Before Johnny Football, there was Johnny Baseball.
Early in the evening, Johnny Baseball would head out to a field in Kerrville, Texas, and take some extra batting practice. One time, he forgot his gear inside Tivy High School and didn't have a key to get inside, so he ambled over to the diamond wearing flip-flops. He asked to take a few rips anyway. His coach obliged and his friend Logan Vick handed him a bat. Swing after swing, a teenage boy in shower sandals kept hitting balls over the fence, maybe 400 feet, maybe more.
Then there was that other time, during his tryout for the elite travel team in Kerrville, when Johnny Baseball was 12 and the team was full of 13-year-olds. The first thing the coaches did was time him running from home to first base and home to second, where he clocked in a full two seconds faster than the next best on the team. Soon enough, he was the starting shortstop.
And that lasted until the summer of 2009, when a scout named Buzzy Keller showed up at a tournament with the Kerrville Indians and approached their coach, Freddie Russ, with a question.
"Is Johnny still on this team?" Keller asked.
No, Russ said, Johnny's at a quarterback camp.
Both understood what that meant. In Texas, football is the undisputed champion of the sporting world, quarterback the top spot in the kingdom, baseball an oft-forgotten species. And even though Adam Dunn and Carl Crawford turned down the lure of football to pursue baseball professionally, they are the outliers. The rest took the well-trodden path that turned Johnny Baseball into Johnny Football and has taken Johnny Football to the sorts of heights baseball couldn't match, no matter how deep his love.
And make no mistake: Johnny Manziel did, and does, love baseball, even as he prepares for the most important night of his career: Thursday's NFL draft, in which he'll go in the first round, though nobody is certain where. The first time Buzzy Keller met Manziel, he asked him: "Do you like to play baseball?" And Keller, now 80, in his 45th year of professional baseball as a scout, remembers the reply: "I'd rather play baseball than anything."
Manziel himself said the same last year when he threw out the first pitch at a San Diego Padres game: "Always thought I was going to be a baseball player."
He was the classic great athlete who flashed enough baseball talent to cause those around him to dream. Russ, one of the deans of central Texas baseball, couldn't believe his fortune. He called his son Chris, who reached Triple-A, and couldn't stop raving about Manziel's tools. At one point, Russ said, Chris got a smidgen defensive and asked: "Is he better than I was?"
"I didn't know what to say," Russ said.
Manziel gave scouts the feelings, too. Though he played shortstop, they saw him as a do-everything center fielder whose speed would help him track balls in the gaps and swipe bases. In his junior season at Kerrville, he hit .416, whacked seven home runs, drove in 35 and left those who saw him wanting more.
The University of Oregon, where Manziel first committed, planned on letting him play both sports. He took an unofficial visit to the University of Texas, where Russ' son Ryan was an assistant coach. Around the office, he had shown the rest of the coaches videos of Manziel for years. Mostly football, truth be told, but the baseball ones showed a fluid athlete who was at his best moving side to side. At one point, when Manziel kicked a couple of routine groundballs, Freddie Russ suggested he charge them so he could be on the move, where he was most comfortable.
At the end of his visit in Austin, Russ said, Manziel spoke for 45 minutes with longtime Longhorns head coach Augie Garrido, who at the end of the conversation couldn't get over how Manziel locked eyes with him. The sort of skills that translate so well at quarterback were apparent to those in baseball, too, and had Texas football coach Mack Brown offered Manziel a shot at quarterbacking, he might have stuck with baseball.
Instead, he graduated from Tivy early, missed his senior season in baseball entirely to enroll at Texas A&M and never again saw a competitive pitch. While Manziel did correspond with Aggies baseball coach Rob Childress, any chance of him playing baseball in College Station died when he beat out Jameill Showers for the starting quarterback gig in 2012.
"It can be done," Childress said, "but it's awful hard to be the trigger man for football and come and do baseball."
Manziel's Heisman Trophy successor, Jameis Winston, does it at Florida State. And the quarterback for the reigning Super Bowl champions, Russell Wilson, managed the balance while at North Carolina State. Childress wasn't that lucky.
He settled for watching Manziel throw out the first pitch at Padres and Rangers games and wondered what might've been, like one Texas-based scout who saw Manziel in high school and opined: "Like most high school hitters, you had to dream."
They still do dream, and they'll keep dreaming as Manziel carves his way through defenses and brings to football the dynamism that enriches their what-could've-been baseball fantasies.
"I would like to have seen Johnny Baseball," Childress said, "but Johnny Football was pretty good here."
- Sports & Recreation