Tyler Jones would love to stay in Eau Claire all summer and play baseball for the Express. It sounds a lot better than what the freshman will be doing when he returns to the Air Force Academy in late June — trying to stay alive.
“I’ll do three weeks of survival training,” Jones said. “Then they throw you in the woods for four days. You don’t get any food or water. You have to find it all on your own. You’re not even allowed to eat the food you find. I’m not looking forward to that.”
Junior Brian Sicher won’t have it so bad. He’s already been through survival training, but he’ll leave the Express during their current road trip so he can get back to the academy in time to help run boot camp for the incoming freshmen. Sicher and Jones both knew that’s the way it was going to be. They didn’t join the Air Force just for the baseball.
Most players in the Northwoods League are hoping to get on the radar of Major League scouts. If they’re good enough, they can go pro as soon as they’re done with college. Maybe even earlier. Sicher and Jones don’t have that option. They’re committed to serve in the military for five years upon graduation.
“Everyone’s dream is to go play baseball after college, but if that doesn’t work out, everyone needs a backup plan,” Sicher said. “The Air Force is going to prepare me for the future. If I don’t have the opportunity to play after college ball, then I’m going to be pretty well set.”
That doesn’t mean a professional baseball career is out of the question. Four Air Force players have been selected in the Major League draft. The most recent was Garrett Custons, a catcher who played for the Express in 2010 and 2011. He was drafted last year in the 10th round, the earliest any Air Force player has ever gone.
Custons still has to serve his time before pursuing a professional baseball career, but his success has given Sicher and Jones reason to be optimistic.
“I’m definitely trying to get the attention of some scouts,” Jones said. “Getting drafted is definitely possible. It’s a little more difficult coming from the academy, but that would be great if that ended up happening one day in the future.”
Jones probably has the best opportunity of the two to get drafted some day. He hit .338 with 31 RBIs in his freshman season at Air Force and was a second-team all-conference selection.
Sicher has been the more productive of the two for the Express this season. He’s tied for second on the team with seven RBIs. He’s also played well defensively at catcher, his natural position, while filling in at first. He’s the one that always seems to be at the plate in a key spot late in the game. In the second game of the season, he had a game-tying RBI single in the eight inning, then walked with the bases loaded for the game-winning RBI in the ninth. His go-ahead sacrifice fly in the eighth inning of another game gave the Express another win.
Jones has spent most of the season hitting third, and though he’s only batting .150, he’s still been a part of the Express’ early season success. He scored the game-winning run last Monday with a crafty hook slide at the plate. That’s the nature of the Air Force players. They’re always willing to do the dirty work.
“I’m just trying to help out the team in whatever way possible,” Jones said. “Whether that be with the bat, on defense, or even on the bases. Doing whatever I can to contribute to some wins.”
They might be team players, but Sicher and Jones aren’t exactly patient at the plate. Maybe it’s because they know their time to play baseball in the summer isn’t very long, or maybe it’s just how they’re wired, but both always get their hacks in.
“They like to swing,” Express manager Dale Varsho said. “The Air Force guys absolutely love the fastball, so they’re going to be swinging for the fences every time. They’ve been very loose, great guys in the dugout.”
Sicher became recognizable on the field with his late-game prowess and white cleats that stick out like a sore thumb. Jones has done the same with his Backstreet Boys walk-up music and ability to hammer the ball on occasion.
But it’s before the game that the two are the most distinguishable. While all the other Express players take off their hats and put their hands behind their backs during the national anthem, Sicher and Jones keep their hats on and salute the flag, a reminder of what their top priority is as a member of the Air Force.
“I get a chance to get a great education and serve my country after I graduate, which is about all I ask for,” Jones said.