After serving in Iraq, Nathan Steelman walked on to the Maryland baseball team

The Baltimore Sun

COLLEGE PARK -- Sometimes, he thought about it on days when temperatures climbed as high as 130 degrees.

Sometimes, he daydreamed of it when he was in the middle of a 14-hour shift, guarding some of the most dangerous militants in Iraq.

Sometimes, it popped into his head when he was wolfing down packages of Skittles, which his mother had shipped to Baghdad, hoping to give him a small taste of home.

Army Sgt. Nathan Steelman didn't think about baseball very often during his 15 months overseas, but it happened occasionally. It was hard to spend time thinking about baseball when bombs were exploding and shrapnel was falling near him. Or when friends of his were killed.

Though he couldn't so much as play a simple game of catch for more than a year, he told himself that as long as he made it home OK, he was going to give the game one more shot, even if it was a long shot.

Steelman, a 21-year-old left-handed reliever, not only made the University of Maryland's varsity baseball team, but he also made the travel squad, pitched in some close games and won a game.

Steelman's quest to make the team this past season began with a simple e-mail to coach Terry Rupp after he returned home from Iraq last fall. All he wanted was a chance, he says.

A three-sport athlete at Smithsburg High near Hagerstown, Steelman played a year of football at Shenandoah University before joining the Army in June 2006 at age 19 when he could no longer afford college. He knew Atlantic Coast Conference baseball would be a major step up in competition.

"I tried to sell myself a little," Steelman says of his initial e-mail to Rupp. "I might have added a few inches to my height and a few miles per hour to my fastball."

Rupp was more than a little skeptical.

"When you see an e-mail like that, your first thought is that it's just some guy off the street, trying to make a run at it, but nothing serious," says Rupp, who has been Maryland's coach for eight seasons. "I talked to him on the phone and told him: 'We already had our tryouts back in the fall. Where have you been?' "

Steelman replied that he had been serving in Iraq.

"When someone says that, you just kind of have to say, 'Wow,' " Rupp says.

Steelman showed up for a bullpen session in January, and Rupp and Maryland pitching coach Jim Farr, though still skeptical, were immediately impressed by his arm strength. Steelman could throw a mid-80s fastball, and he had good control. He wasn't in baseball shape, but he wasn't afraid to go after hitters and throw strikes.

"He's not scared," Farr says. "That's one thing that's really good about him. He's going to attack the zone. There is no fear there, and I think a lot of that comes from his background, which is tremendous."

Opportunity arises

Learning to control your fears and live in the moment is something Steelman - who was raised by a single mother in what he calls a "pretty rough neighborhood" - had to learn early in his military career. In Iraq, he worked as a military police officer in a maximum security prison called Camp Cropper, which is near Baghdad International Airport and houses about 2,000 detainees. It held former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein before he was executed.

There were times when Steelman had to show patience and compassion to men he knew had been responsible for killing fellow soldiers and friends.

"We worked with the bad of the bad," Steelman says. "When you see videos on the Internet of guys blowing up Humvees, that's who we worked with. A lot of bad dudes over there, we worked with on a daily basis. It was tough. You just learn to deal with it."

He found the best way to deal with the fear was just to block it out.

"I thought of my family a lot," says Steelman, who has an older sister and a younger brother. "I thought about my friends. I knew I was in Iraq. I wasn't going to be naive about the situation, like, 'Oh, this is a great place to be.' I knew I was there, regardless, for 15 months."

Christmas was probably one of the most difficult times. Steelman remembers opening presents his relatives had sent him in a bathroom, just so he could be alone. His mom, Sharon, put out word that everyone should send him at least one bag of Skittles, his favorite candy. Steelman says he received nearly 100.

"I think my family bought up all the Skittles at every store in Hagerstown," Steelman says. "My teeth hurt from chewing them by the time I came home."

Sharon Steelman, a cake decorator at Martin's Food, made him a scrapbook full of pictures and notes from his friends, just to give him something to remind him of home.

It comforted her son, but it didn't do much for her.

"Baghdad at that time was just a horrific place to be," Sharon Steelman says. "It was really just a mother's nightmare."

Every night, she watched the news or surfed the Internet until the early-morning hours. She was terrified to read news about another car bombing in Baghdad, but she was unable to stop reading. Because of the sensitive nature of Steelman's work, he often couldn't call her or e-mail her for long stretches.

"I didn't hear from him once for 28 days," Sharon Steelman says. "Those were the longest days of my life. But as hard as it was on me, I can't imagine what it was like for him."

Occasionally, when Steelman did have a chance to check his e-mail, he would fire off a quick note to his childhood friend and high school teammate Gerry Spessard, the starting left fielder for the Terps. Steelman had been taking classes online while in Iraq and applying to schools, but he never really mentioned that he was interested in walking on at Maryland until he and Spessard bumped into each other when Steelman was back home, briefly, between his two tours.

"I gave him my coach's number, and it really just kind of snowballed from there," Spessard says. "He was rusty at first, but his arm was also fresh in a way. A lot of kids just throw so much, their arm is almost worn out by the time they get here."

After watching him throw, Rupp and Farr decided Steelman really might be able to help the team, especially in short relief. He was a project but had potential.

"It wasn't just a thing where we were keeping him just because of what he's done for our country," Rupp says. "He has some real arm strength."

Moving forward

There are times when Steelman still thinks about his friends in Iraq. When he came home, he had regular nightmares, and though they have since faded, he still does not sleep much - maybe four or five hours at a time.

"I guess my big realization is the effect the war has on the kids over there," Steelman says. "There are tons of starving kids over there. You have different sects of people who come and knock down a neighborhood one week. A different group will come and try to fix it, and build it back up. The next week, it gets knocked back down. Families are killed. Mothers, fathers, orphans. It's just a continuing cycle, and no one seems to be able to prevent it from happening."

In time, however, he was able to forge positive memories at Maryland. The criminology and criminal justice major worked hard, continued to throw in the bullpen and made friends with his teammates, occasionally answering their inquiries about what it was like in Iraq. When the day finally came that Rupp and Farr decided to insert him into a game, a 7-1 win against Coppin State on April 8, his heart was racing.

"It just hit me," Steelman says. "You just have flashes of everything that could possibly happen in your life from the time when you're a little kid up to that point. I was just like, 'Wow, I'm here.' "

Steelman, a sophomore with three years of eligibility left, went on to make the travel team and pitch in a handful of big spots in conference games. He even picked up his first career victory, against Towson on May 7 to help Maryland compile a 30-win season.

None of that could really compare to that first time he made it into a game.

"I thought about all those guys I was with in basic training, all my friends in Iraq, and all my family that helped me get here," Steelman says. "It was just an honor to stand on that mound."

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

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