Two-sport stars face tough decisions
Talented athletes face choice of baseball or football
Imagine being fortunate enough to be so talented athletically that the potential to play two sports at a very high level is a distinct opportunity.
Try to envision a situation in which someone might offer a whole bunch of money as a means to convince you to focus on just one of those athletic endeavors.
Now think about making that decision as a teenager.
In every Draft, there are a host of tremendous athletes up for consideration who don't call the diamond their exclusive home. And while dabbling in another sports is somewhat common, there are always a few who could feasibly have the option of playing either sport in college or the professional level.
Casey Kelly grew up around the game of baseball. The Sarasota High School shortstop and right-handed pitcher, the son of one-time Reds bench coach Pat Kelly, always used to be a baseball kid. That was always his sport. Then he started playing football and is now faced with the question of which sport he would choose if forced to make a selection, something that could happen right after the Draft. And he's not certain what direction he might choose.
"If you had asked me that question about two years ago, I'd say baseball," said Kelly, who has committed to play both sports at the University of Tennessee. "But now with football coming in, I'm a pretty good quarterback, [so] to get to play SEC football at a pretty good college, that's something that'd be very exciting.
"During football season, I love football. I don't pick up a bat or baseball. During the spring, I see guys doing spring football and I don't want to do that."
"My favorite sport has always been baseball," Hood explained. "I've played football since I was 10. It's something pepole don't realize: football is secondary and baseball is my priority. That's what I love.
"I wasn't going to keep playing football. I happened to be good at it, so why not have the option? Playing at that level, it's just there, so why not? I've never tried to dream of being an NFL player. My aspiration has always been to be an Major League Baseball player, so if I had to choose one, it'd have to be baseball."
That's Kyle Long's choice as well, something that might raise a few eyebrows. The son of NFL Hall of Famer Howie and brother of Chris, the No. 2 overall pick in the recent NFL Draft, it'd be easy to make the assumption that this Long prefers the gridiron. His size -- 6-foot-8, 270 or so pounds -- doesn't help people draw a football-related conclusion. Funny thing is, he's the one player in this trio who has no interest in continuing his football career.
"Baseball's always been the top," said Long, who passed on several football scholarship offers to commit to his only baseball one at Florida State. "I've always known that I would be a baseball player if I had the opportunity and luckily, I have.
"I try to work hard at overturning people's thoughts on the fact I come from a football family, therefore I'm going to play football with my older brother Chris and my dad. I just work hard to try and be the best baseball player I can and have the makeup of a baseball player as opposed to just an athlete with a glove and a bat."
Players with tools will always draw a lot of interest. Finding those with athleticsm and baseball acumen isn't always easy and the Minor Leagues have seen more than their fair share of raw, toolsy athletes flame out, never getting to the point where peformance caught up with potential.
The hope with two-sport athletes is that once they give up the "other" sport, their baseball skills take a big leap forward. No longer having to split their time, these players have the ability to learn and perfect the nuances of the game. For Hood, it's never been a real problem in his estimation, though as much as he's excelled on the gridiron, he believe it has gotten in the way of his baseball career.
"Football comes a lot more naturally to me," Hood said. "It's not as hard as baseball and I only get to play baseball three months out of the year.
"I don't think I'm catching up. I would love to play baseball year-round, but I feel I'm right there with everyone else; I don't think I'm catching up. I can pick it up and go with it because I've been playing it for a long time."
Casey knows that it can be a struggle for him, going back and forth between the sports. The one knock on him as a baseball player in the past has been some concerns about his ability to hit consistently. Being able to focus more on baseball this spring has helped to answer many of these questions, but Casey admits there are times he knows he's not firing on all cylinders at the plate.
"This past summer, I tried to go between football and baseball; it was very hard on baseball," Casey said. "Baseball is so much based on timing. Most people saw me in the summer when I was going between [sports] and didn't have time to focus on baseball. It really hurt my timing. When I focus on just the baseball part, I really am a good hitter.
"It's really frustrating. In your mind, you know what you can do and how good a hitter you are. But when it's the first time you've hit in two weeks and you're facing a guy throwing 92 [mph], it's hard to catch up. You know what your talents are and you don't do them because you're not focusing on baseball."
It's not all negative, of course. Football has provided opportunities for these players and allowed them to show things they wouldn't necessarily have on display on the diamond. And there definitely seems to be some carryover from one sport to the next.
"The best part is if you can't get them in baseball season, then you can turn around and get them in football season," Hood laughed. "Being able to show your athleticism in two sports, showing one part of one game in another game, shows what you can do differently."
"Quarterback, with the abilty to move around, improving my footwork helps me with my fielding," Kelly added. "Throwing a football helps with arm strength. Leadership, being a QB, the competitiveness and desire in leading the team down the field, definitely helps me in baseball."
Time -- and ultimately, Draft status -- may determine what happens next with this trio. Will Kelly and Hood give up football and go pro? Will Long go high enough to forgo his FSU commitment and play baseball in the Minor Leagues? Could there be a situation, even with all three at least leaning slightly toward baseball, in which they decide to head back to football if things don't go right? At least for Long, the answer is a definitive no.
"I know I'm not going to wear a football helmet," Long said. "It's been hammered into my head be a man of your word since day one of my life and my older brother and younger brother's lives. I'm going to stick to the plan and usually what I say happens in regards to being trustworthy. I told coaches I plan on being a baseball player and that's what I intend to do."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.