Tuesday, July 22, 2014
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Foul Shots: Specialization

Quarterback Jameis Winston is the best college football player in the nation, according to Heisman Trophy voters. After he plays the required amount of college seasons at Florida State University (in his case, three), he will be a top-5 pick in the NFL draft. And, if he works hard and is as talented as he appears to be, he’ll be a great quarterback at the professional level.

But Winston has another talent: baseball. In 2012, he was ranked as the No. 59 overall prospect in the nation by Baseball America. An excerpt from the report states: “He’s a 6.6-second runner in the 60 [yard dash] who switch-hits and has excellent arm strength, having touched 92 mph on the mound.”

Winston played baseball for the Seminoles last spring as both a right fielder and relief pitcher. He didn’t tear the cover off the ball, hitting just .235. But as a reliever, he performed well, going 1-2 with a 3.00 ERA in 27 innings.

Scouts expect Winston to stick to football because, after all, he can make more money doing that. A top-10 pick in the MLB draft (which Winston conceivably could be) traditionally receives a signing bonus in the neighborhood of $3-5 million. In the NFL, a top pick can receive a bonus and guaranteed money of upwards of $10 million. If Winston chose to play for more money, no one could blame him.

But why should he have to choose?

Nowadays, kids start to specialize in sports seemingly as soon as they enter middle school. They find out where their aptitudes lie, and throw their energies wholeheartedly into one sport. Maybe this makes sense. Even high school sports are major time commitments today, with coaches looking to eliminate an offseason in order to win.

But what happened to the multi-sport athlete? Jackie Robinson played four sports at UCLA. Bo Jackson, arguably the greatest pure athlete of all time, played baseball and football and excelled at both, albeit for a short time. Deion Sanders did as well. Playing two (or more) sports keeps athletes in shape and utilizes different muscles in their bodies, helping to make them stronger.

Sanders and Robinson might’ve played more than one sport, but they always had a sport that they were better at. For Jackson, this wasn’t the case, and that makes him unique throughout the past century. He was equally good at baseball and football, and in fact didn’t really practice either one. He would just show up to games, demolish linebackers, hit 400-foot home runs and then call it a day.

Of course, Bo Jackson was only a superstar for a couple of years. He hurt his hip during an NFL game, and he was never really the same. That’s the greatest argument for proponents of specialization: If a world-class athlete, or a college kid in Winston’s case, plays two sports at their highest respective levels, the athlete will, at some point, sustain a career-threatening injury because of the sheer level of activity that their body is performing. In short, everyone needs an offseason to rest and recuperate.

I understand that view. But if the athlete thinks that their body can handle it, and is ridiculously talented in both sports, why not let them try it? They might turn out like Michael Jordan, and be horrible at one of the sports at the professional level, so that will make the choice for them. But what if Jameis Winston turns into another Bo Jackson? He has the physical gifts. He runs like a deer, has a rocket arm when throwing any sort of ball and has the smarts to be an NFL quarterback and a proficient MLB pitcher.

Personally, I’d be enthralled with Winston playing in both football and the baseball professionally. He would have to spend some time in the minor leagues of baseball, however. And if he struggles there, even for a month or two, the murmurs and pressure from the press and others would start to intensify.

Winston has to decide what he wants. That’s not to say he has to decide on one sport. If he wants to be the next Bo Jackson, let him do it. Maybe it was his childhood dream to play professional baseball, and he just happened to be good at football along the way. Maybe it’s the other way around. But in any case, we shouldn’t be trying to dictate his dream.

I hope one day to open a newspaper, or visit ESPN.com, and see headlines about Jameis Winston on both the football and the baseball pages. As a kid who dreamed about playing in the NBA and the MLB when I was older, that would be truly amazing, and would convince all of the specialization proponents that athletes shouldn’t have to choose one lone outlet for their talents.

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