Bill Walsh Steered John Lynch Away From Baseball
DENVER—John Lynch’s first love always was football.
But he liked baseball—a lot.
After two years as a backup quarterback and then being moved his junior year to safety at Stanford, John Lynch decided the time had come to be realistic about his future.
It wasn’t, he figured, in football. If he couldn’t play in college, how was he ever going to play in the NFL?
His future was in baseball. And in the summer after his junior year the expansion Marlins, still a year away from their first big league game, used their selection in the second round of the 1992 draft on him, signed him and sent him to their short-season affiliate in Erie.
“He said he wasn’t going to go back to Stanford and play football,” said Gary Hughes, who was the Marlins’ scouting director at the time en route to one of scouting’s best careers.
Lynch, a 20-year-old righty at the time, started that first game in the history of the Marlins organization, for short-season Erie in the New York-Penn League.
“I still have the video of that game,” Lynch said. “Sunshine Network came up there. (Marlins owner) Wayne Huizenga and all the executives of the Florida Marlins turned this elementary school into what looked like a big league field.
“I will never forget throwing the first pitch—and unfortunately the first seven were balls. Every time I threw a pitch the Hall of Fame grabbed something else—a ball, my hat. I came in after the first inning and they undressed me and took my uniform. It’s a fond memory that I will have forever.”
In the meantime, though, Stanford football coach Dennis Green left in the summer of 1992 for the NFL, replaced by Bill Walsh. One of the first things Walsh did was call Lynch and ask him to return for that final season. It was an offer Lynch wouldn’t refuse. He said after watching film, he believed he could be an all-pro safety. Lynch was taken back.
“It took a lot of courage, because I’m talking to Bill Walsh, but I said, ‘With all due respect coach, I played 30 percent of the plays last year at the position and you’re telling me I’m all-pro?’ ” Lynch said. “Like the great ones do, he didn’t just say it, he showed me. He made a tape of a bunch of plays with me playing, then a tape of (football Hall of Fame safety) Ronnie Lott.
“Bill said, ‘Do me a favor and make it in your contract that you can come back for your senior year at Stanford.’ I did that. Football really took off. I became an All-American and really discovered how much I truly loved football—after Bill Walsh inspired me.”
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The return to football resulted in Lynch becoming an All-America selection, and the third-round draft choice of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1993. Oh, once he finished his degree at Stanford he did report to extended spring training with the Marlins, got in shape and was assigned to low Class A Kane County, where he roomed with Pat Leahy, the grandson of long-time Notre Dame football coach Frank Leahy, and the two of them wound up sharing their apartment with future all-star Edgar Renteria.
“They needed someone who was responsible to look out for Edgar,” Lynch said. “Edgar was 16 years old, but he could play, and he was the top prospect in the organization. So Edgar came and lived with us. We became really good friends.”
After two starts, though, Lynch’s baseball career was history. Lynch went to camp with Bucs and never looked back.
He was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection. His 15-year career included a four-year stretch with the Denver Broncos, where he was a teammate of quarterback John Elway, who, like Lynch, played baseball and football at Stanford.
Hughes also signed Elway, now the general manager of the Broncos. Now Lynch was hired this offseason as GM of the San Francisco 49ers. “Things worked out,” Lynch said.
They worked out a whole lot better than Lynch could have dreamed in 1992 when he was deciding to give pro baseball a whirl. In nine pro starts over two seasons he went 1-3, 2.25.
“I was really committed to baseball,” Lynch said of his decision to sign with the Marlins. “Football was always my first love. I was the No. 2 quarterback the day I stepped on campus, and I got frustrated by not getting on the field and having fun. Meanwhile, I was getting playing time from the time I was a freshman on the baseball field and really was having fun. Then, all of a sudden I was drafted by the Marlins. I decided it may not be my first love, but it was something I did love, so you take your best option.”
Then Walsh arrived, and Lynch decided he would return for his senior season.
“John called and told me he always wanted to play for Bill Walsh,” Hughes said. “I told him I understood . . . I was thinking he’d play that senior year, get his college career over and be back to baseball. He didn’t.”