From the Gridiron to the Diamond

Many football players have tried their hand at baseball, but the results haven’t been great. (via slgckgc)

Throughout the period of history wherein the National Football League and major league baseball have coexisted, a handful of players  have managed to excel in both. It’s something Jim Thorpe, Olympic gold medalist and Pro Football Hall of Famer, managed to do for a brief time in the early 20th century. He hit .327 with a .787 OPS in 62 major league games in 1919 in what was otherwise an unremarkable baseball career.

In the latter half of the 20th century, it’s something the likes of Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders and Brian Jordan did. Jackson is the only player to ever be both a major league All-Star and NFL Pro Bowl selection. Sanders, a Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive back, led the majors with 14 triples in 1992. Jordan enjoyed a 15-year big league career with one All-Star appearance after spending three seasons in the NFL. Jordan, who recorded four sacks and two interceptions in 1991, gave up football only because the St. Louis Cardinals put it in his big league contract — and gave him a $1.7 million signing bonus, according to the Los Angeles Times.

But these men were the exception. Even for elite athletes, being a world-class talent in two different sports is incredibly difficult and rare. Michael Jordan, who some would argue is the greatest basketball player of all time, barely hit above the Mendoza Line for the Chicago White Sox Double-A affiliate and posted an abysmal .556 OPS at 31 years old.

On the gridiron, the most recent example of a talented player following the pursuit of Jackson, Sanders and Brian Jordan—and failing—would be Tim Tebow. The Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, who spent three seasons in the NFL and led the Denver Broncos to a playoff win as their starting quarterback, is lost in Triple-A. At 31, he owns a .144 batting average and .425 OPS with 72 strikeouts through 54 games this season for the Syracuse Mets; at that point, it is unclear, other than for marketing purposes, why the Mets organization would allow the experiment to continue.

Odds are, like they always have been, that Tebow’s baseball career won’t work out the way he hoped it would. While the dream and drive are present, when it comes to the NFL and major league baseball, the success rate of doing both over the past two decades has been abysmal. Many talented NFL players have tried to make it to the big leagues and stay there, only to fall short.

Diamonds in the Rough

Major-league teams will occasionally risk drafting someone they know is committed to playing football, even if they don’t have much of a baseball track record, because they are impressed with the athleticism of the player. The Boston Red Sox have done this several times in recent years and a couple of times, they actually got the player to give baseball a try.

The team drafted Austin Davis in the 31st round of the 2012 draft and Jeff Driskel in the 29th round the following year, both college football quarterbacks for Division I schools (Southern Mississippi and Florida respectively) despite neither of them having played baseball since high school. Neither took the offer; both went on to be NFL quarterbacks. In the 2012 draft, the Red Sox also drafted Shaq Thompson, now a linebacker for the Carolina Panthers, in the 18th round out of high school, and Brandon Magee in the 23rd round out of college.

Though Thompson had not played baseball since sixth grade before picking it back up as a junior in high school, he was open to the idea of pursuing careers in both sports. But he went 0-for-39 with 37 strikeouts in 13 games for the Gulf Coast League Red Sox that summer, at which point both sides realized they had made a mistake. Thompson went on to play football for Washington that fall, was named a first-team All-America in 2014 and was the Panthers’ first-round draft pick in 2015.

Magee, a .103 hitter in 29 games over parts of three seasons at Arizona State, was not even a member of his school’s baseball team when the Red Sox drafted him. However, after being released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the 2015 offseason, he opted to give baseball a shot while waiting for another NFL team to give him a chance. The call never came in football, but he did spend the summer with the short-season A Lowell Spinners and enjoyed modest success, with a .231 batting average and .750 OPS in 25 games. The following season, though, he did not make the Low-A Greenville Drive out of spring training After eight games in the Gulf Coast League in 2016, Magee ended his baseball career at the age of 25.

Quarterbacks Second

Not every NFL quarterback who ended up playing professional baseball did it after his football career ended. For some, football was the fallback plan—like baseball is Tebow’s.

Chris Weinke, the oldest player to ever with the Heisman Trophy, and Brandon Weeden would be the purest examples of this. Both high school standouts and second-round major league draft picks (Weinke in 1990 by the Toronto Blue Jays and Weeden in 2002 by the New York Yankees), each eventually opted to play college football. Weeden had an ERA over 5.00 in three straight seasons of full-season Class A ball and Weinke struggled against Triple-A competition, posting a .213 batting average and .644 OPS in 164 games over two seasons. These struggles led both players back to the gridiron, where they each enjoyed success.

At 28 years old, Weinke earned the Heisman Trophy in 2000 and made 20 starts as an NFL quarterback, going 2-18 in a career that lasted seven years. Weeden, to, was a 29-year-old NFL rookie. Still an active player today, Weeden has made 25 starts under center since the 2012 season.

To a degree, Russell Wilson falls under the same category. Selected in the fourth round of the 2010 draft by the Colorado Rockies, Wilson continued playing college football in the fall and professional baseball in the springs and summers. He did not play his way out of pro baseball, with a .229 average and .710 OPS in 93 games, but he was a third-round pick by the Seattle Seahawks in the 2012 NFL Draft and beat out Matt Flynn for the team’s starting quarterback job—a post he has held ever since. The six-time Pro Bowler seems to have made the correct decision, since the majority of major league fourth-round picks never make it to the big leagues.

The Dallas Three

Irving, Texas does not field a major league team, but it did host three pro baseball players under center in the early 2000s.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

At the time, the Dallas Cowboys played their home games in Irving, about 20 minutes from Arlington, home of the Texas Rangers. They also had two quarterbacks with brief major league experience and another who played in the minors: Drew Henson, Chad Hutchinson and Quincy Carter. The moves were largely influenced by team owner Jerry Jones, who thought he could develop their athleticism into star players.

The Atlanta Braves drafted Hutchinson in the first round of the 1995 draft, but he turned them  down for a football scholarship at Stanford. He also played baseball for Stanford and despite posting a 4.89 ERA his junior year, striking out 115 batters in 99 innings, the St. Louis Cardinals picked him in the second round of the 1998 draft. As with Brian Jordan, there was a no-football clause in his contract. The Cardinals gave him a four-year $3.5 million contract and a $1.1 million signing bonus, all of which was guaranteed, if he focused his attention strictly on baseball.

It didn’t work out. Hutchinson was plagued with command issues, walking 104 batters in 97 2/3 Triple-A innings in 2001. His lack of ability to find the strike zone led to an 7.92 ERA. Yet, with a strong spring training performance, he cracked the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster in 2001, alongside fellow rookie Albert Pujols. After allowing 11 runs over his first four outings, Hutchison was sent down to Triple-A.

After that disastrous season, Hutchinson opted to play pro football. He attended a Dallas Cowboys workout in 2002, and they signed him to a three-year deal worth $5 million guaranteed which included a $3.1 million signing bonus. His deal stated he had to play football exclusively. He did, making nine starts for the Dallas Cowboys in 2002 and five for the Chicago Bears two years later.

The New York Yankees invested even more into a Drew Henson baseball career. They selected the Michigan football recruit in the third round of the 1998 draft and signed him to a five-year, $17 million contract. They allowed him to play college football, but not in the NFL. This gave Henson leverage in both sports as he competed for the starting quarterback job at Michigan with Tom Brady in 1998 and 1999, when Brady was an upperclassman.

On the baseball diamond, however, he struggled with a lack of plate discipline. His 0.24 BB/K ratio in 80 Double-A games indicated this, even as the Yankees pushed the then-21-year-old third baseman up to Triple-A in 2001. Since the Yankees had invested big in him, Henson was a September call-up in both 2002 and 2003 despite his Triple-A struggles, batting .234 with a .286 OBP and .697 OPS over 332 games. He played in eight major league games and had one hit in nine at-bats.

That offseason, the Yankees dealt for Alex Rodriguez to man third base, blocking Henson from the majors. He retired from baseball after that season. The Houston Texans selected him in the sixth round of the 2003 draft and the Cowboys traded for his rights in 2004.

Henson surpassed Tony Romo on the depth chart as the team’s backup in 2004, appeared in seven games and made a start on Thanksgiving Day against the Chicago Bears, under center since Vinny Testeverde had a shoulder injury. However, in 2005, he was demoted to third string when the team got Drew Bledsoe and Romo beat him out for the backup job. He also played in two games for the winless Detroit Lions in 2008 as a backup.

Quincy Carter’s baseball career was not even as productive as the Hutchinson’s and  Henson’s. Selected in the second round of the 1996 draft by the Chicago Cubs, the outfielder grew frustrated with baseball after some struggles in Low-A Rockford, with just a .219 batting average and .623 OPS in 132 games. He announced he would be going back to school to play football. The move worked out for him as he won the starting quarterback job at Georgia and was drafted in the second round of the 2001 draft by the Dallas Cowboys, who were looking for a successor to Troy Aikman.

Carter made 31 starts for the Cowboys over three seasons, including all 16 in 2003. Even though the team went 10-6 in 2003, he was cut after the team added two new quarterbacks and he failed a drug test.

Running Wild

Patrick Pass and Ricky Williams might be best remembered for their highly-productive careers as running backs in the AFC East, but each of them had forgettable minor league stints as outfielders beforehand.

Pass, the Florida Marlins’ 44th round draft pick in 1996, spent a few summers in his college football days in the low minors.

Over parts of four seasons split between rookie ball and short-season A, he hit .211 with a .608 OPS. However, Pass’ baseball career ended after the 1999 season as he was the New England Patriots seventh-round draft pick in the 2000 NFL draft; primarily a special teams player, he helped the Patriots win three Super Bowls during his seven years with the team.

Williams was also a part-time player while playing college football, and the results were similar to Pass’. Picked in the eighth round of the 1995 major league draft, Williams lacked plate discipline over parts of four seasons, with just a .265 OBP in 170 pro games. He gave up the game in 1999 when he was the fifth overall pick in the 2000 draft. Williams went on to rush for over 10,000 yards, primarily as a member of the Miami Dolphins.

Potential Club Member

Former Red Sox farmhand Nick Moore could be the next player to join this prestigious club; he is contending for the New Orleans Saints long snapping job this season.

Selected in the 30th round of the 2011 major league draft out of high school in Georgia, he spent four seasons as a first baseman in the Red Sox farm system, but struggled to hit outside of short-season A ball. So instead, the 6-foot-3, 240-pounder walked onto the Georgia Bulldogs football team as a linebacker. He got moved to fullback and finally found playing time his junior year as a long snapper. It’s a position he excelled at which earned him an invitation to the Senior Bowl—and then a pro contract with the Saints. They signed him as an undrafted free agent shortly after this season’s draft.

Real World Impact

Amidst concerns of irrevocable head damage, the high school football participation rate dropped 6.9% from 2008 to 2017, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Parents wary of reports about concussions and CTE in NFL players seem to be placing their children into other sports.

Baseball, for the most part, is non-contact and, while no longer America’s biggest sport, receives plenty of exposure as a $10 billion dollar industry. Youth participation in the sport has risen dramatically. A Wall Street Journal report earlier this year said that from 2014 to 2018, the number of people playing baseball in the country has jumped 21%. Major League Baseball is partially responsible for this uptick with its Play Ball and RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner cities) initiatives, both of which are aimed at growing the sport domestically.

Surely, the prospect of making seven figures to not get hit in the head repeatedly must be appealing to players who starred in both football and baseball growing up—especially when there is more job security in baseball. The average major league career is longer (5.6 years) than the average NFL career (3.2 years), per Business Insider, and the average annual salary is higher ($4.4 million vs. $2.1 million in 2016, according to Forbes), so those who stick around longer also have the chance to earn more money. However, there are far fewer roster spots in the major leagues: 750 compared to 1,696 in the NFL. Throw in the years of minor league apprenticeships most players must serve before reaching the big leagues; the NFL has no equivalent to it.

Football is also a largely American sport, so there is less global competition for roster spots. On Opening Day in 2018, 29% of major league players were foreign-born—far greater than the 2.56% of foreign-born NFL players in 2017.

With fewer spots, lower roster turnover and more foreign competition, playing in the majors is, in theory, harder than making it to the NFL—especially if the baseball participation rate climbs and football’s continues to drop.

There might not be many success stories in recent years of NFL players in pro baseball, but that does not stop the sports media from incessantly covering the more prominent examples. Wherever Tebow travels, there are reporters to speak with him despite his immense struggles, and Thompson’s dreadful minor league career has received plenty of press. Even failed attempts are publicized by the media because they generate attention among those interested in both sports.

Given the precedent of world-class gridiron athletes failing on the baseball diamond in recent years, perhaps baseball will earn more respect and continue its upward trend.

Tom is a freelance sportswriter based in southeastern Massachusetts who has covered professional baseball since 2013. He has written for ESPN, The Boston Globe, Newsday, USA Today, and many other outlets.
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4 years ago

Add college football players to the mix and things get more interesting. I have Adam Dunn off the top of my head – any other good ones?

4 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

Todd Helton was the starter at Tennessee ahead of Peyton Manning for a few games before Helton got injured. Would be interesting to see how that turns out if he doesn’t get injured.