Sam Page, Guest Contributor:
As sophomore outfielder Joey Falcone explains this year’s Columbia University baseball team’s success (they qualified for the NCAA tournament for just the third time in school history), he makes a telling error.
“Everybody just adapted, adjusted fire, and kept going,” said Falcone, describing the team’s work ethic in the winter. “Adjusted fire…that's lingo. I'm sorry.”
“Adjusted fire,” is not baseball lingo: it’s military. Falcone, 26, only began his collegiate baseball career after serving two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan as a medic in the Marine Corps. The son of former Mets starter Pete Falcone, Joey Falcone transferred to Columbia after one season at College of Staten Island, where he earned CUNY and ECAC Rookie of the Year honors.
Falcone has since adjusted to the speed of Division I play quickly, hitting .333 with 5 home runs and 27 RBIs this year. And if the 6-foot-5, 225-pound slugger explains his pivotal role in the Lions’ success in military terms, he can’t help it. In many ways, Falcone thinks of his baseball career as a continuation of his military one, with his wartime experience informing several facets of his game.
“There are a lot of similar dynamics between a college baseball team and a platoon,” Falcone said. “On a baseball team, you have your freshman, then your senior team captains, then your coaching staff. Similarly in the platoon, you have your boots--the green guys fresh out of boot camp--then you have the saltier guys, who have been in a few fights.”
Despite his advanced age and his MLB bloodlines, Falcone started from the bottom at Columbia, as if fresh out of baseball boot camp. After his first semester at Columbia in spring 2012, Falcone introduced himself to Columbia head coach Brett Boretti and stated his intention to walk on the next season.
“We've had a few guys who have wanted to try out before who are in General Studies and typically they're not at the level we're looking for,” Boretti said.
Falcone, however, impressed the coaching staff with his raw power and high level of physical fitness. He made the team as a pinch hitter and gradually forced his way into the lineup, through great play, starting in 32 of the team’s 45 games as a designated hitter or outfielder. This season, he lead all regular position players with a .535 slugging percentage.
“He's aggressive,” Boretti said. “He's somebody that doesn't get cheated at the plate, which has an effect on other guys when they see what he does and the success he has with his approach.”
His teammates chalk up that ability to grind out at bats and capitalize on his pitch to his military background.
“He definitely has that aggressive mentality, which I'm sure has to do with his background in the military,” said Joey Doninom, a junior and right-handed pitcher.
In addition to his aggressive approach on the field, Falcone’s equally humble off the field attitude ingratiated him with coaches and teammates. His Brooklyn accent hides his mostly Southern upbringing (where his dad coached in the Minor Leagues), but he speaks with a Southern politeness. He addresses all his coaches as “sir,” a habit he carried over from the Marine Corps.
If he misses a signal or needs to improve an aspect of his game, Falcone never hesitates to ask for help. His peers naturally respect Falcone for his experience and service, making his willingness to seek their advice even more powerful.
“You get seniors, who won't talk to younger guys who possibly know something they don't,” said Jordan Serena, sophomore middle infielder. “And Joey's 26 and he'll come in and talk to anybody about anything.”
One might expect the combined effect of Falcone’s age, military experience, and performance would propel him to a leadership position on the team. But consistent with his view that locker room mirrors the platoon hierarchy, Falcone feels content to “fall in line.”
“There are excellent team captains on the team and they're excellent leaders,” Falcone said. “I love them to death. They're great guys and great ballplayers. And I don't try to take that away from them at all.”
For all the praise Falcone’s maturity garners now, one would hardly suspect a fear of immaturity propelled him to enlist out of high school. Without college as a possibility, Falcone began to worry what direction his life would take.
“I was a knucklehead,” Falcone said. “I probably would have done knucklehead things.”
So for the past eight years, Falcone has been surrounded by 18-24-year-old men. And the entire time, he has obsessed about baseball. He admits to daydreaming about the game when missions dragged abroad, despite a niggling knowledge that his age made his career virtually over.
“It was still in my heart, and I don't know why,” Falcone said. “Those days are over. What am I thinking about that for?”
Falcone, as a medic, saw much of the worst of war. And feeling grateful to return home able-bodied when so many others had not, he felt compelled to at least give his baseball dream a shot. Toward the end of 2009, he began to entertain the idea of picking up the bat again.
“I just didn't want to be working a 9-5--and there's nothing wrong with that,” Falcone said. “I just wanted to give something a shot first. And whatever happens happens.”
What happens in Falcone’s immediate future is the NCAA Tournament Regionals, beginning May 31. Columbia has yet to win an NCAA Tournament game in their history. After this season, Falcone has two more years of NCAA eligibility.
Beyond that, though, Falcone’s future remains uncertain. The outfielder would love to follow in his father’s footsteps and continue his baseball career into the professional ranks. But in a sport so focused on aging curves, Falcone, who turns 27 on June 1, knows he faces an uphill battle.
Wherever Falcone ends up--whether on another baseball diamond or somewhere else--his Marine Corps’ work ethic and willingness to start from the bottom up will surely follow.
“I would like to just be a good and faithful servant,” Falcone said. “I just want to find something I'm good at and do it.”
GEICO SportsNite features Joey Falcone, who served three tours in the Marines before coming back to play baseball for Columbia: