Draft : : Signings
TWO-SPORT ATHLETES CAN BE A RISKY INVESTMENT
Published: Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Is it wise for big league clubs to invest in high school players who want to split their time playing baseball professionally while participating in another sport in college?
The issue comes up every year as baseball battles with football, and to a lesser extent basketball, for its share of multi-sport athletes. Invariably, there’s a select group of athletes whose talents are so extraordinary that teams are occasionally willing to accommodate their desires to play another sport.
It does not portend as much of a factor for the 2009 draft, but recent baseball history is littered with incidents where teams have had to deal with the complications involved with two-sport athletes.
The most apparent two-sport athlete this year is Cartersville (Ga.) High outfielder Donavan Tate, ranked No. 2 nationally by PG Crosschecker. Tate, son of former NFL running back Lars Tate, is also a gifted high school quarterback who has verbally committed to play football and baseball at North Carolina. He enters the spring as an early first-round prospect and it would seem unlikely that he’d continue playing football once he‘s signed. But Tate is at least certain to use the leverage of a second sport to extract a larger bonus from the team that drafts him.
North Carolina also has a commitment from a second baseball prospect that is a top quarterback recruit, West Springfield (Va.) High shortstop Bryn Remmer, ranked No. 192 nationally by PG Crosschecker.
Only one other Top-200 high school baseball player has a significant connection to football, outfielder/righthander Ryan Mossakowski from Centennial High in Frisco, Texas. He is also a top-rated quarterback and has designs on playing both sports at the University of Kentucky.
Theoretically, the three would seem to be the best 2009 candidates for the rare but tricky pro baseball/college football bonus package.
Part-Time Baseball Players
Since the NCAA passed legislation just prior to the 1974 baseball draft that allowed students to play a sport professionally and still maintain their eligibility to play a different sport at the collegiate level, there have been numerous situations arise where athletes have attempted to juggle two sports.
The situation has impacted professional baseball more than any other sport. Due to the timing of its season and the nature of a minor-league feeder system that enables players to sign out of high school, Major League Baseball has been able to accommodate two-sport athletes.
It is rare, though, that an athlete has ascended to the top of his profession in two different sports and the short list includes the likes of Danny Ainge, Josh Booty, Drew Henson, Chad Hutchinson, Bo Jackson, Brian Jordan, Deion Sanders. Only Ainge and Henson, though, signed a baseball contracts out of high school that allowed them the opportunity to play a second sport in college on the side.
Since 1974, I have identified 19 high-profile players who were signed by pro baseball out of high school and allowed to concurrently play a different sport in college. The bulk played football, but there are also some notable basketball players on the list.
From the perspective of major league teams, the opportunity to sign premium athletes under such an arrangement enables them to obtain the player for less money than it might have taken to buy them out of their other sport altogether. But, ultimately, the goal was to sign a player with legitimate big league potential; the expectation existed, though, that the prospect would eventually quit his other sport to focus on baseball. Sometimes that occurred; sometimes it didn’t.
The practice of signing prominent two-sport athletes has been common for years, but particularly so in the 1990s.
So has it all worked, the way it was designed to work? For the most part, no.
I’ve ranked the 19 individuals in question, based on their success as baseball players. I’ve also identified their draft status and the major sports league they ultimately reached, if any, and it’s apparent that most players did not maximize their potential in baseball by playing a second sport in college.
1. Adam Dunn, of, Cincinnati Reds (2nd round, 1998) / MLB
One of the top quarterback recruits in the country, the University of Texas wanted to move the big-bodied Dunn to tight end. But Dunn, who had been signed to a $772,000 bonus by the Reds, quit football after his freshman year with the Longhorns and was in the big leagues to stay by 2001. Currently a free agent, Dunn has become one of the premier lefthanded power threats in the game and is coming off a 40-homer season in 2008.
2. Tony Clark, 1b, Detroit Tigers (1st round, 1990) / MLB
Then-Tigers president Bo Schembechler, the famed former Michigan football coach, was so enamored by Clark that he paid him an over-slot, $500,000 bonus as the second pick in the 1990 draft and still allowed him to play college basketball. Clark started out at NCAA powerhouse Arizona before transferring to San Diego State the following year. Clark had a big sophomore season for the Aztecs, leading the team in scoring, but was then shelved by a back injury as a junior. Once he decided to focus on baseball full-time in 1994, Clark zoomed through the Tigers system. The 6-foot-7 switch-hitter has slugged 247 homers for six teams over 14 big league seasons.
RESERVE MLB PLAYERS/CHAMPIONSHIP GMs
3. Kenny Williams, of, Chicago White Sox (3rd round, 1982) / MLB
Williams may have been the top athlete in the 1982 draft, but teams passed on him because of his football commitment to Stanford. The Sox finally took him in the third round, signed him to a $160,000 bonus (the largest in that year’s draft) and allowed Williams to play football at Stanford, where he was a promising wide receiver/kick returner. He decided to concentrate on baseball after his freshman year and would reach the big leagues in 1986. He lasted six seasons, but his inability to make consistent contact kept him from becoming more than a role player despite his excellent run/throw/raw-power tools. Williams moved to the front office at the end of his career, and became the White Sox GM in October, 2000. He played a pivotal role as the White Sox won the 2005 World Series.
4. Danny Ainge, 3b, Toronto Blue Jays (15th round, 1977) / MLB / NBA
Ainge, an Oregon high school product who signed a $32,500 bonus (equivalent to late first-round money at the time) with Toronto in 1977, was an All-American basketball player at Brigham Young while reserving his summers for the diamond. The expansion Jays rushed him up the ladder and he spent parts of three seasons (1979-81) with the big club. He won the starting third base job, but was merely a .220 hitter in 665 at-bats and would not have started for any other big league club. Just when it appeared his career might take off, Ainge was selected in the NBA draft and promptly left to play for the Boston Celtics. The shooting guard was a vital cog of the Celtics 1980s dynasty, and won yet another championship last year as the Celts’ general manager.
OBLIGATORY MAJOR LEAGUE CALL-UP
5. Drew Henson, 3b, New York Yankees (3rd round, 1998) / MLB / NFL
Yankees owner George Steinbrenner had a long-standing affection for football players, and signed Henson to a guaranteed $2 million deal that allowed him to play quarterback for three years at Michigan. His contract provided for a bonus of $3.9 million—but the amount would continue to decrease the longer he played football. Henson moved quickly when he finally did sign, and was soon holding his own against Double-A pitching. With visions of a budding slugger on their hands, the Yankees decided to buy out his final season of college football with an unprecedented $17-million deal. From that point on though, Henson struggled and September call-ups in 2002 and 2003 were obligatory, rather than earned. He got only nine at-bats in the bigs before embarking on an NFL career that quickly fizzled, as well. Henson is currently on the developmental squad for the Detroit Lions.
6. Jay Schroeder, c, Toronto Blue Jays (1st round, 1979) / NFL
Schroeder and John Elway were football/baseball sensations at Southern California high schools in 1979. Both were drafted, and both committed to high-powered Pac-10 schools as quarterbacks. But only Schroeder was open to the idea of signing out of high school and he was signed to a $135,000 bonus as the third overall pick. Schroeder didn’t hit as a Blue Jays farmhand, and never advanced above Class A in four minor league seasons. He did much better in his dual role as UCLA’s quarterback and the strong-armed Schroeder went on to a successful 10-year NFL career, mostly as a starter. Elway, meanwhile, spent a year in the Yankees system after his sophomore year at Stanford, but concentrated almost exclusively on football on his way to a Hall of Fame career.
7. Tony Banks, of, Minnesota Twins (10th round, 1991) / NFL
Banks focused on baseball only his first year out after signing with the Twins, before enrolling at Mesa (Ariz.) JC to play football. After three years in the minors, his baseball career hadn‘t gotten off the ground so Banks transferred to Michigan State and became a full-time quarterback. He’d go on to play parts of 10 seasons in the NFL, mostly as a backup.
8. Ricky Williams, of, Philadelphia Phillies (8th round, 1995) / NFL
Williams hit .211 in parts of four seasons in the Phillies system before winning the Heisman Trophy for the University of Texas in 1998. The enigmatic Williams would quit baseball before embarking on a successful NFL career as a running back with the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins.
9. Ricky Manning, of, Minnesota Twins (22nd round, 1999) / NFL
Manning didn’t put much time into his baseball career. Though he played in the Twins system for parts of four seasons, he never batted more than 75 times in a summer. Manning had a good career as a defensive back at UCLA, though, and has been a quality cornerback for six seasons and counting in the NFL.
10. Keith Legree, of, Minnesota Twins (3rd round, 1991)
In the same 1991 draft that he took Tony Banks (No. 7 above), then-Twins scouting director Terry Ryan also took a stab at Legree, one of the nation’s top basketball recruits. Ryan thought he’d bought Legree out of his basketball commitment to Louisville, but the next year Legree threatened to quit the Twins if not allowed to play hoops in college. After initially beginning his career at Louisville, he then transferred to Cincinnati. Legree made no secret that basketball was his first love, but his skills were not NBA-caliber. Legree peaked in Double-A in a six-year minor league career. He’s currently a college basketball coach.
11. Mark Wulfmeyer, rhp, California Angels (9th round, 1974)
The Angels made Wulfmeyer, a local Orange County high school product, the first two-sport signee under the new NCAA regulations, and signed him to a $42,500 bonus—equivalent to first-round money. The “Wulf Man” was a legendary prep shooter who went on to the University of Southern California to play basketball, but his hoops career stalled there. His baseball career was hampered by a bum shoulder and he did not come close to reaching the big leagues.
12. Jamie Howard, rhp, Atlanta Braves (2nd round, 1992)
Howard was given a $400,000 signing bonus by the Braves (more than they gave first-rounder Jamie Arnold) and allowed to play quarterback at Louisiana State. He never prospered in either role, and would pitch only 89 innings over parts of three summers in the Braves system.
13. Mewelde Moore, of, San Diego Padres (4th round, 2000) / NFL
In three partial baseball seasons for the Padres that amounted to 176 at-bats, Moore hit .210. He did much better as a running back at Tulane and has gone on to become a quality No, 2 tailback in the NFL. Moore currently plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
14. Trajan Langdon, of, San Diego Padres (6th round, 1994) / NBA
The Alaskan prep legend had a fine basketball career for college powerhouse Duke and went on to play parts of three seasons for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Then-Padres scouting director Kevin Towers signed Langdon on a whim, giving him a $230,000 signing bonus in the process, but he played sparingly, hitting .176 in 165 at-bats spread over three baseball seasons, before giving it up for the NBA.
15. Cedric Benson, of, Los Angeles Dodgers (12th round, 2001) / NFL
Benson was far better known in high school for his football feats, but agreed to sign with the Dodgers for $250,000 prior to enrolling at Texas. He then accumulated a grand total of 25 at-bats in his only season of pro baseball. That comes out to an average of $10,000 per AB. Like Ricky Williams (No. 8 above), Benson went on to have a terrific collegiate career as a running back for the Longhorns. He was the fourth overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft and currently plays for the Cincinnati Bengals.
16. Matt Ware, of, Seattle Mariners (21st round, 2001) / NFL
Ware only got to the plate only 34 times in Rookie-ball with the Mariners during the 2002-03 seasons. At UCLA, Ware excelled as a defensive back and has played six years in the NFL, mostly as a reserve.
17. D.T. McDowell, of, Anaheim Angels (12th round, 2004)
McDowell was signed to a six-figure bonus out of a Georgia high school. Though many teams liked him as a pitcher, Angels scouting director Eddie Bane wanted him for the outfield and McDowell hit .310 in 58 Rookie-ball at-bats before joining Troy University‘s football team in the fall. After a strong freshman season at quarterback, McDowell quit baseball only to be declared academically ineligible for football as a sophomore. His collegiate football career was done and he never came back to baseball, either. Most recently, he was seen playing arena football.
18. Keith Smith, ss, Detroit Tigers (5th round, 1994)
The Tigers signed Smith, a top prep football prospect in California, for $100,000 with the idea that football was behind him. After he bolted in the fall to play quarterback for the University of Arizona, the Tigers were still willing to take him back. But Smith’s baseball career was done after 196 at-bats and the Tigers were out a hundred grand. Smith had a good career at UA and then played some in the Canadian Football League. He’s currently a high school football coach.
19. Roscoe Crosby, of, Kansas City Royals (2nd round, 2001)
The most disappointing two-sport signee of them all, Crosby was given $750,000 bonus up-front by the Royals with $250,000 earmarked for each year he simply showed up with a bat and glove after playing wide receiver in the fall for Clemson. Due to a series of injuries, tragedies and personal problems, Crosby never made it to the baseball field. He didn’t get a single at-bat in a professional baseball game and he ended up having to return his $750-G bonus to the Royals. Sadly, after a stellar freshman season at Clemson, Crosby’s off-field issues stunted his football career as well. He dropped out of Clemson twice and failed in his attempts to land an NFL job via tryouts.
Record of Failure
The message couldn’t be more clear. Of the 19 “athletes” noted, only Dunn and Clark can be considered genuine success stories as baseball players. Most were abject failures—and expensive ones at that. And that doesn’t even begin to address players like Booty, who was signed to the largest bonus in draft history ($1.6 million in 1994) to keep him from playing football, and yet bolted for football after five unfulfilled seasons with the Florida Marlins.
In light of the players who made the big leagues among the 19 that were listed, the exceptions proved the rule. Dunn quit football after his freshman year at Texas. Had he played all four seasons for the Longhorns, it’s very possible that his baseball career would have gone the route of Benson and Ricky Williams, both future NFL first-rounders.
In the end, Clark played only two years of college basketball. He was still young enough to make something of his baseball career and, like Dunn, went off like a house on fire after quitting his other sport.
Ainge was technically a big leaguer, but he was promoted prematurely because the Blue Jays were expansion cellar-dwellers and essentially were “bribing” him from bolting to basketball. Similarly, the Yankees called up Henson to make him think twice about leaving for football.
Kenny Williams quit football after a single season at Stanford, which hastened his development into a big leaguer.
There are seven NFL players, two NBA players, and even an Arena Football League and Canadian Football League player on this list. But the bottom line is when it comes to making it in baseball out of high school, you have to quit your other sport and the sooner the better.
Why the High Failure Rate?
Let’s face it, baseball at the professional level is a tough game. It requires great repetition and muscle memory which is impossible to achieve if you’re not playing as often as your opponent. It is particularly crucial for someone just out of high school. The 19 players we noted possessed tremendous talent, but their lackluster production reveals just how difficult it is to become a major league player.
I would also add the “love and desire” element to the equation. Quite simply, players who have a special love for the game and an unquenchable desire to excel will work harder to make the dream come true. In many of these cases, the athlete in question had their heart in their other sport. Any time he‘s hesitant to commit fully to professional baseball, it begs consideration that his passions may be divided.
It brings me back to a high school player whom I scouted just a few years ago. He was a highly-recruited football player who was also going to go early in the baseball draft. I asked him which sport was his favorite. His grinning response told me all I needed to know.
“Whichever one pays the most money,” he said.
This young man has since underachieved in both sports, stemming more to lack of desire than talent.
Future For Part-Time Player?
Big league teams have caught on to the risks involved in two-sport players. They are not oblivious to history. The Angels signing of McDowell in 2004 is the last such instance that I have found that a team has been burned by a player.
The 2008 draft was particularly revealing. Teams decided that their two-sport-thinking draft pick would be either eating the whole enchilada or staying away from the dinner table altogether. There was no middle ground.
Four very notable high school football players were bought out of their college commitments by significantly over-slot bonuses. Boston gave first-round shortstop Casey Kelly $3 million to pass up a football offer from Tennessee. Washington did the same with second-round outfielder Destin Hood ($1.1M), Baltimore with second-round outfielder Xavier Avery ($900G) and Oakland with 10th-round outfielder Rashun Dixon ($600G).
Special two-sport language in a contract now allows clubs to spread bonus payments over five years if the player has a scholarship offer for another sport. If one of these players does decide to eventually bolt for football, he will lose a pro-rated amount of his remaining bonus.
I suspect there will still be room for the Kirk Gibson /Kenny Lofton-type part-time baseball players. Both were college draftees who had only one year of eligibility left in their other sport, and it clearly worked out for the clubs that signed them. The Braves have a similar, on-going arrangement with outfielder Dennis Dixon, who just completed his college football career as the starting quarterback at the University of Oregon.
And we will continue to see two-sport athletes who do play both sports in college. There are numerous top college baseball prospects in this year’s draft like Riley Cooper (Florida), Eric Decker (Minnesota), Jake Locker (Washington) and Jared Mitchell (Louisiana State), who are also playing football at that level and a fair number of former college two-sporters in the big leagues.
But the high school player who can sign and still play another sport has become a rarity.
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