By The Baseball Beginnings Guy
April 6, 2009
Never let it be said that every single prospect has to be drafted out of high school.
When Deon Thompson takes the floor with his North Carolina Tar Heels tonight in the NCAA championship basketball game against Michigan State, you can be sure Ryan Wheeler will be watching.
Wheeler, a 2009 draft prospect as a corner infielder with power at Loyola Marymount University, played high school and club basketball with Thompson, who was in his 2006 graduating class at Torrance (Calif.) HS.
Ryan Wheeler will be rooting for former teammate Deon Thompson when UNC plays Michigan State in the NCAA championship game tonight in Detroit. (Photo courtesy LMU)
“I played basketball because it was a blast,” Wheeler said. “I just wanted to play Division I in whatever sport, but basketball didn’t look like it. Being a middle-sized guy, it wasn’t going to work out. Playing with Deon was awesome. He was a great player and you could tell he was going to be the one who was going to have the basketball career. I knew I was probably hurting myself in baseball by not quitting basketball, but I wouldn’t trade playing with Deon.”
Thompson was a 6-8, 245-pound national-level recruit out of high school. When Wheeler entered his senior season at Torrance High, a school with a storied athletic tradition that produced, among others, a war hero and track Olympian in former B-24 bombardier (The ‘Toughest Miler Ever’ himself, Louis Zamperini) and major league catcher Jason Kendall, he was a self-admitted slow left-handed hitter who looked like he would never hit for power.
Scouts took a look and dismissed him. Wheeler said he never filled out a single follow-card as a senior. He would have paid for his own stamp to mail the card back. He hit only two home runs as a high school senior.
“I was in running shape from basketball, but never in baseball shape early in the spring,” he said. “I didn’t hit that much during basketball season. I pitched and hit a lot of singles.”
It took Wheeler two seasons at LMU to catch up. His body grew and his strength flourished. He wound up in the Cape Cod League last summer. Scouts who missed him at Torrance were suddenly on him. Agents who never knew he existed before started showing their sharp elbows. It’s hard to miss a 6-4, 220-pound left-handed power hitter.
Now a full-fledged draft prospect who several clubs like because of his left-handed power bat as a first baseman, Wheeler is in demand partly – you guessed it – because of basketball.
Draft prospects who have played more than one sport are increasingly rare in the showcase and club era, but old-school scouts will tell you that a good baseball player is going to be better than he is today if he developed other muscles and motor skills playing football, basketball or soccer before focusing on baseball.
Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson was a soccer player whose footwork transferred from the pitch to the pitch. Former Angel outfielder Jim Edmonds played baseball, football and soccer as an amateuer and transferred his athleticism into a career as a Gold Glove center fielder and an offensive threat.
Longtime major leaguers Tony Clark and Kenny Lofton were basketball players.
Willie Mays played football and led Jefferson County, Alabama, in basketball scoring as a sophomore.
The list goes on. Baseball players with multiple sport talent doesn’t ensure success, but it sure doesn’t hurt one’s chances. A decent comparison for Wheeler’s career path might be former basketball player and longtime third baseman Scott Rolen.
Wheeler will be watching Thomspon and UNC, and like President Obama, I’m betting he’s got the Tar Heels picked to win it all. We’ll have video on him and a scouting report coming soon (when have I ever let the faithful customers down?)
In the meantime, here’s the story of how Wheeler came to be discovered playing in the Cape Cod League in 2008. (more…)