35 Years Ago: Elway Became a Bronco, Assist Yankees
Gary Hughes was the left fielder on a Serra (Calif.) High School team in the late 1950s that featured future All-Star shortstop Jim Fregosi. In addition to being a star shortstop, Fregosi was the star quarterback on Serra's football team, as well as a standout in basketball who also set the California high school record in the triple jump.
Hughes, a special assistant with the Rockies during the 1999 season, never forgot. As one of the higher-profile scouts in baseball, Hughes always had Fregosi in his mind when he evaluated players, and has become known over the years for his willingness to take a chance on multi-sport stars.
He won some, like Delino DeShields, who backed out of a basketball scholarship to Villanova, where he was told he would start as a freshman.
And he lost some, too -- like John Elway, whom he signed as a scout with the Yankees. Hughes also fell short with Erick Strickland and John Lynch, both of whom he signed as the scouting director for the expansion Florida Marlins in 1992, the year before the Marlins played their first Major League game.
Elway was the prize, though, using the leverage of having been signed by Hughes to a contract with the Yankees.
Elway made it clear to the Colts, the team that drafted him, that he was going to play baseball if they wouldn’t trade him to a team he preferred.
Finally, 35 years ago _ May 2, 1983 _ the Colts broke down. They traded Elway to the Broncos, and he retired from professional baseball after an abbreviated season at rookie-level Oneonta in the New York-Penn League in 1982. He played in only 42 games, eighth highest total on the team, but led the team with a .318 average while hitting four home runs and driving in 25 runs. He also stole 13 bases, third on the team.
Blame it on Fregosi.
“ You see [guys] play so many sports so well and then it comes time to concentrate on one and they take off,” said Hughes. “Think about it, two potential Hall of Famers, just the wrong Hall of Fame (laugh). John Elway is in the [Pro Football] Hall of Fame. John Lynch will be.”
Hughes is careful to make sure it is understood that it was Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, who made the final decision for the Yankees to draft Elway.
“All I did was put in my reports on him -- detailing the way he was and the player I felt he would become,” he said. “ It is what I was paid to do. There was no question in my mind he would be an outstanding Major League player. But drafting him? That was George Steinbrenner.
“I told George all along that John was going to play football. George said, "OK, but we are going to take him." I said, "Let's take him in the lower rounds." George took him in the second round. We had two rounds the first day, and George was convinced that when the draft broke for the day, the other teams would go back and re-evaluate the draft board and take him, so we drafted him.
“I'm up in the front of the draft room on the squawk box with George, [and] a third-year scout. He says we're going to pick him and he better sign. I said, "Wait a minute, I already said I'd be astounded if he did not play football. I don't want you to come back at me if he plays football."
Shortly after the draft, Hughes went fishing with Elway.
“I asked him what he was going to do. He told me, "If [the Colts] don't trade me, I'm going to play baseball." I believe he would have, too,” said Hughes.
As it was he did play baseball, but just for half of a short season before he returned to Stanford for his senior year.
“I think he started off 0-for-19 or 1-for-19 (with Oneota), but within six weeks, he was leading the team in every offensive category -- including stolen bases,” said Hughes, “and then he went back to school. He could have been special.
“He was built for Yankee Stadium. He had that left-handed power. Obviously, he was an outstanding athlete, and he had a great arm. It's become popular for scouts to say he wasn't that good, but that's not true. If he played baseball and concentrated on the game, the sky was the limit for that guy.”
Lynch, who also played for the Broncos, was set on baseball after his junior year at Stanford.
“He was going to quit playing football. [Dennis] Green was the coach at Stanford and [the program had its] problems,” said Hughes. “He threw the first pitch in the Marlins' franchise history, starting that first game ever for Erie back in 1992. There was no consideration of him going back to play football. Then, I got a call in the middle of the season. He said Bill Walsh had been hired as the Stanford coach and [Walsh] wanted him to come back for his senior year. He told me, `I hate to do this, but I always wanted to play for Bill Walsh.’ Then, Walsh told everyone in the NFL how good he was, and I never saw John again.”
He never saw him again, in a baseball uniform, that is.
“He was exciting to watch in football,” said Hughes, “and some of my friends who were football scouts told me not to worry about the NFL. They said John wasn’t tough enough. Guess they got that wrong.”
That same year, 1982, that he drafted Lynch, Hughes also selected Strickland.
“He was one of the four players who modeled the Marlins' original uniforms,” said Hughes. “We told him he could go to Nebraska and play basketball. He was a smaller guy. I never figured that would last. So what happens? He winds up signing as an undrafted free agent with the Mavericks and spends seven years in the NBA. He was one of the best defenders in the game. He was a tough guy.”
In between Elway and Lynch, however, Hughes won a battle, signing DeShields, who had signed to play basketball at Villanova, and told he would start at guard as a freshman.
“ [The Wildcats] were the defending national champions,” said Hughes. “I told him he could go to Villanova, but instead of $125,000 -- which was the bonus money for that spot in the first round -- I told him I could only give him $75,000 because of the basketball. He agreed. He signed the contract and I told him, "Never sign a contract without reading it." He asked, "Why?" I told him to look at the deal he signed. It was for $125,000. He deserved it.”
Turned out it was a good investment for Hughes and the Expos, much to Hughes’ surprise.
“We sent him to the rookie league team in Bradenton, Fla., and I told all our people not to say one word to him about the basketball deal,” said Hughes. “I told them we made the commitment he could play for Villanova, and we were not going to pressure him to change his mind.
“He is down there playing and Jerry Manuel, one of our instructors, calls and tells me Delino wants to play baseball. I said, `[Darn] it, Jerry, I promised him he could play basketball and we wouldn't bother him about it. I'm not going back on my word.’ Jerry told me he never said a world to Delino -- Delino came to him. So a week or so later, I am in Bradenton and [went] to his dorm room and talked to him about it. He told me, "If I am going to be any good, I have to concentrate on baseball."
The rest, as they say, is history.