From front lines to between the lines

When Joey Falcone was serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, thoughts of baseball helped him get through the many long days and nights in harm's way.

Now's he back home, safe and sound, playing the game he loves -- at an Ivy League institution, no less -- and on the verge of leading his team to the NCAA tournament.

Columbia just set a school record for conference wins and will host the Ivy League Championship Series this weekend. A big reason for the Lions' success is their slugger from Brooklyn, who walked on to the team after six years in the United States military.

"He's made a very big impact," said Columbia coach Brett Boretti. "He's been a guy in the middle of the lineup that's really been a force to reckon with."

Joey, 26, has a baseball pedigree. His father, Pete, pitched in the major leagues from 1975 to 1984 (including four seasons with the New York Mets), accumulating a career record of 70-90 and a 4.07 ERA.

Joey was born in 1986, after his father had retired. The family still moved around a lot -- Pete made an ultimately unsuccessful comeback attempt in the minors in 1989, and also pitched for a professional team in Italy. But eventually the Falcones settled in Louisiana.

Joey played Little League ball, and then for Bolton High School in Alexandria. But after his senior year, he decided to take a different path than most.

"I didn't want to go to college," Joey said. "I wanted to play baseball, but I knew that the only way to play baseball was to go to college, and I couldn't see myself in college."

Instead, he enlisted in the armed forces, at the age of 17, as a Hospital Corpsman in the Navy, eventually serving his final two tours of duty with the Marines. But he didn't exactly set out to be a hero.

"I knew, after I graduated, I wasn't doing anything down there [in Alexandria]," Joey said. "And if I came up here, I definitely wasn't going to do anything up here. The only thing I was gonna do, if I was just running around in the street, was get in trouble. It didn't matter where I was. So I left. I went away."

Joey was trained to be a combat medic and spent nearly six full years in the military, including three deployments -- two to Iraq and one to Afghanistan. In that time, he saw things that no human being should have to see -- people blown to pieces by improvised explosive devices -- and often wondered if he would make it home alive himself.

"I didn't know if I would make it from sunup to sundown," Joey said. "You didn't know if your heart would still be ticking, or if your legs would still be attached to you."

Turning his mind to baseball provided an escape, if only for a moment or two.

"I don't know why I always thought about baseball. I just did," Joey said. "Why do I think about a fastball coming down the middle, and why do I think about pulling it? I'd think about stuff my dad taught me, about hitting. ... I would always think about it."

When Joey was finally discharged after his third tour of duty, he had changed his mind -- he wanted to go to college, and play baseball as well. He initially found that opportunity at the College of Staten Island, a branch of the City University of New York, where he spent one year, excelling on the field and in the classroom.

That led him to apply to Columbia -- specifically the School of General Studies, "created specifically for returning and nontraditional students," including veterans. Joey was accepted, and eventually decided to drop by the athletic offices and introduce himself to the baseball coach.

"We didn't talk much about baseball, to be honest with you," Boretti said. "We talked more about what his experience was, and obviously the name rang a bell with me, I knew what his dad did and stuff. 'Yes sir, no sir.' Also, look at the size of him [6-foot-5, 225 pounds]. This could be very interesting."

Boretti gave Joey a tryout this past fall, and he made the team. He didn't play much at the start, serving mainly as a pinch hitter. But by the time conference play began, he had emerged as the team's full-time DH and cleanup hitter.

"He forced our hand. Every opportunity we gave him, he hit a double," Boretti said, laughing. "At that point in time, we gotta give him an opportunity and see what he can do, and he's made the most of it."

Joey is currently batting .307 with five home runs and 24 RBIs in 36 games. Last Friday, he hit a walk-off homer in Game 1 of a doubleheader, and homered again and drove in five runs in Game 2, as Columbia swept Penn to clinch its division title.

He says he still thinks about his military experience every day. "It's helped me to keep pushing," Joey said. "If a ballgame doesn't go your way, or something doesn't go your way, it's all right. You can just keep rolling with the punches and keep going forward, keep pushing forward anyway.

"I wasn't even in the lineup at the beginning of the year. But you stick with it, and stay focused, stay faithful and just keep pushing."

Alex Black, Columbia's senior captain, said Joey is just one of the guys, despite the age difference.

"We have a house we all live at, and he comes over every day and just hangs out and watches 'SportsCenter' and stuff with us," Black said. "Just hangs out like a regular guy."

At the same time, Joey has made a big impact on his teammates.

"He's very disciplined," Black said. "I think people look up to him in the weight room -- he gets after it. You can see it in his approach at the plate. He's just a very disciplined person and it definitely brings another aspect to our team that I don't think we had before."

"I think he's brought a lot of intangibles to the team that has spread to the other guys, with his life experiences and who he is as a person and as a man," Boretti said. "It's really been a great example to a lot of our guys, including our staff, too."

His dad couldn't be prouder, particularly of his military service.

"I know that he was a life saver," Pete said. "In a lot of ways I look up to him, I really do. "

Father and son speak on the phone about every other day, including lots of baseball talk. Pete, who still lives in Louisiana and now works as a chef at a local college, got to see Joey play once this season, when Columbia traveled to Beaumont, Texas, in early March to play Lamar. Joey didn't start, but pinch hit in the ninth inning of a 6-0 loss and hit a double.

"Only time I've seen him play since high school," Pete said. "I've seen a kid here that lost six years of his life in terms of baseball, go out there again and have fun and be himself and play around and run around and throw a ball. It was a joy. It made my heart feel good."

If Columbia wins two out of three against Dartmouth this weekend, the Lions will head to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008.

Joey is just a sophomore, with two more years of eligibility. Columbia did have a player drafted last year -- Dario Pizzano, also an outfielder, selected in the 15th round by the Seattle Mariners and currently hitting .308 with the Class A Clinton LumberKings. But Joey's age and lack of experience could work against him.

"He's made some very good improvements in a short amount of time here," Boretti said. "The things that we talked about early on, baserunning-wise, jumps in the outfield -- those are things I think have improved a lot. His throwing is not pretty, but it's workable, and that's probably his biggest thing he needs to work on. But his knowledge has come a long way."

Joey himself doesn't take anything for granted after his experience in the military. "I have a very difficult time seeing into the future," he said. "I can't even see next week."

In his year at the College of Staten Island, Joey was studying to be a registered nurse, building on his military experience. But now that he's at Columbia, he sees more options for himself, and is majoring in economics.

"What do I wanna do after school? I know my answer's probably just as cliché and silly as anyone else's," Joey said. "But it's just, I suppose, have a job that I like and be happy."

Is he happy right now?

"I think I'm happy," Joey said. "I hope I'm happy. I hope I'm doing right."