Post-Army, Dignacco back to throwing strikes

Following military service, reliever returns to Rangers' Minors system

Post-Army, Dignacco back to throwing strikes

ARLINGTON -- Like most athletes, Nick Dignacco had to wake up early to get in his morning training. He rose at 4 a.m. to be at his local gym by 5, but unlike the rest of the crowd, he didn't go home after finishing.

Instead, Dignacco headed to Fort Campbell, Ky., where his Army unit had their morning workout at 6 a.m. He went through a circuit involving sit-ups, push-ups, a long-distance run and a ruck march. Then he went to work, supervising roughly 35 personnel members who are responsible for maintenance on weapons, vehicles and optical equipment in the Army.

That was Dignacco's routine for almost a year and a half while he was stationed as an ordnance officer at Fort Campbell, where he served as a first lieutenant.

The Rangers drafted Dignacco, a relief pitcher, in the 40th round of the 2014 MLB Draft out of the Military Academy at West Point, and he played the '14 season for the Spokane Indians, the Rangers' Class A Short-Season affiliate, before serving in the Army starting in September of that same year. Now, Dignacco is back playing baseball for the Rangers' Class A affiliate, the Hickory Crawdads, where he's been since late May.

Shifting from baseball to the military isn't easy, Dignacco said. He had to undergo training first, and no amount of baseball workouts prepared him for the program that held a moniker that was intimidating by itself.

"If we're talking about being nervous, it was probably that first day showing up at West Point for -- they call it 'beast barracks,'" Dignacco said. "That first day, it's just a whirlwind."

There, Dignacco had to learn how to stand in formation, how to march and how to take orders, all while lugging around a bag stuffed with his equipment and wearing an "ugly" uniform.

"It was just a culture shock," Dignacco said. "They prepare you for it and you try to think of what you're getting into, but you can't really prepare fully for it."

Dignacco was a weekend starter for the Black Knights each of his four years except for his junior season, which he missed because of an injury. The Rangers knew what Dignacco's duty to his country entailed, and they selected him anyway.

While stationed at Fort Campbell, Dignacco endured his back-to-back morning workouts, performed his duties with his unit, and after his shift ended, he would head down the street from his apartment to Sports Doctor Athletics, a training facility run by two ex-college softball players.

There, Dignacco did whatever he could to make sure he didn't miss a beat when it came to pitching.

"I threw to people when they were available, but other times I'd go in there and throw into a net," Dignacco said. "I'd do lessons also with some of the local kids there, so it was nice to have that there because otherwise I would've been kind of out of luck."

In his appearances with Spokane in 2014, Dignacco went 2-2 with a 4.01 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 24 1/3 innings. Now, nearly three years later, Dignacco is back playing again. He wrapped up his service for good in November -- Dignacco is in the individual ready reserves, so "for all intents and purposes, I'm a civilian now." He played in the Rangers' Minor League Spring Training program in late February, stayed with their extended spring training program and joined Hickory in May.

"It was great just getting to face hitters again. I hadn't been off the mound against live hitters since Spokane," Dignacco said. "I just wanted to throw strikes. ...That's something that I pride myself on, and that's something that I think helped me get drafted was throwing strikes, so that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to show I could still do that."

Dignacco has been with Hickory for a few weeks, and while he was prepared for the readjustment that comes with being away from the game for nearly three years, Dignacco wasn't quite ready for the process of altering the leadership style he had become acquainted with while serving.

Playing baseball isn't the same thing as being in charge of a unit in the army, but it's a challenge Dignacco is embracing, especially as the oldest member of the team.

"I think there's an opportunity to be a leader on this team and lead by example first, and then that's when you gain the respect of your teammates," Dignacco said. "Just going out there and showing the rest of the guys how it's done. I think that's kind of been my mentality, to lead by example. It's a little different type of leadership than what I'm used to in the Army, but I think that's where my head's at right now."

Sam Butler is a reporter for MLB.com based in Arlington. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.