Florida State v PittsburghPITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 02: Jameis Winston #5 of the Florida State Seminoles directs the offense in the second half against the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game on September 2, 2013 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
In one breath, Mike Martin is comparing him to Buster Posey. And in the next, Martin is saying he's more like Deion Sanders. Jameis Winston does this to people. He turns a man who has spent 34 years as the head baseball coach at Florida State into a fawning, fumbling fanboy. As the entire sporting world watched Winston become the biggest instant hit in college football since Katherine Webb, Martin sat back, smiled and nodded. He doesn't want to say he knew this was coming. So we'll say it: He did.
Martin spent all spring in dugouts with Winston. Yes, Jameis Winston, he of the 25-for-27, 356-yard, four-touchdown, no-pick debut for the Seminoles football team, plays baseball at Florida State, too. It isn't a lark, either, some side hobby. Winston genuinely loves the sport, and three scouts and executives who saw Winston play in high school told Yahoo Sports that if he had flipped his priorities – baseball as the top sport with football in the background – he would've been a first-round pick instead of a 15th rounder in the 2012 draft.
The Texas Rangers chose him hoping by some stroke of luck he would decide to play pro ball in the summer months. Winston preferred the dual-sport route at Florida State, and he spent his first season as a two-way threat. When he isn't firing fastballs that top out at 96 mph, Winston patrols right field and makes absurd throws like this.
"It's the best throw I've ever seen," Martin told Yahoo Sports from Tallahassee, which basked in the afterglow of the Seminoles' 41-13 win over Pittsburgh. He remembers the disgusted look on Clemson coach Jack Leggett's face and the dumbfounded expression of the runner, Garrett Boulware. A single to right field on a hit-and-run might as well be an automatic invitation to third base. Well, unless there is a 6-foot-5, 220-pound, do-everything 18-year-old who throws like Yasiel Puig and … oh, enough with the comparisons for now.
Martin wants to tamp down the hype. He does. He just can't help himself. It's not only that Winston is a great athlete. He arrived from suburban Birmingham shrouded in next-great-quarterback talk. Superstardom in any sport, and especially football, can be a poisonous wretch for a teenager who may not be equipped to handle it. The kid with most scrutinized signature since the Declaration of Independence can attest.
Early in Florida State's baseball season, Martin wanted to get Winston into a game on the mound. Didn't happen Friday. Wasn't going to happen Saturday, either. And yet when the Seminoles were in the field, Winston stood on the top step of the dugout's far side. When they batted, he moved to the near side, where he could be the first to slap a teammate on the back if they scored a run. This seems like a little thing because it is. Inside the culture of clubhouses, it carries significant weight. And it allowed for Winston's signature moment later in the season.
It was March 24. The Seminoles were down 5-0 early against Georgia Tech. The team looked sluggish. Even though Winston wasn't playing, he refused to sit and watch his team half-ass a game. So up he stood, a freshman, a teenager, with his teammates huddled around him, and he did exactly what he would in a huddle. Martin was too awed to do anything.
"I remember starting to take a step toward the so-called huddle, he said. "Then I said to myself, 'Sit yo ass down.' And I walked away toward the bat rack."
Florida State won 8-6. Winston came on to pitch 1 1/3 scoreless innings of relief. The Seminoles might've won that day if Winston hadn't said anything, and they could've lost even though he did. Words don't win games. What they can do is breathe energy back into people, and Winston's unquestionably did with his teammates. Leadership is a great intangible, of course, but the Rangers adored Winston's makeup the same way they did Jurickson Profar's when they signed him as a 16-year-old out of Curacao. Some players just have the goods.
[Related: Is Jameis Winston the next Johnny Manziel?]
It's not like the physical talent is lacking for Winston, either. One scout who saw Winston in high school filed a report that called Winston's fastball a 60 (on the 20-to-80 scale) and a future 70, which means it profiles as a monster pitch, one of the best in the game if he can command it. With a hard curve that has turned into a mid-80s slider and a working-on-it changeup, the scout said, Winston had the upside of a No. 2 starter. Among the size, the stuff and the makeup, it was all there, and his 3.00 ERA and .176 batting average against with Florida State out of the bullpen was a preview of what could be.
The Rangers actually planned on making him a position player. Maybe more than any team outside the Phillies, they love raw athletes, and they've hit on a pair recently in Lewis Brinson and Nick Williams. The scout's report on Winston dovetailed with his freshman-year performance, which showed just how green he was. While his frame projected significant power, Winston's swing was unrefined to the point he was a 20 hitter. All the extra reps in the batting cage that help full-time baseball players smooth over the kinks in their swing simply weren't an option for Winston. Something had to give. It wasn't football. It wasn't academics. (Winston reportedly was a 4.0 student in high school and carried above a 3.0 as a freshman at FSU.) Baseball bore the brunt of his time crunch, and so it was that Winston hit .235 without any home runs in 119 at-bats.
Martin got him for less than two months, between the beginning of January and the start of spring football practice, at which time Winston would show up mostly for baseball games. He missed a road trip because of football. Though Martin and football coach Jimbo Fisher have an understanding of Winston's priorities, Martin does secretly wish he could have Winston for a year as a baseball player and watch him blossom.
"I honestly thought I would never in my lifetime have a guy come through our program that could match Deion Sanders," Martin said. "When you're talking about the importance to both programs. You had great athletes, of course, but they only played one sport. Deion could do a lot more things athletically because, let's face it, he could jump and dunk, he ran a leg on the track team, he was a top cover corner possibly to ever play in the NFL. But in baseball, he was just good when he was in college.
"He didn't have the capabilities in baseball that Jameis Winston has. Now, I'm not trying to be premature. I'm just saying what he did [against Pittsburgh] is not a fluke. He's not going to do it every time, but that's not a fluke. You don't throw the ball like he threw the ball and the next night stink up the yard. This ain't baseball. This guy is special, obviously, and I'm not saying it's time to compare him to anybody. If he continues to improve, he could be someone who would have a decision to make whether he goes into the majors as a pitcher, as an outfielder or the NFL as a quarterback."
Posey is the best player to come from Martin's program, which has produced No. 1 overall pick Paul Wilson, J.D. and Stephen Drew, Doug Mientkiewicz and plenty more, and in Winston he sees the same versatility. Posey closed at FSU. Winston may some day do the same. Posey was the conscience of the team early in his career. Winston, too. All that separates them, Martin believes, is the time Posey spent working at baseball and the time Winston can't.
Because after one game, he is right there with Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney as players who will spend the rest of their seasons with the words Heisman Trophy as an antecedent. And the temptress that is football will keep whispering to Winston that baseball is a hobby, that he need not risk anything that can stall his NFL career by expending his tie elsewhere.
"I can honestly say I would really be surprised if that happened," Martin said. "Because Jameis really enjoys competing, and when he's got the ball in his hand, he likes that stuff. When he's got the bat in his hand, he likes that stuff. He loves to compete. And he knows he's not running any real risk of jeopardizing anything playing baseball. Now, the other way around ... "
Martin chuckled. He turns 70 in February and won't apologize for being greedy. Problem is, what happened Monday – he knew it was coming. And he knew that once Jameis Winston did what he can do on the football field, his baseball career was going to be even more of a dream than it already is.