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The San Diego Padres’ decision to select Johnny Manziel in the 28th round of the recent Major League Baseball draft was nothing more than a publicity stunt. Johnny Football, a rookie quarterback with the Cleveland Browns, has no intention of becoming Johnny Baseball. Yes, he once was a promising baseball player, batting .416 with seven home runs and 35 runs batted in during his junior season at Kerrville High School in Texas. But he concentrated solely on hitting receivers instead of horsehides at Texas Christian University. I suppose if he’s an NFL bust, he could give pro baseball a shot, but the odds of him succeeding would be remote.
Through the years, MLB teams have used draft picks on athletes who wound up becoming NFL stars. John Elway, Tom Brady, Ken Stabler, Dan Marino, Colin Kaepernick, Michael Vick and Russell Wilson were among those considered to have big-league baseball potential. Wilson, the quarterback of the reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, actually spent two seasons in the Colorado Rockies farm system but batted just .229 with five homers and a whopping 118 strikeouts in 315 at-bats. I’d say he and those other quarterbacks I mentioned made the right career choices.
Of the aforementioned, the guy with the most baseball upside was Elway, the Denver Broncos’ Hall of Fame QB. Before he became a Broncs Bomber, he almost became a Bronx Bomber. The New York Yankees selected him 52nd overall in the 1981 draft, six spots ahead of eight-time National League batting champion Tony Gwynn. I covered a handful of Elway’s games in the summer of 1982 when he played for the Yankees’ New York-Penn League affiliate in Oneonta. A left-handed-hitting rightfielder, Elway acquitted himself quite well, batting .318 with four homers and 25 RBI in 42 games. I remember one play, in particular, when he fielded a ball off the wall at Utica’s Murnane Field and fired a laser to home plate to nail a runner attempting to score from second base.
Elway went back to Stanford that fall for his senior football season and earned All-American honors. He was drafted first overall by the Baltimore Colts the following April but wanted nothing to do with crazy Colts owner Robert Irsay and seriously considered accepting George Steinbrenner’s six-figure offer to sign with the Yankees. The Colts dealt Elway to Denver, and we were left to wonder what might have been. Some members of the Yankees’ scouting department believe Elway would have become an All-Star outfielder. His left-handed swing would have been tailor-made for the short right-field porch in Yankee Stadium.
Another quarterback/baseball story that’s always intrigued me involved Sammy Baugh, the former Washington Redskin regarded by many as one of the top 10 signal-callers of all time. Sports salaries weren’t astronomical as they are today, so even star athletes would have to find off-season work to supplement their incomes. That is why, after leading Washington to an NFL championship in 1937, Baugh signed a minor-league baseball contract with the St. Louis Cardinals. During the summer of ’38, he played for the Rochester Red Wings, but, as he told me in an interview in 1995: “I didn’t exactly set the damn league on fire.” No, he did not. In 37 games, Slingin’ Sammy batted just .183 with a triple, a home run and 11 runs batted in.
Although he struggled during games, he became a fan favorite. To take advantage of his marquee value, the Red Wings occasionally staged pregame throwing contests involving Baugh and teammates. A barrel was placed at second base, and Baugh would try to throw a football into it from behind home plate. His fellow Wings tried the same thing, using baseballs. Baugh, to the delight of fans and the chagrin of teammates, usually won.
Super Bowl Bills remain tight
After moderating an on-stage question-and-answer session with Buffalo Bills legends Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Steve Tasker and Darryl Talley at this week’s Rochester Press-Radio Club Children’s Charities dinner, I had an opportunity to reminisce with them a bit at a post-banquet party. It struck me how close they’ve remained through the years and how Jim Kelly’s cancer struggles and Ralph Wilson’s death have brought them even closer. “A lot of people on sports teams like to say they are a family, but it’s usually a bunch of bull,” Talley told me. “But in our case, it was and is true. We are like family. We’re a band of brothers. We feel each other’s pain and we celebrate each other’s triumphs.”
If you want to sample what’s truly good about youth sports, check out the annual Challenger Little League Baseball World Series at Frontier Field on June 14. For free, you can watch about 300 physically, mentally and emotionally challenged young people get an opportunity to experience what it’s like to put on a uniform and be part of a team. It is one of my favorite sporting events of the year, a triumph of the human spirit. You won’t be disappointed. … Happy to hear that the Syracuse-Georgetown basketball series will be revived for four years, starting in the 2015-16 season, but this really is one of those you-can’t-go-home-again situations. The Orange-Hoyas hoops rivalry was once the fiercest in college sports, but it won’t be the same now that the schools are not in the same conference. Still, it should be more entertaining than some of the cream puff offerings we’re subjected to. … Glad to see the NFL will do away with those pompous and confusing Roman numerals starting with Super Bowl 50. I’ve spent at least XXX (30) years advocating the change. ... I think the NFL may come down hard on Marcell Dareus after the Bills’ talented but troubled defensive tackle was arrested twice in 19 days—once for possession of synthetic marijuana and once for crashing his Jaguar while drag racing on a public street. I wouldn’t be shocked to see a multiple-game suspension.
Nationally recognized columnist and author Scott Pitoniak is in his 41st year in journalism.
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