Super Sunday, superstars, and multi-taskers
Sure, there are the obvious similarities – both jobs require throwing a ball accurately to a target, with variance in speed, and even in trajectory.
Both jobs, literally and figuratively, are at the center of attention.
But if you ask former Great Lakes Loon Zach Lee what he thinks are the similarities between two roles he knows very well – pitching and quarterbacking – he’ll start first with the mental game.
“It’s really a cat and mouse game between both positions,” Lee told the (Chattanooga) Smokies Radio Network, describing how reading football defenses and a batter’s tendencies are part of the same puzzle.
Lee, now a top pitching prospect in the Los Angeles Dodgers farm system, was a four-star football recruit as a quarterback for McKinney High School in McKinney, Texas. He threw for over 60 touchdowns in his prep career and originally planned to play both baseball and football at LSU.
Lee – no doubt prodded by a $5.25 million signing bonus – ultimately chose professional baseball. But he’s not alone among two-sport stars with similar pedigree who have had to make the same choice.
With the Super Bowl upon us, it’s a good time to re-visit the diamond/gridiron connection.Of course, you need only to look at Sunday’s big game for an obvious link. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson played two seasons in the Colorado Rockies’ farm system, and was recently chosen by the Texas Rangers in MLB’s Rule 5 draft.
But Wilson, who has led the Seahawks to the Super Bowl in only his second NFL season, seems to have settled nicely into his football career.
As far as the Loons, Lee isn’t the only player with baseball ties.
James Baldwin, who played the last two seasons at Dow Diamond, was drafted by the Dodgers in the 4th round of the 2010 draft. But he was a three-sport star at Pinecrest High School in North Carolina, and his football coach called him the most dominant prep wide receiver he’d ever seen.
Malcolm Holland, who played 84 games for the Loons last year, was a highly-recruited prep football player who was offered a scholarship by Boise State as a defensive back. Considering that he ran a 4.45 40-yard dash, it’s not hard to see why.
Then there’s the case of former Loon Jordan Pratt, who chose baseball over a college football career but now finds himself back on the football path. Pratt spent several seasons as a pitcher in the minor leagues – including a full season with the Loons in 2009 – before he decided to return to college.
Pratt chose Stanford, in large part because of its esteemed engineering school, but also because he was given the opportunity to join the football team as a walk-on wide receiver. Fast forward a bit, and you’ll find Pratt having just completed his junior season – as a 28-year-old – after helping the Cardinal win a Pac-12 championship.
Current Loons manager Bill Haselman, is another example; he played both football and baseball at UCLA before embarking on a professional baseball career that included 13 seasons in the big leagues.
Not that it’s unusual for top athletes to have proficiency in more than one sport. Let’s face it, an elite athlete is generally well-equipped to be good in any sport he or she tries. It’s been said that LeBron James would make an ideal NFL tight end, and not many would argue the point.
Detroit Tigers fans certainly remember Kirk Gibson, an NFL prospect as a college wide receiver who chose baseball. A couple of unforgettable World Series home runs later, and Gibson’s status as athletic Renaissance Man was secured.
Another former Tiger, Rick Leach, was a four-year starter at quarterback for the University of Michigan – he finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting in his senior season – before choosing baseball as his avocation. While he didn’t have nearly the impact Gibson had, he still managed to play 10 MLB seasons.
Like Leach, Drew Henson was a talented U-M quarterback who decided baseball was the best route to take professionally. Henson signed with the Yankees after being drafted in the 3rd round of the 1998 amateur draft. But he scuffled through a pro baseball career that never took flight, and then returned to the gridiron for two similarly uneventful NFL seasons.
Few, however, have truly defied the odds and made two athletic careers work at the same time. Bo Jackson, who was selected to play in baseball’s All-Star game and the NFL’s Pro Bowl, was one exception, as was Deion Sanders, although Sanders’ success was far more pronounced in football.
Jackson was equally adept at hitting tape measure home runs and breaking long runs in football (and baseball bats over his knee and head when frustrated), but a hip injury proved to be his kryptonite.
“My workout,” Jackson once said, “was running down fly balls, stealing a base, or running for my life on the football field.”
Wilson no doubt hopes he won’t be running for his life on Sunday against Denver’s defense. Then again, two seasons of chasing professionally-thrown curveballs – he batted a cumulative .229 – probably prepared him for any adversity.