PEORIA -- Lt. Ben Yokley spent the last two seasons in the U.S. Air Force, but now he's with the Peoria Chiefs trying to get his professional baseball career off the ground.
The right-handed reliever -- who can touch 97 mph with his fastball -- was the first pitcher in the history of the MLB Draft to be taken from the Air Force Academy. The Cardinals got him in the 29th round in 2015, knowing he had pending military service.
"The Cardinals have been so gracious working with me on that," Yokley said. "And now it's time for me to get back to baseball."
Yokley, at 25, is the oldest player on the Chiefs. He pitched well in 2015 for rookie league Johnson City in 2015 but then had to leave for his Air Force commitment.
"I grew up moving around, we lived in Scotland for a while, lived in Canada (St. John's, Newfoundland) and eventually back to the U.S.," said Yokley, who was born in Arvada, Colo. "My dad (Joe) is a petroleum engineer and moved around a lot. When we left Canada to come to the U.S., he signed me up for baseball. I didn't know anything about baseball, everything was soccer and curling where I'd been. But I tried pitching, and it's all I ever wanted to do after that."
And he wanted to go to college. So there was the Air Force, in Colorado Springs, just 90 minutes from his home.
"It wasn't a baseball decision or a military decision for me," Yokley said. "It was a life decision. I wanted the education. It was paid for an close to home."
He graduated from the Air Force with a degree in business management, and spent more than two years in training as a pilot, flying a Diamond DA-20.
"That's a little single-prop aircraft, and you can feel the turbulence when you're up in those," Yokley said, laughing. "We started out flying gliders and then trained on the Diamond. I wasn't expecting to be a pilot. I finished that phase of the training, and if I had continued on, I would have been on active duty for several more years."
So the First Lieutenant transferred to the Colorado Air National Guard unit. In a few months, he'll be promoted to Captain. And maybe earn a call sign ("Fastball"?).
"The great thing about being an Air Force officer is all your friends have to call you 'Sir'," Yokley said, laughing. "I enjoyed teaching classes and helping other guys get ready. I don't know if being a pilot is on my radar or not.
"The first time you go up in an aircraft alone, there's so much running through your mind. You don't want to panic. Then you look over at the other seat, next to you, and realize it's empty. You're up there on your own and you figure it out and do the job."
Yokley was reclassified to duty as a flight medic, at his request, and returned to baseball. He could hardly watch major-league games while he was in the Air Force because of his frustration of being unable to play, and compete.
"I have a passion for the game, I just love it," Yokley said.
Now he's trying to do the job on the mound for the Chiefs and jump-start a baseball career that has been on hold since 2015.
He suffered a setback at spring training with the Cardinals when he underwent surgery for a torn labrum in his right hip. Fully healed now, he's had two appearances for the Chiefs and hasn't allowed a run or a hit yet.
"I'm older, and I have to go out and prove I can play," Yokley said. "So I feel some urgency."
Dave Eminian covers the Chiefs for the Journal Star. Reach him at 686-3206 or email@example.com. Check out Chiefs videos on youtube.com/pjstarcom and news items on Twitter @icetimecleve. ___
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