More than four years before he was drafted in the fourth round by the Boston Red Sox, before he cemented a career path in professional baseball, before he became the highest MLB draft selection from the Naval Academy, Noah Song needed to make a decision about what he wanted to do with his life. The choices were simple, but the decision was anything but. Song had received an offer to play baseball at the Naval Academy, his only opportunity to pitch in Division I, something he had long dreamed of doing. The idea of playing pro baseball out of high school wasn't even a possibility, let alone a consideration.
But the Navy came hand in hand with service time, which requires a level of commitment beyond the typical collegiate sports scholarship. While growing up, Song never gave his dad, Bill -- a commander with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department -- the impression he would have a future in the military. So to make sense of it all, Song drew up a pros-and-cons list, with his mom, Stacy, and his dad jotting down their thoughts.
On some nights, as the decision weighed on his mind, he struggled to fall asleep.
"For an 18-year-old to make that kind of decision, it's pretty tough," Song said. "Obviously, no matter how badly you want to play baseball, you can't go there if you're not willing to do the military commitment."
His parents framed the opportunity simply: Don't think of this as mandatory service time. This is a career path, a job concretely in place once graduation day arrives.
Song already had pondered what a job serving the public might look like when he began to understand what his dad's career entailed. During his junior year of high school, as the rest of his classmates started figuring out what they wanted to do with their lives, Song looked into the deeper meaning of a working life. For years, he had understood that his dad, who has been with the sheriff's department for more than 28 years, served his community, but he didn't understand what that actually meant. So when Bill would tell his kids about work, Noah listened intently.
"I think he liked the whole part about it, the profession, the moral and ethical part, the honorable profession," Bill said.
Growing up, Noah said the Song home carried a familial culture of doing the little things -- and doing the little things well.
"It's like your daily honor," Noah said. "You don't cheat on any tests. You never do anything like that. It's just honestly something as simple as picking up your own trash off the group, just not littering. Just very, very simple things."
Bill moved to the United States from South Korea as a 5-year-old; when Noah was growing up, the family would gather for major holidays and bring a potluck of Korean food, most notably barbecue, bulgogi and mandu. Bill said his family's roots carry significant influence over the culture inside the home.
"All of our [extended] families are the same, as far as the moral and ethical," Bill said. "They all really feed off each other, all of [Noah's] cousins. The cousins are all of the same character, so it really wasn't hard for them."
For Noah, being raised by a police officer meant paying attention to every detail. Paying attention to the small details would eventually help build the bigger picture, his parents taught him.
"It's very, very, very small details all around, but it all adds up at the end of the day," Song said.
Having a distinctive last name brought with it a greater sense of responsibility.
"You want to really honor the family name more than anything," Song said. "It's like if you taint the family name, you're seen as an outcast, not because anybody hates you, but just because that's just kind of how it naturally ends up."
All of this prepared him for his visit to the Naval Academy, where Song asked endless questions about what would be expected of him, not even addressing the possibility of pro baseball. When he eventually signed his letter of intent, Song fully expected his baseball career to end after his senior season, as his future career in the Navy became the biggest reason to go to school in Annapolis, Maryland.
"Everybody on my baseball team's kind of like, 'Oh, well, are you going to be able to be drafted? Are you going to be able to go pro?'" Song said. "I was like, 'Well, if you go to Navy, that's not what's on your mind really.'"
Song entered Navy baseball similar to many other recruits: with a tall frame and room to grow, throwing in the mid-80s. Like he sees in a lot of college freshmen, Navy baseball head coach Paul Kostacopoulos saw an anxious 18-year-old in Song.
"Especially when you embark in something like the United States Naval Academy, you're going to be cautious," Kostacopoulos said. "You're going to be a little bit anxious of what is going to be in front of you."
However, Song quickly stood out, even among the players on the baseball team, impressing the coaching staff with his ability to make adjustments and adapt. The results started speaking for themselves when the righty was named the Patriot League rookie of the year and a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American, landing on the radar of pro scouts.
By the time junior year arrived, as more scouts trickled into the stands for games, Navy's coaching staff and Song's family began realizing he had a chance to play baseball professionally. The velocity had steadily increased over the previous two seasons to 95 and 96 mph, and he added a slider, which would be a major strikeout pitch during his senior season. Song entered the draft after his junior season, but he told teams he would not sign unless he received a seven-figure signing bonus, which he would need to help repay the government for his collegiate education. Signing after his junior year would also require him to forgo his service -- the reason he had come to the Naval Academy in the first place.
"I told him that if he got seven figures, I'd put him in the Uber taxi myself to get him to go," Kostacopoulos said. "But it was never more than that, joking about it."
Undrafted, Song returned to Navy for his senior year and quickly earned the reputation as one of the best collegiate pitchers by leading the nation with 161 strikeouts and posting a 1.44 ERA. The accolades followed: Song was named a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award, given annually to the best amateur player in the country, and he became the Naval Academy's first player named as a first-team All-American in baseball. As his draft stock ticked upward, as his one concrete career path slowly become two, Song began to step back and take stock of everything that had changed -- and why.
"I started to take pride in the way that I was raised," Song said. "Even though you're around the best of the best at the Naval Academy, sometimes you feel like everybody wasn't raised the same as you and you're kind of wondering, why is that? Why do I feel different than everybody else or why do I picture things a different way? I think it really comes down to how you were raised by your family and your environment."
Song, 22, told ESPN he is planning on signing his contract with the Red Sox in the next week, although the paperwork is still being reviewed by the Navy. MLB.com values the 137th overall pick of the draft at a $406,000 signing bonus. From there, Song will report to the short-season Class A Lowell Spinners before reporting to flight school in Pensacola, Florida, on Nov. 1 to start training as a naval flight officer and begin a five-year commitment to serve. Like Navy athletes of the past, such as NBA legend David Robinson, Song will become eligible in two years to petition to serve the remaining three years of his commitment in the reserves. But without his four years in Annapolis, Song said he would not even be in the position he is now.
"There was the education. That's free tuition, and that's huge because you realize there's no student debt, which is huge," Song said. "I mean, you're already starting off ahead of the game as it is already. And I think no matter what you tell everybody who's going to commit to Navy, no matter what, they don't truly feel the greatness of that until they graduate, because right now, I have no student debt, I'm way ahead of the curve, I'm getting paid as an officer, obviously, and it's just the greatest thing."
When he arrives in Pensacola, Song will begin introductory flight school and learn the emergency protocols of working on an aircraft. Deemed too tall at 6-foot-4 to operate planes and helicopters in the field, Song will learn how to be a flight mission commander, as well. But he also is aware that two years away from competitive baseball is a long time.
"I'll try and keep up with baseball and throwing shape as much as I can, but at the same time, it's not going to be at the expense of my military career," Song said. "It's not going to be so that I'm incompetent in the military, by any means, so just trying to find that balance. And that's why I love the Naval Academy, because obviously I've had a taste of the military experience and the baseball experience balancing at the same time, so as long as I can keep that same mindset, it'll just keep me mentally engaged for both."
The road to the big leagues is already long enough without a two-year gap between pitches thrown in a competitive game. Song is the ninth Navy baseball player picked in the MLB amateur draft, and he hopes to become the third graduate to reach the majors, behind Mitch Harris, a 13th-round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2008, and Nemo Gaines, who played for the Washington Senators in 1921.
Song hopes to become an ambassador for sports in the Navy and an ambassador for the Navy in sports, and as Kostacopoulos notes, potentially change the trajectory of what a Naval Academy baseball player can accomplish.
"He's got two pretty big responsibilities, and I truly don't know the answer to that," Kostacopoulos said of how Song will handle the challenges of being a serving officer and then a professional athlete. "It's going to take a special person to make this work. I do think he is that special person."