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Pro baseball players that also played college or professional basketball

6 Jan

Professional athletes often love to believe they can do it all and baseball players are perhaps the most notorious when it comes to this belief. Every year when spring training is hitting full stride and March Madness has the nation’s attention discussion of Tim Stoddard and Kenny Lofton always hit’s the airwaves. Why you may wonder? The answer is they were MLB players that also played in the final four of the NCAA tournament. When you consider all the baseball players in MLB history, it’s a pretty impressive feat. They aren’t the only MLB players to have to shine in college basketball though.

Dave Winfield was a standout athlete at Minnesota State not just playing baseball, but basketball as well. At 6’6” Winfield was a force on the court, and his coach Bill Musselman called him the best rebounded he ever saw in his life – college or NBA.  Winfield carried Minnesota to a Big Ten championship that snapped a 53 year drought.  Winfield was so talented he was not only drafted by the San Diego Padres, but the Atlanta hawks and Utah Stars as well. Even the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL drafted him and he didn’t play college football! Only he and Dave Logan have ever been drafted by three different professional sports.

Danny Ainge is often thought of as a Boston Celtic with good reason – he helped them win some hardware. He was a huge force while playing collegiate at Brigham Young and turned in one of the greatest plays in NCAA tournament history. What people often forget is Ainge was a two sports star as the Toronto Blue Jays drafted him in 1977 and he debuted in 1979 with the big team. Ainge was actually a baseball player first and didn’t get drafted by the Celtics until 1981. To this day Ainge is still the youngest player to hit an MLB homerun in franchise history at 20 years 77 days old.

Tony Gwynn was as close to the reincarnation of Ted Williams at the plate as the game of baseball has seen, but he was also a point guard for San Diego State University where he is now the head baseball coach. Gwynn set the Aztec’s record for assists and was often called one of the best playmakers in the game while he was in college thanks to his amazing court vision. He was drafted by the then San Diego Clippers but opted to play baseball for the Padres instead.

Tim Stoddard was a hulking figure on the mound at 6’7” over his 14 year MLB career with 6 teams – most notably the Orioles. He was an outstanding basketball player as well though helping lead his HS basketball team to a 29-0 season and Indiana State Championship win. Bigger than that, he was the starting forward on N.C. State’s 1975 team that went 30-1 winning the NCAA tournament by snapping UCLA’s 7 year string of victories.

Kenny Lofton was one of the premiere leadoff hitters and base stealers in baseball during his MLB career in which he played with 11 teams (most notably the Indians), but he was also the third string guard on the 1988 Arizona Wildcats that went to the NCAA tournament final four. He backed up Steve Kerr and Craig McMillan that year, but did get to start eventually and set the school record for season and career steals. Lofton is still, along with Tim Stoddard, one of only two MLB players to not just appear in an NCAA final four game, but also to play in the World Series.

Tony Clark, known as “Stretch”,  made a good living in the MLB by having amazing plate coverage and a sickening wingspan that came with his 6’7” frame that made him an ideal first baseman blessed with soft hands. As a senior at Christian HS in El Cajon, California, Clark averaged 43.7ppg, scored 2,549 career points, and surpassed Bill Walton’s Sand Diego scoring record for a single season with 1.337 points. According to his website and MLB Hot Stove, he played college basketball for both the Arizona wildcats and San Diego State University.

Chris Young of the San Diego Padres is a serviceable pitcher at the MLB level, but while at Princeton his 6’10” frame helped make him both the Ivy League Rookie of the Year in baseball and basketball unanimously. He scored double digits 22 times, set a school record with 87 blocked shots in a season . In 2002 the Sacramento Kings offered him a guaranteed 2 year contract he declined.

Dave DeBusschere who was named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history has some MLB roots. Before appearing with the Detroit Pistons later in 1962, DeBusschere was signed by the Chicago White Sox as a pitcher. He also played some ball at the University of Detroit to round out the connection of this theme.

Mark Hendrickson of the Baltimore Orioles played college baseball and basketball at Washington State University. Twice he was named to the All-Pac 10 Conference team in basketball. He is second in school history in career rebounds pulling them down at a rate of 8.6rpg. He was also the 31st overall pick in the 1996 NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers.

Gene Conley made his MLB debut with the Boston braves in 1952. Midway through his baseball career he signed a contract to play with the Wilkes-Barre barons of the ABL before going on to play 6 seasons with the Knicks and Celtics. He continued his baseball career however playing until 1963. He played college basketball at Washington State University where he averaged 20ppg and was twice an All-American team honorable mention.

Ron Reed who holds the distinction of being the winning pitcher in the game Hank Aaron hit his 715th homer, and one of only 8 players in MLB history to record 100 wins and saves played his college basketball at Notre Dame and eventually spent some time with the Detroit Pistons from 1965-1967 who drafted him third overall in 1965.

Dick Groat had a great MLB career with 4 teams (most notably the Pirates) from 1952-1967,  but he was also a 2 time All-American in basketball and baseball at Duke University. He was also the 3rd overall pick in the 1952 NBA draft by the Fort Wayne Pistons, but he only played in 26 games during one season before opting to play baseball exclusively. In 2007 he was inducted to the National Collegiate basketball hall of fame. His #10 basketball jersey was retired by Duke.

The list could go on and on. A few notable names that could easily appear include Chuck Connors, Steve Hamilton, Dick Ricketts, Cotton Nash, and Frank Baumholtz. Baseball or basketball, these guys could field quite a team!

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Is corruption in the Dominican Republic baseball academies hurting the MLB?

1 Jan

While the Dominican Republic has provided the MLB with some of the most talented and exciting players we have ever seen, there is no denying that corruption in the baseball academies operated within it’s borders are having a negative impact on the game. To lay the blame fully at the hands of the academies isn’t truly fair, as the first line of defense they are failing miserably. Whether it’s drugs, kick-back schemes, or falsified records, the problems with the D.R. baseball academies is reaching epic proportions and may serve to be the next great scandal in the MLB.

The biggest problem that nobody wants to talk about is the use of performance Enhancing Drugs (PED’s) in the academies. What makes this especially sad is that these are kids who are primarily under the age of 18. In fact, the most talented kids may leave their home at as young as fourteen to live and play ball at an academy full time. What goes on at these facilities is something most MLB teams have been willing to turn a blind eye to because the talent arriving has continually gotten younger and more developed than at any other time. By financing these facilities and loosely regulating them at best, this behavior actually seemed to be encouraged. Grow them bigger and faster than before seems to be the mantra. As these players aren’t yet subject to drug testing under the collective bargaining agreement, the Commissioners Office can say or do little to end it.

The end result is a generation of players in which many have opted for or been goaded into taking the chemical edge. By the time they reach the U.S. and officially enter the minor league system at 18, they often find they depend on that chemical crutch. Just looking at the list of suspended players since the new steroid policy went into effect, in the minors more players that arrived from Dominican Republic baseball academies have failed testing than any other demographic. In fairness however it must also be said that they are the second largest demographic only behind American born players, many of whom have been under NCAA testing since they were the age of these newly arriving D.R. academy players. Like all statistics it must be viewed in the proper perspective.The problem is that players that straighten up and follow the rules all too often fail to show their earlier promise and become after-thoughts that are shipped home within three years for failing to progress.

The second major problem which has made a return to the press spotlight is players falsifying their birth certificates to appear younger. It is no secret that this has gone on for decades with players from everywhere, however now it is more prevalent than ever. In previous years it was mainly the Cuban ballplayers that shaved a few years off their age. The fact that guys like Orlando Hernandez or Luis Tiant may have forgotten a few birthdays was accepted because they were known commodities that had proved them self already. Teams were willing to overlook it. Now however something quite different is happening, players nobody has ever heard of, kids without a contract even are turning back time. While most 16 year old kids would love to be accepted as 18, in Dominican baseball academies 16 is a far more valuable age than 18.

Usually if a player has not panned out by the time they hit eighteen, they can forget about making a trip to the minors. There are hundreds of kids in academies younger than they are with more time to develop. Therefore a younger prospect that looks more polished can command a better deal. A perfect example is Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez who was once viewed as the next ozzie Smith and a future cornerstone of the Washington nationals. As a 16 year old prospect he commanded a 2006 contract that carried a signing bonus of $1.4 million. He was seen as that good, endless upside and plenty of time to develop it.

The problem is he wasn’t 16, he wasn’t even 18, he was really 20. That is a huge difference in development time in regards to professional sports. As a matter of fact, he wasn’t even Esmailyn Gonzalez, he was really named Carlos David Alvarez. The Nationals wound up with not just an older player, but a whole different person! How fair is that to the organization which made future draft choices and trades based on the idea this was a guy that would be a central part of the team when he matured? While he was considered a phenom at 16, at 23 which he is today his value has dropped down to marginal at best. There is a huge difference between breaking in at 21 and 25 years old.

Gonzalez is hardly the only recent player to pull some form of this scam, current big leaguers like Alfonso Soriano, Miguel Tejada, Rafael Furcal, and former Cy Young winner now minor league journeyman Bartolo Colon all doctored their birth certificates. While they have gone on to productive careers, for each of them dozens of others they try and get caught only to slip into obscurity we never hear about. What is disturbing is the local scouts employed by the teams know full and well who these players are and how old they are but say nothing. To them it is worth the risk. If the player pans out all will be forgiven, if not at least the kid got a shot. Either way teams keep bankrolling the academies.

Finally, a current federal investigation into skimming bonus money by scouts in the D.R. who oversee at least in part these academies, as well as agents and one General manager, Jim Bowden, has shown corruption is everywhere. Bowden they claim has been skimming bonus money from Dominican prospects since at least 1996, maybe 1994 while with the Reds. To their credit the MLB investigators managed to keep a lid on this until turning it over to the government for further investigation and probable prosecution. So far three White Sox scouts in the D.R. were fired in 2008, and Jose Rijo, another Dominican based scout on 2/28/09. It is believed several teams may have some involvement in this although details are sketchy at best at this time.

What it all boils down to is the MLB is for the most part doing the same thing with every other scandal they have faced, they talk tough and turn a blind eye. All of this behavior is still going on aside from perhaps bonus skimming at the MLB level. Still it goes without saying that if they are doing business with people that are taking an unwarranted piece of the pie the MLB is just as guilty. What makes this sad is that there is no need for any of it. Dominican born players can and should be seen as equals when it comes to developing with everyone else. These kids are mercilessly exploited at an alarming rate. With less than 1% ever reaching the bigs, baseball is really only the answer for a few, and the academies are the slaughterhouses they pass through.