Griffin Jax wears two uniforms.
One for the Minnesota Twins organization and another for the U.S. Air Force.
“I am still a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force, but my job is to train for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo,” Jax said recently. “While I am doing that, I am promoting the Air Force as much as possible.”
Jax is part of the Air Force’s World Class Athlete Program, which allows athletes to compete full-time in their respective sport over the two years preceding the Olympics. Under the program, training with the Minnesota Twins counts towards Jax’s required five years of active duty.
Jax currently is pitching for the Salt River Rafters in the Arizona Fall League, where Major League organizations send top prospects for development in the offseason. He plays his home games at Salt River Fields, not far from where his father, Garth Jax, played linebacker for the Arizona Cardinals from 1989-1995.
“It’s a huge blessing. Every baseball player in the minors knows about this opportunity, and it's a huge stepping stone in their careers,” Jax said. “For the Twins to trust me and send me out here is just a huge honor, and I’m taking every day with that in mind.”
Though clear skies are in sight for now, Jax’s journey through the World Class Athlete Program could become turbulent. No baseball player from the Air Force Academy has ever made it to the major leagues.
The hard throwing right-handed pitcher attended Cherry Creek High School in Greenwood Village, Colo., about a 45-minute drive from the academy. The proximity allowed Air Force to frequently evaluate Jax.
“At first, I actually said no to any military academy,” Jax said. “My first offer was actually West Point. At that time my ego took over and I said, ‘No, I want to play baseball at a big time school.’ But I gave it some more thought and went on an official visit, and it turned out to be the right opportunity for my family and I.”
Jax committed to the Air Force Academy before his senior season at Cherry Creek and went on to be named Colorado’s 2013 Gatorade Player of the Year. He was selected by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 12th round of that June’s MLB First-Year Player Draft.
However, the self-described late bloomer decided to honor his commitment to the Air Force Academy after the academy had showed such allegiance while others schools didn’t.
Jax’s three-year career at Air Force was capped off with a 2016 Mountain West Co-Pitcher of the Year selection after he finished with a 9-2 record and 2.05 ERA in 105.2 innings of work.
Following that season, he was drafted was drafted in the third round (93rd overall) by the Minnesota Twins. The draft came at a time when the U.S. Department of Defense allowed athletes to pursue professional sports immediately following graduation. Jax chose to sign with the Twins and give up his final year of NCAA eligibility, knowing he would have to return to school to graduate by 2017. After graduation, Jax would owed five years of active duty to the Air Force.
After he was drafted in the summer 2016, Jax reported to Minnesota’s rookie-level Appalachian League affiliate, the Elizabethton Twins. He appeared in four games throwing 8.2 innings out of the bullpen in a two-week span before returning to the academy to finish school.
Jax spent his senior year at the academy away from the Twins, expecting to report to the team once he graduated.
However, in April of 2017, the Department of Defense rescinded its earlier policy and implemented a policy requiring graduates to serve two years of active duty before they can apply to finish out their time in the reserves while pursuing a career in professional sports.
Jax was granted 60 days leave after his graduation and reported to active duty as an acquisition manager in Cape Canaveral, Fla. He spent his leave splitting time between the Elizabethton Twins and Class A Cedar Rapids throwing a little over 30 innings in five starts.
“I took every single start a little more seriously just because it was so limited, but I really didn’t try and think about the future that much,” Jax said. “I was just trying to enjoy my time as much as possible and make the most out of it.”
In Jax’s final start with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, manager Tommy Watkins pulled him with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning. The timing was odd as Jax was cruising through the game.
“As it was playing out, we knew it was going to be his last game and I thought it would be cool to take him out during an inning,” Watkins said. “So I’m walking out to the mound and I was just like, 'Wow, I’m glad we got a chance to pull him out so he could be recognized.'”
Jax tipped his cap and walked off the field to a standing ovation.
“I don’t want to think I was a forgotten prospect, but in a sense they had to take their gas pedal off me a little bit because I was gone for so long,” Jax said. “At that point, I didn’t think I’d be back until the summer of 2019 after I had finished two years of active duty.”
That was not the case however as things began to flip in Jax’s favor. With the 2020 Summer Olympics now just two years away, Jax applied to the World Class Athlete Program last December.
Jax was accepted into the WCAP in April.
There were still obstacles that Jax had to get over, though. As an active-duty member of the Air Force, he is not allowed to have a second source of income. So the legal team worked out a unique system where the pitcher is paid by the Air Force but the Twins pay for things such as travel and equipment.
“There was a whole lot of extra work between the Air Force legal team and the MLB legal team,” Jax said. “I have a ton of friends who are cross-country runners and compete in track and field, but they aren’t playing for a Major League affiliate so they don’t have that second stream of income, and that kind of held back the process a little bit.”
Jax reported in early May to extended spring training in Fort Myers, Fla. For the first time, he had almost a full baseball season in front of him. In 2018, he started 14 games and posted a 3.70 ERA over 87.2 innings while striking out 66 batters for the Class A-Advanced Fort Myers Miracle.
“It is a little less pressure on me knowing I’ll have at least one more start tomorrow, but I still know not every baseball player’s career is guaranteed,” Jax said. “So I’m still taking everyday to make sure I am getting better.”
Watkins, Jax’s former manager in Cedar Rapids, coincidentally is now his manager with the Rafters in the Arizona Fall League.
“It’s just be fun seeing him being able to concentrate on baseball full-time,” Watkins said. “He’s always been positive. He works hard like everybody else. When you don’t have to tell people to work and do this and that, it speaks volumes about someone. I see him in the weight room every morning but I think he would be that type of person without the military.”
Jax can apply for reserve status after his two years of active duty are up, which will happen long before his WCAP status ends with the 2020 Olympics. However, wearing that Team USA across his chest would make a nice reward for the roller coaster ride Jax has endured to pursue a baseball career while serving his country.
“It would be a really cool story to have an active duty Air Force officer on the team,” he said. “I think it would mean a little something more than an everyday baseball player, but I am not guaranteed a spot and I’m working hard everyday to be ready for tryouts.”