National pastime still a dream for stars of other sports
Russell Wilson, Tracy McGrady and Jameis Winston all lured by baseball
First, there was Russell Wilson. Or did the Jameis Winston thing happen a few days before that? Anyway, Tracy McGrady just leaped into the picture to join those other prominent athletes in suggesting they couldn't care less that they are more famous away from hitting, pitching and fielding. Instead, they've spent the last couple of weeks verifying what you already should know: Baseball remains our national pastime . . . emphatically.
How else can you explain the starting quarterback of the latest Super Bowl-winning team, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner for the national champions of college football and a perennial NBA All-Star with Hall of Fame possibilities declaring their love for baseball in so many ways?
Since this is Black History Month, here's another thing: All three of those players are African-American. The same is true of Michael Jordan, who ranks among the NBA's all-time greatest players. Still, with the chance to acquire enough championship rings for both hands, he retired from hoops exactly 20 years ago to follow his yearning to play baseball. All of this tells you that, contrary to popular belief, the sport that Jackie Robinson made popular among blacks three generations ago still has drawing power among African-Americans.
You don't hear Andrew McCutchen threatening to dribble with the Lakers during their NBA training camp when the Pirates' season is over. In contrast, Wilson could do the NFL equivalent with baseball. He is the Seattle Seahawks quarterback who led his team to that Super Bowl victory several days ago over the Denver Broncos, and get this: Even before the confetti stopped flowing in the aftermath, his thoughts drifted from the Meadowlands to Surprise, Ariz., where the Rangers hold Spring Training.
There is a chance Wilson could take a few Cactus League rips in the batting cages for the Rangers, who acquired him from the Rockies last December during the Rule 5 Draft. He played baseball at North Carolina State before he was drafted by the Rockies during the 2010 First-Year Player Draft in June. Before that, he was picked during the 2007 First-Year Player Draft by the Orioles, but he wanted to continue in football after his highly successful prep days in Richmond, Va. So he began his college career as a quarterback at NC State before transferring to Wisconsin. Then he was drafted by the Seahawks in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Baseball never left Wilson's heart, though. He has refused to end speculation that he will bypass part of the Seahawks' offseason conditioning program -- along with the chance to bask in the post-Super Bowl spotlight while traveling from Letterman to The View -- to satisfy his passion around the diamond. Even if he doesn't wish to spend part of his spring wearing cleats for the Rangers, he might agree to give an NFL-style pep talk to those inside the home clubhouse.
The Myrtle Beach Pelicans want less than that from Wilson. They are the Rangers' Class A team, and they are willing to contribute $20,000 to Wilson's favorite charity if he just attends one of their games and waves or something. They also said they will pay for a vacation involving Wilson and his wife that includes golfing, sun and beaches.
Unlike Wilson, Winston still plays baseball -- and football, for that matter. He led Florida State to the national championship in January as a quarterback with an NFL future that likely will shine as brightly as that of Wilson's.
I mention Winston, because just last week, Baseball America named Winston on its preseason All-America third team as a utility player. He was a freshman last year who hit .235 with seven doubles, three triples and nine RBIs for the Seminoles as an outfielder and a designated hitter. He mainly was a right-handed pitcher in relief with a fastball that often hit 95 mph. "It keeps me busy instead of dealing with all the outside stuff and dealing with everything coming my way," Winston told ESPN.com. "I keep playing sports, and I've got to keep my grades up, so I won't be focused on outside things."
You know, outside things for Winston such as the attention that comes from heading into his sophomore year with a chance of, not only winning back-to-back national championships with a loaded Florida State team, but grabbing consecutive Heisman Trophy awards. He is so huge in football that he doesn't need baseball. Even so, he will keep playing as the 20th-ranked sophomore prospect, according to Baseball America.
Then there is McGrady, the seven-time NBA All-Star who also has a couple of league scoring titles on his resume. Despite playing for seven different NBA teams since entering the league in 1997, he said he always preferred baseball over basketball. Now he is trying to do something about it by attempting to make the squad of the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League as a 6-foot-8 pitcher with a 34-year-old arm.
McGrady tweeted the following on Feb. 4: Tracy McGrady ✔ @Real_T_Mac Been working out at Constellation Field w Sugar Land Skeeters. Working on my pitch. Childhood Dream coming true. @SL_Skeeters @AtlanticLg.
It's one thing to tweet something like that, but it's another to do what McGrady did: He began working with seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens and other baseball experts to enhance his dream. Here's what Pirates Minor League prospect Barrett Barnes told Houston TV station KRIV-TV about facing McGrady during a bullpen session: "Say his [velocity] is 87, but with his arms and his body, it feels like it's 90-91. His [velocity] might [be] lower, but it feels like it gets on you way faster."
That's all McGrady needs to hear to keep going.
Well, that and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."
Same goes for Wilson, Winston and everybody else with baseball in their blood from sea to shining sea.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.