Monday, January 16, 2012

If John Elway Played For the Yankees

The weekend was awash with playoff football as four games were played to decide which four teams would play for the league championships. One of the games on Saturday featured the New England Patriots at home against the Denver Broncos. That game, of course, held everyone's attention because of the match up between Tom Brady and Tim Tebow. Brady destroyed the Broncos and Tebow struggled. And during the game, mentions were made of John Elway, now a senior executive with the Broncos. Elway was once the hero of such Bronco playoff games as one of the top ten quarterbacks to play the game. With that fresh in the memory bank, Kevin Goldstein--a writer for Baseball Prospectus and ESPN and something of a Twitter hero--had the following tweet interaction:

That was all it took to fire the imagination and led to the investigation of what exactly Mr. Goldstein was talking about. This writer had vaguely remembered the power play that occurred when Elway was drafted by the then Baltimore Colts in 1983. But the details weren't remembered, nor was the baseball angle. Here is a brief recap of what occurred.

Elway, of course, was one of the most heralded quarterbacks in college football history. Playing his career at Stanford, he set several Pac-10 records for a team that never managed to make it to a bowl game. But still, Stanford played an NFL-like offense and Elway became the number one prospect in the draft. Meanwhile, he was also a terrific college baseball player at Stanford and despite the football angle, The Yankees took a flier on him and chose him at the end of the second round of the 1981 draft. 

Naturally, Elway was selected with the first overall pick in the draft by the Baltimore Colts, a team he most decidedly did not want to join. The Colts were led by a head coach long forgotten by time named, Frank Kush. Kush was dreaded taskmaster for a team nobody wanted to join because of his hard-nosed reputation. Elway said there was no way he would play there. The Colts knew this ahead of time and still drafted him with the first pick. 

Normally, this would have made Elway a villain of sorts in much the same way J.D. Drew became when he pulled the same scenario when he was drafted by the Phillies and refused to join them. But Elway's move pitted him against Robert Irsay, the unpopular owner many claimed had ruined the Colts in the early 80s. Irsay would go on to cement his bad name when he moved the beloved Colts out of Baltimore in 1984. Plus, Elway had all the leverage.

Elway could play baseball. As mentioned, the Yankees had drafted him in 1981 and Elway had a highly encouraging baseball start at Oneanta, the Yankees minor league outlet in the summer of 1982 (more on that later). Elway made it clear that if Irsay kept his football rights, he would play baseball. The ploy worked. Irsay caved and traded Elway to the Broncos for a quarterback, Mark Herrmann, rights to the Broncos' first round pick and a first round pick in the 1984 draft. The rest, of course, is history. John Elway became a superstar and Hall of Fame quarterback, author of the legendary "Drive" and two-time Super Bowl champion.

But what if Robert Irsay didn't cave? What if he had stuck to his guns? If Irsay called Elway's bluff, two things would have happened. Either Elway would have to cave and would have played for the Colts or he would have stayed and played baseball for the Yankees. History might have been very different for the Colts if Elway had played there. During the Ron Meyer years, the team was close to being playoff caliber with a running back named, Eric Dickerson. But they scored few points. Throw John Elway into that mix and the Colts could have been highly successful. But how would history be different if Elway has played for the Yankees?

Goldstein's comment found earlier in this post and the one record we have of Elway's minor league career are tantalizing. The record shows that he batted left and threw right and played 41 games for Oneanta. His slash line was, .318/.432/.464. The 41 games hint that John Elway was already an accomplished baseball player with excellent plate discipline. He only struck out 16.5 percent of the time and walked at a rate of 15.1 percent. He was an excellent base runner and stole thirteen bases in just sixteen attempts. Plus, he seemed to be a terrific right fielder. He made 69 putouts in 71 attempts (89.9 percent) and the arm that made him a quarterback was on display in the outfield where he made eight assists in just those 41 games. He didn't make a single error.

Surely, the Yankees, with George Steinbrenner at the helm, would have realized the marquee value they had in John Elway. Elway was one of the most recognizable athletes of his day. He was already 22 years old by his 1981 minor league season and many considered college baseball like the minor leagues. The Yankees would have fast-tracked him and certainly, he could have been in the majors by 1984. How would that have changed the Yankees? After titles in 1977 and 1978 and though the team made the World Series in the strike-shortened 1981 season, they famously then went zero for the 1980s and a long drought occurred until the 1996 team.

Would John Elway have made a difference? Elway didn't show much power at Oneanta, but as he matured, surely that would have come, especially as a left-handed batter at Yankee Stadium. He already had all the other tools to succeed in plate discipline, base running (he wouldn't have ruined his knees in baseball) and defense. He easily could have been a .300/.400/.500 player with positive value on the bases and in the field. 

The Yankees had some bad teams in the 1980s, but were in the mix in 1985 and 1986 (the Lou Piniella years). In 1985, the Yankees won 97 games and finished just two back of the Toronto Blue Jays. The Yankee outfield consisted of Dave Winfield, Rickey Henderson and Ken Griffey (Sr.). Griffey was on the downhill slide but was still a pretty good player, but he platooned with Billy Sample. Elway could have possibly been a two-win better player than the combination of those two. Two wins would have been enough to catch the Blue Jays.

In 1986, the Yankees were an outfielder short of being a great team. Henderson slid a little that season, but Dave Winfield was still productive. But the third outfield position was a wasteland filled with the likes of Danny Pasqua, Gary Roenicke, Claudell Washington and Henry Cotto. Griffey had been traded after 59 games to the Braves. The 1986 Yankees finished five games behind the Boston Red Sox, who would go on to the Bill Buckner World Series. Could John Elway have made a difference? Certainly.

The Yankees fell on hard times after 1986. They went a few years with their best players being guys like Steve Sax, Roberto Kelly and Scott Sanderson. It's not hard to imagine that John Elway would have been a star during those years and the Yankees' WAR leader board during those years would be different. Elway would have still been playing in 1993 and 1994. The Yankees finished well back of the Blue Jays in 1993, so Elway couldn't have made that difference himself. And there was no wild card back then. But you'd like to think he would have been a better outfield option than Dion James and Hensley Meulens. The Yankees came in first place in 1994, but the strike ended that season and no post season was the sorry result.

Speculations lead down another path too. What if the Yankees hadn't drafted Elway? Selections in that draft after Elway included such guys as a young David Cone and Tony Gwynn. How would history have changed in the Yankees had drafted one of those guys instead? Well, that will have to be another article for another time.

According to Kevin Goldstein, John Elway could have been a superstar. While the 1980s were George Steinbrenner at his worst and most manic, Elway could have brought the Yankees at least one title and maybe two if he had been a Yankee. He could have been a perennial All Star. As a baseball player, it's not hard to imagine him as a Larry Walker kind of player. But it was not to be. John Elway made his name in football as the quarterback for the Denver Broncos. History is what it is. But just imagine if John Elway had been a baseball player! The thought is tasty to ponder.



Ryan Sendek said...

John Elway signed with the Yankees in 1981, but he was also selected in the amateur draft in 1979 by the Royals. Do you know who else they selected that year?

Dan Marino. How about that for irony?

Ryan from
Analysis around the Horn

Steve G. said...

I definitely think there is reason to believe Elway could have contributed to those 1990s Yankees teams - Look at how well he held up on the gridiron, after all. Even if he never develops power, his (very, very limited) minor league line suggests he could get some hits, play defense and draw a walk, kind of like what the Yankees eventually had in Chad Curtis.