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Rick Houston | | May 27, 2014

St. Thomas Aquinas’ pitcher skips championship for Marine boot camp

  Joe Grimaldi (14) and his brother Matt hug after ceremonial first pitch at the Spartans' final 2014 home game.

CARY, N.C. -- When the Spartans of St. Thomas Aquinas take the field on Tuesday afternoon against Minnesota State-Mankato, one of their own will be 320 miles to the south going through something quite unlike anything he's ever experienced.

Joe Grimaldi appeared in 10 games for the team this year as a right-handed pitcher, but pitch counts, curveballs and strikeouts will likely be the very last things on his mind. That's because he'll be at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in Parris Island, S.C. on his very first day of boot camp.

It will be a day after Memorial Day that he'll never forget.

Always interested in the military when he was growing up, Grimaldi was inspired to consider his own options when his younger brother Matt signed up for the National Guard. Sorting through the different branches, he decided the Marines … and the infantry … were for him.

"From what I had gathered, that was the specialty that I thought would be the most impactful and rewarding," Grimaldi said. "On a personal level, I'm joining the military I really take the safety and freedom of the people who made me who I am today personally. I feel like I should give them what they deserve. I feel like this is the best way to give back."

A native of Hawthorne, New Jersey, Grimaldi's two paths -- baseball and the Marines -- began to converge earlier this season. St. Thomas Aquinas made it to Cary to the NCAA Division II World Series last year, and almost from the start looked like a team that could make it that far.

That wasn't necessarily the case early in the 2014 season. Going deeper in the conference schedule, however, the Spartans were winning close games, coming back from deficits and closing teams out. St. Thomas Aquinas lost the first game of its conference tournament and won it all, and then did the very same thing in the regionals.

The more things began to click on the field, the larger his reporting date loomed.

"Once the playoffs started, I realized they didn't really line up," Grimaldi said. "I was in the delayed-entry program, and there's only a certain amount of time you can be in that program before you go to boot camp. I was nearing the end of that window, so I started to think, 'If we make it to the World Series, I might not be able to go.'

"Before the final game of the regionals, we brought it up and I told everybody, 'This is probably my last game, so it'd be nice for you guys to send me out with a win.' They did, so that was cool."

Following a luncheon May 20, the Spartans boarded a bus bound for North Carolina. Grimaldi was not on it, and it's hard to imagine what that must have felt like. He had tried to be on it, yet when his pitch to the Marines didn't pan out, Grimaldi accepted it without question.

He brought it up Monday while filling out some paperwork.

"I told them what was going on and I asked if at all possible, could I travel with my team," Grimaldi remembered. "They said no, and I said, 'Okay. I'm ready to go to boot camp.' That was that.

"I would love to be able to go to the [Division II Baseball Championship] with my teammates. That would be incredible, but I've heard it said before that you have be ready to sacrifice who you are for what you will become, and that's what I'm doing. I'm excited to become a Marine. I want it more than anything in the world."

For the next 13 weeks, this is a young man who will be engaged in grueling training that will begin as often than not well before sunrise. Yet if he's able to get through it all, and there's absolutely no reason to think he won't, Grimaldi will come out the other side a new person.

He will be a Marine.

Afterward, he'll get leave for 10 days and then he'll head for the three-week School of Infantry. Once that's over, he'll go "where they send me."

"People always come up to me and ask if I'm nervous," Grimaldi concluded. "I never was until about a month ago. There was a week when I was like freaking out, but then after the weekend, I was just kind of like, 'You know what? ..."

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