Columbia University’s Joey Falcone is a senior – very senior.
Falcone, who turns 29 on June 1, is the oldest player in Division I college baseball, thanks to a circuitous route to this weekend’s NCAA Coral Gables Regional that included two tours of military duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
“I was discharged when I was 24,” said Falcone, whose unranked Lions (31-15) will play No. 23 East Carolina (40-20) at 1 p.m. on Friday. “Upon my discharge, I made a decision I wanted to go to college, play baseball and get a degree.
“If baseball works out (in pro ball after this season), I would choose baseball over working.”
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Smart choice, but it’s not without issues. Starting in pro baseball at his age would be an extreme long-shot, but the son of former 10-year major-league pitcher Pete Falcone has certainly made himself into a significant college player.
He leads the Ivy League champions in batting average (.347), doubles (19), homers (12) and RBIs (52), playing a key role as the Lions’ third-hole batter and designated hitter.
The Brooklyn-born Falcone – he still has a distinctive New York accent - is a late bloomer. He was 6-foot tall and 180 pounds during his high school career at Bolton (Alexandria, La.).
With little or no options in the way of college baseball scholarships, Falcone joined the Marines at age 17.
He became a combat medic and saw the horrors of war first-hand. But he never lost his love for baseball.
Falcone grew emotionally and physically while overseas and is now a strapping 6-5, 225-pounder. After his discharge from the Marines in 2010, he walked on at Division III College of Staten Island.
He hit .336 as a freshman, earning his conference’s Rookie of the Year award. He then decided to enroll at Columbia, entering a program geared toward military veterans and others who took a less-than-direct route to college.
Falcone also walked on to the Columbia baseball team.
“After he took batting practice, yeah,” Columbia coach Brett Boretti said when asked if it were immediately apparent that Falcone belonged at the Division I level. “It’s an interesting story because he just showed up in our office one day.
“We took a look – he’s a big, strong guy. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I could tell he was somebody we could use in the middle of our lineup.”
Boretti was right. Falcone hit .331 with five homers and 41 RBIs, earning All-Ivy honors and helping the Lions go 1-2 in the 2013 Fullerton Regional. That win was the first ever for the Lions in NCAA postseason play.
But Falcone, bothered by nagging injuries, took a big step backward last year, hitting only .125.
“Last year, I suppose I got too excited and tried to do too much,” Falcone said. “I was dropping my back shoulder and – like my dad says – swinging at everything, swinging like a jerk.
“I got yanked out of the lineup. Things weren’t going my way. And since I was older, I thought: ‘Should I hang up my cleats? The Columbia schoolwork is really hard. Do I want to get my GPA up even more?’
“But I decided that would have been a shallow decision to (quit baseball) just because things don’t go my way for one season.”
Falcone has worked hard to get in great shape for his senior season, and he checks in with his father often – especially when he starts to slump at the plate.
“This is our third year in a row in a regional,” said Falcone, whose father, now a chef in New Orleans, is hoping to fly into Miami for the tournament. “We’ve been down this road before, and we hope to capitalize this time.”
Scouting Report – Coral Gables Regional
No. 1 seed Miami (44-14): The Hurricanes, who are 31-4 at home this season, usually start their second-best pitcher in the opener of an NCAA regional. But since Friday’s opponent is hated rival FIU, they are starting ace Andrew Suarez (7-1, 3.09), a junior left-hander who was the Washington Nationals’ second-round pick last year. Had he not had his one bad start against Florida State, Suarez would be 7-0 with a 1.84 ERA. And if the seeds hold on Friday, Miami would throw another junior left-hander, Thomas Woodrey (6-2, 2.72), against East Carolina on Saturday night.
No. 2 seed East Carolina (40-20): The Pirates have won eight straight games, including a 4-0 run to win the AAC tournament. Sophomore left-hander Evan Kruczynski (8-4, 3.06) will start against Columbia junior right-hander George Thanopoulos (5-5, 3.65) on Friday. Kruczynski leads his team in wins and has two complete games. The Pirates, who are 16-8 away from home, would likely start Reid Love (7-3, 2.84) on Saturday.
No. 3 seed Columbia (31-15): The Ivy League champions set a school record in wins and made an NCAA regional for the third straight year. They went 1-2 in the 2013 Fullerton Regional and 0-2 in the 2014 Coral Gables. However, both of last year’s playoff losses were by one run. Including a regular-season game in 2013, this is the third year in a row the Lions have played in Coral Gables.
No. 4 seed FIU (29-29): After the regular season, the Panthers were 25-29, barely making the Conference USA tournament as the No. 8 seed. They were one loss away from staying home for the NCAA postseason, but they won four straight in the conference tournament to qualify as league champs. The Panthers didn’t have any sweeps this season – nor did they get swept. They will start freshman right-hander Andres Nunez (6-5, 3.75) on Friday night against Miami.
Walter Villa, correspondent