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From professional baseball player to Air Force Reservist

  • Published
  • By Capt. Ashley Conner
  • 477th Fighter Group Public Affairs
Although his life as the commanders executive officer is full of staff summary sheets and staff meeting slides there was a time when Capt. Brett Bakner fulfilled the childhood dream of many young boys and could call himself a professional baseball player.

While playing Division II football and baseball at the University of West Virginia Bakner was convinced to give up football and focus on baseball. He opted to leave school during his junior year of college when he was picked up to play professionally.

"My professional career was worthwhile but short-lived - I played a few years in the Canadian Blue Jays farm system, most notably with the Lethbridge Mounties of the Pioneer League," said Bakner. "I was released during the off-season of 1994-95 due to a knee injury sustained at the end of the 1994 season."

His big break came during the baseball strike of 1994. As a free agent in 1995 and not being affiliated with a team or system Bakner was making the rounds in Florida trying to get picked up by a team. As a free agent and the strike still going on, Bakner crossed the picket line.

"I had an off-season workout partner who had already made it to the show as a pitcher with the Cardinals organization," said Bakner. "He secretly - behind the picket line - hooked me up with a try out."

After this tryout Bakner found himself in St. Petersburg, Fla. with the St. Louis Cardinals and played a part of the spring with the team.

"The team was roughly made up of free agents, like myself, and a rag-tag group of has-beens because the strike of 1994 bled into the spring of 1995," he said.

Over the next few weeks, Bakner felt that he had performed well enough to get a minor league contract offer but the strike ended and he found himself back on the street as a free agent.

"A bit dejected, I decided to stay with my grandparents in Port Orange, Fla. until I could get my baseball life straightened out," said Bakner. "I knew I didn't want to go back to college because playing professionally I could no longer play as an amateur collegiate player."

After driving past an Air Force recruiter he made the decision to enlist. During his delayed enlistment he had offers from a few independent leagues and one offer from the Marlins.

"I pretty much wanted to move on with my life. Looking back that was the crossroad of my life - the decision that has made all the difference," said Bakner. "Sure I could have continued to play professional baseball for another three to five years but I likely would have been released after those years with little to no work experience outside of sports. Joining the Air Force was not only the most mature decision I have ever made, it was the most astute!"

After a few months in the delayed enlistment program Bakner was off to basic training at Lackland, AFB, Texas.

"I remember being in the day room of our dorms and the TI's were going around asking everyone what they did before they joined the Air Force. I was pumped to tell them that I use to play professional baseball," said Bakner. "When it was my turn and I told them about my baseball career my TI said 'Well you couldn't have been that good because now you are here.' That was a pretty good wake up call."

After four years as an enlisted medic Bakner left active duty to finish his degree and get a commission at the University of North Texas. He served as a manpower officer until he separated from active duty in 2006 and joined the 911th Airlift Wing in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. In 2011 Bakner left Pittsburg to join the Arctic Reservists at the 477th Fighter Group. Throughout his Air Force career Bakner has reflected on the lessons baseball taught him to help him in his Air Force career.

"In his 18 year career Mickey Mantle stepped to the plate around 10,000 times, struck out around 1700 times, and walked another 1800 times, with the average major leaguer having 500 plate appearances a season, Mickey would tell folks that he "played seven years without ever hitting the ball". It is that type of perspective that keeps you level headed through a career and it allows you to absorb stress while gauging what needs to be done," said Bakner. "A good example of how this translates to the Air Force is not getting too spun up on the day -to -day trials. It allows you to view what you are doing on a larger scale. You are not just turning that wrench to fix an airplane you are putting jets in the sky, or higher yet, to fly, fight and win ... in air, space and cyberspace."