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Play Ball for Uncle Sam : Military Bases Have Their Share of Good Athletes but They Must Blend Fun With Duty Obligations

August 25, 1988|STUART MATTHEWS

The hard steel deck of a seagoing frigate is not the best place for one of the best softball players in the Navy to sharpen his skills.

At sea, there are no swept-clay infields. There are no emerald outfields to smash softballs across. At sea, there are only cramped sleeping quarters and cold metal bulkheads--and miles and miles of ocean.

Data Systems Tech. 3rd Class Steve Hollimon, a computer technician, spent two of his 24 years feeling the deck of the guided missile frigate Vandegrift pitch and toss under his feet. But it was not the kind of pitching or tossing he would have liked.

Hollimon's passion is softball, and he is very good at it. So good that he was selected in 1986 and 1987 to the all-Navy softball team, all-stars who take on outstanding players from the Air Force, Army and Marine Corps in the annual Interservice Softball Tournament. That's Class-A slow-pitch softball--a level that would make most of the guys on the diamond of your local park look like Little Leaguers.

In 1987, when Hollimon shipped out with the Vandegrift for a globe-circling cruise, he did what he could to stay fit for softball: he pumped iron in the Vandegrift's weight room. The frigate made port visits in far-off places like Mombasa, Kenya, and Karachi, Pakistan. Then there was a harrowing convoy escort through the Persian Gulf during which the USS Stark, a ship of the same class, was hit by an Iraqi missile.

Through it all, Hollimon bulked up his biceps.

"There's certain things that you just can't do at sea," Hollimon said. "You might as well forget about free weights when you're taking the big 10-degree rolls. But you can work out on Universal machines."

Reassigned to Shore Duty

Today, on solid land, Hollimon is assigned to the supply department at the Long Beach Naval Station and plays for its varsity softball team.

Hollimon is awaiting his discharge, so did not go to the interservice tournament this month. But he is just one example of the splendid athletes sprinkled throughout the military.

During wartime, that talent has never been hard to find. In World War II there were many: Brooklyn shortstop Pee Wee Reese, slugger Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio--an endless parade of stars.

In peacetime, the list is long, too. Roger Staubach was a naval officer. Napoleon McCallum and David Robinson are naval lieutenants with their best athletic feats still ahead of them. Alonzo Babers, who won the gold medal in the 400-meter dash at the 1984 Olympic Games, was a lieutenant in the Air Force. When Billy Mills won Olympic gold in the 10,000 meters in 1964 in Tokyo, he was a Marine lieutenant.

A Coach of Two Sports

Tech. Sgt. Virgil Ferguson, 36, who has worn the Air Force insignia for 16 years, has a unique claim to fame: He is probably the only sergeant in the Air Force who has coached in a basketball game against Paul Landreaux.

Ferguson handles classified documents in the Special Security Office at the Air Force Station in El Segundo. Last winter, though, Ferguson found himself on the sideline opposite Landreaux, the coach who took his El Camino team to the California community college title.

Ferguson, a career serviceman, skippers the varsity basketball and softball teams at his base. When he was scheduling games for his basketball team last fall, he added the names of Marymount Palos Verdes College, Pasadena, Compton and East Los Angeles colleges--and El Camino.

"Playing against El Camino was almost like playing a major college team," Ferguson said.

The Air Force team played tough but lost, 93-72. The high scorer for the Air Force was their swingman, Airman Oscar Naylor. Naylor averaged 31 points per game, and Ferguson often saw assistant coaches from George Raveling's USC program scouting him.

Ferguson's team struggled to a 9-18 record against a tough schedule. Landreaux is now an assistant to Jim Harrick at UCLA, and he probably would not like to see Naylor trade his Air Force blue for the cardinal and gold of the Trojans.

And even though he is a hoop-loving Hoosier from the farmlands around Owensville in southern Indiana, Ferguson is now coaching the El Segundo station's varsity softball team--which is 18-11 in weekend tournaments against other Air Force bases.

In today's broad military athletic programs, a grain of talent can lead a serviceman all the way up the ladder from intramurals to a station-level varsity team to the Olympic Games.

"Our main concern in athletics is participation," said Houston Rogers, the civilian athletic director for the 5,000-man Space Division at the El Segundo station. "But if we find talented athletes in our ranks, we'll send them to the base that's hosting their particular sport." The Air Force, like other services, uses sports camps to select its top athletes.

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