After serving in Iraq, Nathan Steelman walked on to the Maryland baseball team

From battle to bullpen

Terp goes from battle to bullpen

May 18, 2008|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN REPORTER

COLLEGE PARK -- Sometimes, he thought about it on days when temperatures climbed as high as 130 degrees.

Sometimes, he daydreamed of it when he was in the middle of a 14-hour shift, guarding some of the most dangerous militants in Iraq.

Sometimes, it popped into his head when he was wolfing down packages of Skittles, which his mother had shipped to Baghdad, hoping to give him a small taste of home.

Army Sgt. Nathan Steelman didn't think about baseball very often during his 15 months overseas, but it happened occasionally. It was hard to spend time thinking about baseball when bombs were exploding and shrapnel was falling near him. Or when friends of his were killed.

Though he couldn't so much as play a simple game of catch for more than a year, he told himself that as long as he made it home OK, he was going to give the game one more shot, even if it was a long shot.

Steelman, a 21-year-old left-handed reliever, not only made the University of Maryland's varsity baseball team, but he also made the travel squad, pitched in some close games and won a game.

Steelman's quest to make the team this past season began with a simple e-mail to coach Terry Rupp after he returned home from Iraq last fall. All he wanted was a chance, he says.

A three-sport athlete at Smithsburg High near Hagerstown, Steelman played a year of football at Shenandoah University before joining the Army in June 2006 at age 19 when he could no longer afford college. He knew Atlantic Coast Conference baseball would be a major step up in competition.

"I tried to sell myself a little," Steelman says of his initial e-mail to Rupp. "I might have added a few inches to my height and a few miles per hour to my fastball."

Rupp was more than a little skeptical.

"When you see an e-mail like that, your first thought is that it's just some guy off the street, trying to make a run at it, but nothing serious," says Rupp, who has been Maryland's coach for eight seasons. "I talked to him on the phone and told him: `We already had our tryouts back in the fall. Where have you been?' "

Steelman replied that he had been serving in Iraq.

"When someone says that, you just kind of have to say, `Wow,' " Rupp says.

Steelman showed up for a bullpen session in January, and Rupp and Maryland pitching coach Jim Farr, though still skeptical, were immediately impressed by his arm strength. Steelman could throw a mid-80s fastball, and he had good control. He wasn't in baseball shape, but he wasn't afraid to go after hitters and throw strikes.

"He's not scared," Farr says. "That's one thing that's really good about him. He's going to attack the zone. There is no fear there, and I think a lot of that comes from his background, which is tremendous."

Opportunity arises

Learning to control your fears and live in the moment is something Steelman - who was raised by a single mother in what he calls a "pretty rough neighborhood" - had to learn early in his military career. In Iraq, he worked as a military police officer in a maximum security prison called Camp Cropper, which is near Baghdad International Airport and houses about 2,000 detainees. It held former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein before he was executed.

There were times when Steelman had to show patience and compassion to men he knew had been responsible for killing fellow soldiers and friends.

"We worked with the bad of the bad," Steelman says. "When you see videos on the Internet of guys blowing up Humvees, that's who we worked with. A lot of bad dudes over there, we worked with on a daily basis. It was tough. You just learn to deal with it."

He found the best way to deal with the fear was just to block it out.

"I thought of my family a lot," says Steelman, who has an older sister and a younger brother. "I thought about my friends. I knew I was in Iraq. I wasn't going to be naive about the situation, like, `Oh, this is a great place to be.' I knew I was there, regardless, for 15 months."

Christmas was probably one of the most difficult times. Steelman remembers opening presents his relatives had sent him in a bathroom, just so he could be alone. His mom, Sharon, put out word that everyone should send him at least one bag of Skittles, his favorite candy. Steelman says he received nearly 100.

"I think my family bought up all the Skittles at every store in Hagerstown," Steelman says. "My teeth hurt from chewing them by the time I came home."

Sharon Steelman, a cake decorator at Martin's Food, made him a scrapbook full of pictures and notes from his friends, just to give him something to remind him of home.

It comforted her son, but it didn't do much for her.

"Baghdad at that time was just a horrific place to be," Sharon Steelman says. "It was really just a mother's nightmare."

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