Army vet pursuing baseball dream at Lehman

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Chris Encarnacion hasn’t taken the normal route to playing college baseball. His was more of the scenic route. 

Let’s see, there was a stop in North Carolina for some basic training. A visit to Virginia for some advanced training. And finally a trip to Texas where he was stationed at Fort Hood.

And that’s not to mention Encarnacion’s three-month hitch in Liberia to help that country out with some border problems it was experiencing.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, Encarnacion is former military, having served three years in the U.S. Army, right up until March 2016. But by his own admission, something was missing from his life during that time serving his country. Learning how to fix and maintain generators, which he learned in the military, was a great trade to learn, but Encarnacion was missing his passion — baseball. 

And that’s where Lehman College comes in.

“About six months before I got out (of the military), I actually started teaching kids in Texas,” Encarnacion said. “I volunteered at a baseball facility called Strike Zone. That’s when I knew it was baseball I was missing in my life. 

Before joining the military, Encarnacion was always playing baseball — to the point some had high hopes he might play professionally.

“But I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do back then, so I joined the military,” he said. 

So how did a guy who grew up in the Dominican Republic and Harlem, and who bounced around three different states in the Army, wind up with the Lightning? 

“My wife went to Lehman,” the 25-year-old said of his wife, Birma. “She was going here when I joined the military. So I ended up emailing (Lehman) Coach (James) Cisco, and I explained to him that when I was 18, I played in the Dominican Republic and I threw somewhere in the low 90s, and that I was interested in being helped. Not so much in playing but in somebody that would help me with my craft. 

“And he contacted me within five minutes of me emailing him. That’s how I ended up here.”

He obviously was not the typical freshman recruit for Cisco.

“Maturity-wise, he’s great, and he’s someone who understands the key to college baseball is that you’ve got to show up every day and you’ve got to get your work in and not to get too high or too low,” said Cisco, a former standout at Fordham who now is in his third year as head coach of the Lightning. “He fit in right away. He brings stability and he brings toughness.”

He also brings leadership skills that led to what was, at first, thought to be a risky decision by Cisco.

“I made him one of my captains right away because I wanted to instill some discipline,” Cisco said. “And he’s from the Army, so I thought he would bring that discipline and understanding of being on time and how we conduct ourselves on a daily basis.” 

In the beginning, the move was met with some resistance by the older members of the team, but soon they realized Cisco’s decision was the right one.

“At first it didn’t sit right with a lot of the guys that I was named a captain because I hadn’t even played a single college baseball game,” Encarnacion said. “But a lot of the guys realized afterwards that it was the right decision, and they see that I have their best interests at heart. I talk to the guys all the time. They always come up to me and they always want to know about the service. They do know and respect that I’m a little older, but I think they look at me as an older brother.”

The losses have far outweighed the win at Lehman this season, but right now, none of that matters to Encarnacion. He has his first love back in his life, and as a freshman he has plenty of times to turn those losses into victories.  

“I just so grateful for every time I get to go on the mound and throw,” Encarnacion said. “We have a great bunch of guys here, and I’m enjoying it. When you don’t have something and you get to do it again, you realize how important the little things are.”

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