacked in high school had been driven into him by the sergeants in his company. Each was a former drill instructor at the Marines’ notoriously tough training grounds in Parris Island, S.C. Anything within his control, they preached, anything that could reflect on him, he must do with utter perfection and maximum effort.
Their lessons never left him. He knew, even with his newfound size, that he would have to apply that mindset to baseball. And to play baseball, he understood, he could no longer afford to flounder in the classroom. The memory of watching Hernandez years before remained vivid. He might not reach the heights the pitcher had, but he’d found his path thanks to a six-year-long detour.
So after being granted discharge – and armed with money for college thanks to the GI Bill – he applied to as many schools as he could. He contacted coaches at several major Division I programs, like Florida, not realizing that he would have to be recruited or invited to even earn a tryout at with an elite team. Seton Hall showed interest, but coaches there expressed concern about his high school grades; he likely wouldn’t qualify and would have to redshirt for a year while he proved himself in college classrooms.
Already in his mid-20s, Falcone wouldn’t wait. So he enrolled at the College of Staten Island in Division III. Thanks to his diligence in that lonely batting cage in Hawaii, he thrived at the plate. Falcone won the CUNY Athletic Conference rookie of the year and posted a near-perfect GPA.
“I want to kill this test,” Falcone said of his newfound academic mindset. “I want to destroy it. I don’t want to miss a single question. I wanted to get every question right, so I did.”
With sparkling numbers on and off the field, Falcone began searching for options within Division I. A coach in a summer baseball league in Brooklyn mentioned Columbia’s School of General Studies, which was created for nontraditional students like Falcone. In Columbia’s eyes, his military career and strong academic showing at Staten Island were more than enough to make up for a poor performance in high school.
Of the roughly 1,600 undergraduates in the School of General Studies – who have an average age of 29 – about 300 are military veterans. Despite their nontraditional backgrounds, they’re fully integrated in with other undergraduates from Columbia University, sitting side-by-side with students who’ve taken a more direct route to the Ivy League. Curtis Rodgers, dean of enrollment management at the Columbia School of General Studies, said that the many veterans who have come through the school typically flourish.
“What Joey was able to do was draw upon his experience in the military and his time as a Marine to figure out how to apply a certain level of discipline to his academic studies,” Rodgers said. “The underlying potential and ability is always there; it’s just a matter of how do you realize that potential? How do you translate potential to academic success?”
Not only does Falcone, now an economics major, have to adjust to the rigors of Ivy League classes, he’s had to adapt to Division I pitching. He wasn’t a lock to make Columbia’s team when he enrolled. Coming from Division III, Falcone’s skills were raw, but his natural power – on full display when he tried out – was impossible to overlook, said Columbia head baseball coach Brett Boretti. Falcone started the season on Columbia’s bench, trying to hone plate discipline that would match his strength. But when called upon as a pinch-hitter early in the season, Falcone routinely smashed doubles.
“To Joey’s credit, he came in and worked his tail off and put his ego aside and wasn’t looking to upset anything and didn’t act like he deserved anything because of what he came from,” Boretti said. “He (earned) the respect of the guys because of his work ethic.”
He garnered more than respect on the afternoon of Apr. 6. In Columbia’s final inning at bat – the team down a run and held scoreless by Yale pitcher Rob Cerfolio – Falcone was called upon to pinch hit. Though Cerfolio had carved up the Lions all day, Falcone took him deep to right field, tying the game and sparking Columbia’s comeback win. The game marked the beginning of what would become a seven-game winning streak and Boretti credits the moment as one of the catalysts for Columbia’s run to the Ivy League crown.
From that point on, Boretti made Falcone the team’s regular designated hitter and plugged him into the all-important cleanup spot in the lineup. On Apr. 26, Falcone hit a two-run walk-off home run to defeat Penn. For the season, he started 35 of Columbia’s 49 games, was tied for the team lead in batting average (.331) and finished second in home runs (5) and RBIs (29).
In early May, Columbia clinched the Ivy League championship by defeating Dartmouth. Falcone scored two runs, drove in a run and had six hits in the two-game series. The Lions got knocked out of the NCAA Regionals by Arizona State, but Falcone’s future on the team seems bright. He still has two years of eligibility remaining. Boretti wants him to improve on defense so he can earn some time in the outfield, learn how to work counts and be more patient at the plate to compliment the power and aggression he honed in the military.
“When he takes a cut, he takes a cut,” Boretti said. “He doesn’t get cheated. He can be a little bit intimidating because of that, too; I think it works in his favor.”
And his unlikely path to success hasn’t gone unnoticed. On Memorial Day, he threw the ceremonial first pitch at a Yankees-Mets game at Citi Field. Seven years earlier, he’d been an envious 19-year-old watching another 19-year-old mesmerize a stadium from the pitching rubber. This time, he was the one who’d earned a spot on a Major League mound. This time, having accomplished and endured so much in his young life, he was the one who his peers admired.