Winston 'starstruck' in exhibition vs. Yankees
Heisman Trophy winner in awe meeting Girardi, Posada, 'Mr. Jeter'
TAMPA, Fla. -- When a Major League team opens its exhibition schedule against a college team, it usually doesn't attract a crowd of nearly 8,000, a marching band and an overflow press box.
Then again, these early tuneups usually don't feature the reigning Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from the defending national championship football team.
So when the Florida State Seminoles showed up at George M. Steinbrenner Field to play the Yankees on Tuesday, it transformed a pleasant Spring Training diversion into a full-blown event. And when Jameis Winston appeared on the field, heads turned in unison. A dozen cameras followed his every move, clicking and whirring.
Winston entered the game as a defensive replacement in left field in the bottom of the fifth inning. He batted twice, grounding out and striking out. Winston didn't get a chance to pitch because his arm is a little tender. Still, it was one of the most memorable days of his young life, because he played against the team he grew up cheering. Because he met manager Joe Girardi, first baseman Mark Teixeira and former catcher Jorge Posada. And, mostly, because Winston met Derek Jeter, his favorite ballplayer of all time.
It was enough to turn one of the most acclaimed college football players in the nation, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound 20-year-old, into a child again.
"I was kind of starstruck. I just kept telling him it was an honor to meet him," Winston said of Jeter. "And it really was. I guess it's how little kids feel sometimes when they talk to me. They can be kind of speechless. And that's how I was with Mr. Jeter. He was my favorite, by far, just because he's such a leader to that organization. He's the face of that organization. And I used to be a shortstop back in my day. My favorite number was 2. He's been a huge influence on my life."
There's something fascinating about elite athletes trying to juggle two sports. Four previous Heisman winners -- Vic Janowicz in 1950, Bo Jackson in '85, Ricky Williams in '98, Chris Weinke in 2000 -- were also proficient in baseball. Two pro football Hall of Famers, John Elway and Deion Sanders, starred in college. Of that group, only Janowicz, Sanders and Jackson played both sports professionally. Only Jackson made an All-Star team. In all, fewer than 70 men have appeared in at least one MLB and NFL game, among them Jim Thorpe and Brian Jordan.
The degree of difficulty in attempting double duty has only been amped up. Winston is both aware of and unintimidated by that reality.
"Times have changed. I know it was easier back then to play both sports. Athletes have changed, a lot of things have changed, but my mentality is still the same," Winston said. "I love both. I have a strong passion for both. I've probably had more success in football, but baseball is a passion of mine, and I want to play as long as possible."
Seminoles football coach Jimbo Fisher, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Yanks' 8-3 win, has no problem with his quarterback splitting his time. In fact, he encourages it.
"I think it's great," Fisher said. "I love [multiple]-sport guys. I think you learn to compete in different ways. Each sport is different. Baseball is very good, especially for a quarterback, because it's a game of failure. You're going to fail a lot, and to be able to respond right back and be able to handle a different temperament, I think it actually helps their development. Getting away from the monotony of one sport all the time, I think it helps the players. I really do."
"That's one thing that I always take from baseball is the failure part of it," he said. "Baseball is a failure sport, unless you're hot that day. Playing quarterback, if you throw an interception, you can't get down on yourself. You've just got to bounce back and lead your team down the field on a good drive. That's why I love playing both sports, the mental aspect for both. Both sports help me with each other."
Injuries would be a logical worry, but all concerned shrug that off as well.
"That's just part of the game," said Mike Martin, in his 35th year as FSU's head baseball coach. "You can't tell him not to slide. You can't tell him, 'Hey, be careful running into that padded wall.' He's wide open playing baseball, and, of course, wide open playing football. We would never do anything to overuse him. That's the key, in my opinion. And we treat him just like we do the other pitchers. We will not overuse him."
Added Fisher, philosophically: "If he's throwing in practice, a guy can fall into his knee. He can be running a drill in one of our offseason workouts. You see so many ACLs now. He can stick his foot in the ground. I mean, if you sit and worry about injuries, they occur. We'll prepare and train for his body to take those things, and then we'll adjust from there."
Winston had only one at-bat in Florida State's first six games and has given up just one hit in four relief innings, striking out three. Martin believes that pitching is where his baseball future lies.
"I really believe it's going to be easier for him playing two sports to develop as a pitcher/quarterback than he would as an outfielder/quarterback," Martin said. "But like Deion, you don't put anything past these unbelievable athletes. He liable to say, 'I want to play outfield. I want to play quarterback,' and go out there and accomplish it. But from an experience standpoint, I got to say pitching/quarterback is easier, because there is so much involved in being an everyday player."
For now, Winston is doing it all and having a blast. He both fit in by picking up batting-practice balls in the cage and stood out by standing and patiently signing autographs after the game was over. Using a wood bat instead of the standard collegiate aluminum model, Winston was sawed off by Yankees right-hander Shane Wilson in the fifth ... and drew a loud cheer just for breaking his bat.
A year ago, Winston was a redshirt football player and a largely overlooked baseball player. This year he's a Heisman Trophy winner. A lot has changed, but one thing has remained the same -- his love for baseball.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.