MINNEAPOLIS — As it turns out, there are only about two weeks of instruction before the U.S. Air Force straps a parachute to you, puts you on a plane and asks you to jump out by yourself.
It’s one thing to have learned about the aircraft and ripcords and procedures and how to pack the parachute and how to line up and how to land. But when it actually came time for Griffin Jax’s first jump as part of a summer program at the Air Force Academy, he had no idea whether he’d have preferred to be first or last out of the plane. The anxiety builds when you’re waiting in anticipation at the back of the line, you know?
Jax was second in his group of seven for that first jump — and after he watched a woman half his weight sprint out the door before him, there was no time left for nerves. Go time.
It went fine, of course — as did the 200 jumps or so that came after that one. But it’s been about five years since Jax last threw himself out of an airplane during his junior year at the academy.
The risks aren’t very conducive to being a professional pitcher, you see.
“The landing is not as graceful as people think,” the 26-year-old Twins right-handed pitching prospect said. “Like, it hurts. And if you’re not careful — when you pull the chute, you have to pull it at a certain time, because if you don’t, you’ll come down, you’ll go slow, and then it’ll pull you back up and then slam you on the ground if you pull too early. So I haven’t been in so long that I would be terrified of, like, doing something to my knee coming on that ground.”
That’s how you get an angry agent — and an angry Twins organization.
“And that’s how you lose a job,” Jax says with a laugh.
At this point, he’s worked too hard, dealt with too much uncertainty and, frankly, pitched too well to risk it. As Spring Training nears and First Lieutenant Griffin Jax prepares to make the drive from home in southern Georgia to the Twins’ complex in Fort Myers, Fla., he knows all too well that the whiplash-like changes in military policy, the stolen summers of professional pitching and the Air Force officer job when he could have been working toward his Major League dream have all led to the cusp of becoming the first Air Force Academy graduate to wear a big league uniform.
“My [college] coach always messaged me about it, saying, ‘You have to do this for us, you have to get us on the map,'” Jax said. “I’m not putting that much pressure on myself. I’m having fun still doing it and I love the position I’m at. So if it happens, it’s going to be great, but hopefully, my name and my story have been able to help them recruit some better talent.”
Having been granted his transfer to the Air Force Reserve, Jax is finally in a place where he can focus on baseball — just in time, considering he left off in Triple-A during the 2019 season — but there was no real road map for him to even get to this point.
Pitching well enough was never the issue. Even in the unforgiving altitude of Colorado Springs, Colo., Jax was the Mountain West co-Pitcher of the Year as a junior in 2016 and earned a third-round selection by the Twins in the MLB Draft — the highest by an Air Force player.
“We did our homework on this,” then-scouting director Deron Johnson said to MLB.com at the time. “This is going to be a little unique to us. The good thing is that they’re going to allow him to finish his senior year, which makes it a lot easier. Us taking him in the third round, I think they’re going to give us some leeway.”
The hope at the time was that Jax would return to Air Force to complete his senior year, as necessitated by the academy (while forgoing his senior season for the Falcons), and immediately join the Reserve while having his required years of active duty deferred. So he made four appearances for Rookie-level Elizabethton during his summer break in 2016 and made the haul back to the academy with the expectation that his professional career would continue upon his graduation in ’17.
Everything changed following the election, though, when the new administration under President Donald Trump and Secretary of Defense James Mattis changed the rules to require two years of active duty immediately following graduation.
Many academy graduates spend their 60-day leave between graduation and their first active duty assignment traveling the world. Jax spent that time in 2017 making five starts for Elizabethton and Class A Cedar Rapids, and following a 6 2/3-inning start against Lansing on July 22, 2017, he left the team, bound for Cape Canaveral, Fla., where he began his work as an acquisitions officer, working with civilian contractors like SpaceX and Boeing. He kept a healthy attitude about it all the same.
“As a 22-year-old going down to work with launches, not many kids get to go see that right out of their college graduation,” Jax said. “So that’s the work of some really cool people. An awesome experience to put on my resume. So that was really special.”
Then, things changed again in April 2018, when Jax was accepted into the Air Force World Class Athlete Program, which allows soldiers to train for the upcoming Olympic Games as their active duty job responsibility for a two-year period. His timing was fortunate in that regard, too, as baseball was in the lineup for the postponed 2020 Tokyo Games, but not for 2016 Rio or 2024 Paris.
That finally helped all of the pieces fall into place. Though he couldn’t be paid by the Twins because the Air Force didn’t allow for an alternate source of income for active duty soldiers, Jax reported to Fort Myers and made 15 appearances in 2018, pitched his first full season in ’19 with a 2.90 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A, and received his first invite to big league Spring Training in 2020. Even through all of the uncertainty, his career Minor League ERA stands at a shining 3.18.
“He really came in and didn’t skip a beat,” farm director Alex Hassan said. “One of his greatest strengths is his ability to pound the strike zone and throw strikes and limit walks. That skill didn’t miss a beat, either. I think it says a lot about Griffin and the way that he prepares and the way that he takes care of his body and the way that he approaches the game, that he’s able to stay sharp even when he had sort of an intermittent introduction to his pro career.”
The chaos is over now. Jax completed his two required years of active duty following graduation and transferred to the Air Force Reserve in November 2019, meaning that his life is more or less that of a normal baseball player. He’ll serve out the remainder of his five required years as part of the Reserve with a very flexible military obligation of around 24 days per year. He’s spent this offseason cooking, cleaning, reading, getting married and looking after his two dogs while his wife, Savannah (also a First Lieutenant), works as an intelligence officer at nearby Moody Air Force Base on the outskirts of Valdosta, Ga. He even gets paid by the Twins and will be back in big league camp this spring.
He never even got to actually fly a plane for all that trouble, by the way. It’s a common misconception.
“A lot of people get confused,” Jax said. “I got so many questions like, ‘How many hours did you have flying over in Afghanistan?’ … Everybody just assumes that if you’re in the Air Force, you fly a plane. But while you’re at school, they really harp on hammering education first.”
(There’s the education, and along the way, you also pick up the habits of getting really good at cleaning your room and dusting surfaces ahead of inspections. The most military-like things Jax consistently felt, he says, were weekend drills and going to classes in uniform.)
If this baseball thing hadn’t worked out so well, Jax thinks he might have looked more deeply at continuing his Air Force career. He got quite interested in the Special Forces pipeline while he was at the academy and would have pursued the track to become a Combat Rescue Officer involved in personnel recovery operations.
“Those guys are the ones that you’ve seen pictures of jumping out of airplanes into the water at night,” Jax said. “They’re the search-and-rescue kind of guys. They’re called in when, you know, bad [stuff] happens. It just would have been something really meaningful to go after.”
Considering all of that, the nerves of a Major League mound appearance should be no big deal at all, if and when he finally makes that leap. Besides, it’s extra easy for him to keep things in perspective, seeing as Savannah returned in June from a six-month deployment to Afghanistan.
“Everybody thinks that I’m the cool one in the relationship, like, ‘Oh, he plays professional baseball,'” Jax said. “No. She is the moneymaker. She is the cool one in this relationship. I am boring compared to her.”