By Bob Elliott
DUNEDIN, Fla. _ Alex Azorwasn’t the best outfielder at the Blue Jays mini-camp which concluded Friday afternoon.
He wasn’t the second best either
Azor, however, might be the bravest soul wandering the fields and weight room at the Bobby Mattick training facility this week.
Growing up in Kendall, Fla. in Miami-Dade county, he played and attended showcases with the likes of major leaguers Yasmani Grandal and Sean Rodriguez plus Harold Martinez who is in the minor leagues.
The United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., is where Azor chose to attend after high school.
His father, Mike Azor, escaped Cuba to Florida, while mom Helida, is from Cali, Colombia. Mike served in Vietnam.
“The United Sates gave my family a place to live, sir, I feel like I have a debt to my country, sir,” said Azor a couple of days ago.
He started three of his four years for Navy, which competes in the Patriot League against Army, Bucknell, Holy Cross, Lafayette and Lehigh universities.
Suffering an ankle injury as a freshman he played 26 games hitting .258 in 2009. The next three seasons he batted .362, .329 and .322. During his college career he had 35 doubles, seven triples, a homer and 101 RBIs.
On a team full of leaders and future leaders, Azor was voted by his teammates as team captain the first unanimous choice the program ever had.
Jays scout Chuck LaMarr drafted Azor in the 10th round of 2012 (“I always say I would have signed for a hot dog, I was given a $1,000 bonus,” he said) and he played 14 games at rookie-class Bluefield in 2012 for manager Dennis Holmberg.
Placed on military leave list Aug. 16, 2012, Azor applied this winter for an exemption so he could continue with baseball. Much like quarterback Roger Staubach of the Dallas Cowboys and Admiral David Robinson with the San Antonio Spurs.
On May 29, this year Azor would have completed three years of his five-year commitment. He jokes that 7-foot-1 Robinson “wouldn’t have fit in any of our submarines” anyway.
The Army branch of the service is on the ground, the Air Force is in the air, but the Navy and its branch, the Marines “has it all,” said Azor, “land, sea and air.”
While the players at mini camp had abbreviations like RHP, INF and C in front of their names, Azor has 1stLt … as a First Lieutenant in the US Marines, 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C. He’s responsible for logistics (troop movements and then getting ammo, food and water to his soldiers).
A typical day at the Mattick complex, according to Azor.
Showing at “10-hundred,” (10 AM) works on his light weights and hits in the cage.
“This is not tough, but you battle the human factor too,” he says.
How does a day at Mattick compare to a day of training after joining the Marines?
He skirts the issue with an answer we’ve never heard from a ball player in uniform … not even David Wells.
“I know — no matter how much I am sweating, no matter how much I am shaking, no matter how much I am trembling — that I know I can push myself further,” he said.
Every one of the minor leaguers in camp dreams of making the majors.
What does a 1st Lieutenant dream of? Becoming a Major General or a Lieutenant General?
“I value people, sir, my job is to serve my men and women with honor, courage and commitment,” Azor said. “I don’t care about rank. I care about serving the United States of America and it allies, sir.”
The mini camp roster included former No. 1 picks Jeff Hoffman (ninth over-all), D. J. Davis(17th) and Matt Smoral (50th), plus Chase DeJong,Matt Morgan, Evan Smith, Lane Thomas and Nick Wells selected in the first five rounds. Recently-signed John Stephens of Surrey, B.C. and Peterborough catcher Mike Reeves were also there.
“Guys tease each other about being Canadian or being from California, but no one would ever, ever tease a guy about being a Marine,” said Reeves. “Americans are so proud of the Marines. I did call him ‘Lethal Weapon.’”
And Azor was semi-Lethal in the cage when Reeves asked to show him some basic moves learned in the Marines.
“He was throwing me around the cage and I’m bigger than he is,” said the 6-foot-2, 195 pound Reeves. Azor is a fighting trim 5-foot-11, 190 lbs. “He’s in shape, he’s fit, it’s pretty amazing when you think of it … he serves his country,” Reeves said. “What we do isn’t easy when it comes to workouts. We know he can do the same — with a 50-pound pack on his back.”
Azor credits his family for helping him down the path as well as mentor, Lt.-Col Gary Blosel, Jays scout LaMarr, plus “Mr. (Andrew) Tinnish(former scouting director), Doug Davis (minor-league field co-ordinator) and Charlie Wilson (director of minor league operations) before heading out for batting practice on Field 1 to take … and avoid the sprinkler which knocked out Michael Saunders.
Now it would be a nice end to tell you that Azor’s exemption came through and he would be staying around for minor league camp — pitchers and catcher report Saturday.
The call came on Friday.
The exemption did not.
Azor received word that he must be back at Camp Lejeune on Monday.
No Staubach or Robinson treatment for him.
You meet some young minor leaguers over the years and you can’t help but hope that some day they make it.
Azor would belong in that club.
You also think the times you have watched peach-fuzzed youngsters in fatigues coming out of the USO office or line up at Burger King at airports from coast to coast. They were headed for some far-off, dangerous destination or boot camp to get ready to deploy to a dangerous pocket somewhere around the world.
You think of those brave men and you hope where ever Azor winds up he keeps his head down.
You remember your Uncle Sam Sheridan who was a Canadian parachutist on D-Day dropping behind enemy lines and Uncle King Whitney, who flew for the RAF.
Stay safe soldier.
R.I.P. Tex: Inside NBT Bank Stadium are large photographs of Hank Sauer, Jackie Robinson and Tex Simone. Sauer played four years in Syracuse including a 50-homer season in 146 games in 1947, Robinson changed the game of baseball for the better and Simone rose from MacArthur Stadium grounds keeper and trainer in 1961 to general manager of the Syracuse Chiefs of the International League in 1970.
Simone died Friday at age 86.
He was GM until 1997 when his son John Simone took over. From 1978 until 2008 Syracuse was the Jays top affiliate, supplanting the New York Yankees and being bumped out of town by the Washington Nationals.
Future Jays were inducted into the Syracuse Hall of Fame: Tom Henke, Dave Lemanczyk, Tony Fernandez, Steve Grilli, Fred McGriff, Otto Velez, Bobby Cox, Pat Gillick, Greg Wells, Rick Leach, Geno Petralli, Shawn Green and Carlos Delgado.
Managers included Doug Davis, Mike Basso, Marty Pevey, Omar Malavé, Pat Kelly, Terry Bevington, Garth Iorg, Richie Hebner, Nick Leyva, Bob Didier, Bob Bailor, Doug Ault, Jim Beauchamp, Bob Humphreys, Harry Warner and Vern Benson.
The city of Syracuse designated the stadium’s street as “Tex Simone Drive” and he was inducted into the Greater Syracuse Sports Hall of Fame (1991), the Syracuse Wall of Fame (2001), the International League Hall of Fame (2008), the LeMoyne College Hall of Fame (2011) and the North High Hall of Fame (2012).
Sympathies are extended to his family.