Two Sports, One Choice

Two-sport stars face a difficult decision come draft time

Quarterback in the NFL or shortstop in the major leagues—dream question right?

"I think I could play either," was the answer from Florida prep baseball and football standout Casey Kelly.

The thing is, he might be right.

Ranked as the No. 2 high school shortstop in the country by BA and the No. 31 high school quarterback by ESPN, Kelly is committed to the University of Tennessee to play both sports and is a true dual-sport athlete. He is expected to seriously contend for the starting shortstop role as a freshman and will have to battle with returning quarterbacks Nick Stephens, B.J. Coleman and Jonathan Crompton to replace Erik Ainge as the Vols' starting quarterback in the fall—if he even makes it to the Knoxville campus. Kelly is ranked as BA's No. 35 player overall for the upcoming draft, making him an early supplemental pick come June. Of course, that doesn't take into account signability, and when that issue is raised, a dual-sport contract will certainly be on the table.

In an attempt to protect against losing its most athletic prospects to other sports, Major League Baseball allows for teams to sign players such as Kelly to a signing bonus that is spread out over three to five years, instead of the usual lump sum bonus paid out over one year. The rules are flexible as it doesn't take an actual commitment to a university to play another sport—just a legitimate opportunity to play has to exist. The goal is to draw the player away from the opposing sport, and in doing that, often times a player will receive a larger bonus in the agreement to spread it out over multiple years.

"It has to be to their advantage," a National League scout said. "They're willing to do it if you give them a little more money over the five years."

In some instances, a player under a dual-sport contract may sign but still elect to play college football or basketball while under contract to play baseball for the professional club. The player attends school for the full year, playing his elected collegiate sport and then in the summer—between May and July—plays baseball. In those circumstances, the spreading of the signing bonus over five years is a precautionary measure—if the player were to get hurt or quit, the remaining years and money on the signing bonus are able to be revoked or in some instances must be paid back to the team.

"You try to backload (the contracts) to entice them to keep playing," the National League scout said. "If you back load it for years four and five, you're not getting hit as much if they take off on you."

Considering The Options

However, the real issue for scouting departments is not the money, it's the dedication of a player to the sport of baseball.

"Before anyone goes for a kid in the draft, you're going to flat out ask him which sport he wants to play," an American League scout said. "If at any time he shows interest in another sport, then you're running a risk by drafting him. If he signs with your team and then goes to play football in college, that means he's going to have to leave in August, miss part of the season and doesn't get to go to (instructional league). That first season (in professional baseball) is important for a kid and his development."

Players who don't sign can play both sports in college, and especially for college baseball coaches, the dual-sport athlete poses a double-edged scenario. While the recruiting process is made easier for schools that can offer the opportunity for an athlete to participate in two sports at a high caliber level, in a majority of the cases, the athlete is given either a football or basketball scholarship—not baseball. The reason for this stems from the fact that Division I baseball programs are only allowed 11.7 baseball scholarships while football is allotted 85 and basketball 13.

"There are more football scholarships to give, and with a football scholarship you get a full ride," Alabama assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Mitch Gaspard said.

Hence the reason Alabama has highly touted football and baseball recruit Destin Hood signed to a football scholarship for '08—but he'll play both football and baseball for the Crimson Tide. In the case of Hood and Kelly, both Tennessee's and Alabama's baseball programs are getting highly talented prospects essentially for free—not having to allot scholarship money for them. On the other hand, since in this case football is the one giving the scholarship, football takes priority for their schedules.

"You have a chance to get a great player that doesn't cost you anything," Gaspard said. "On the flip side, you don't always get to control the strings. It's important to have a good relationship with the football program."

Player's Choice

Which brings it all back to the player's juggling of the two sports and ultimately making a decision.

"This past year, I divided up my summer," Kelly said. "I did a couple football things and a couple baseball things. During football season, I don't do any baseball and during baseball I don't pick up a football."

 As far as making a decision on which sport he prefers, Kelly is still on the fence.

"It depends on what season I'm in," Kelly said. "During football season, I feel like I might want to play that. During baseball season, I like it better. I don't know yet. It's going to come down to what me and my family feels comfortable with."

Speaking of family, Kelly's father is Pat Kelly who played in the major leagues with the Blue Jays in 1980 and has spent many years as a minor league manager, most recently in the Reds organization.

So will Kelly sign a professional contract?

"I'd love to have the opportunity to play pro baseball, but on the other hand it would be great to play college football." Kelly said.