Somewhere along Highway 75 in the spring 2015, on his way from Rome, Ga., to another little town he'd never heard of, Codey McElroy started questioning his career choice.
Yes, the small-town farm boy—his 2011 Chattanooga (Okla.) High School graduating class was 18 students—loved baseball. And when he was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 19th round of the 2014 MLB draft, it was, cheesy as he admits, a dream come true. But McElroy's fantasies about being a professional athlete typically didn't include long bus rides (eight-hour trips were the minimum, McElroy recalls) or crammed houses (at one point McElroy lived in a 3-bedroom home with six other minor league players, each sleeping on a blow-up mattress). He ate fast food and ramen noodles, not steak dinners from five-star restaurants. He saw photos and heard stories about luxurious college locker rooms, but spent most his time in miserable, stuffy, "itty bitty" boxes.
The life of a minor league ball player, McElroy discovered, isn't exactly glamorous.
So after a season and a half of professional baseball, when McElroy realized the big leagues likely wouldn't be calling, he retired with a .210 career average, recording 56 hits in 267 at-bats. But instead of settling into a 9-to-5 job, McElroy went back home, to Frederick, Okla., to start a new journey. Sports had already taken him from his small high school to a small junior college to one of the biggest four-year universities in the country to professional baseball. Now he was hoping his long road would end just three hours from his hometown, with him wearing and Oklahoma State basketball uniform.
At Chattanooga High, about 170 miles from Oklahoma State's campus, McElroy started at point guard for three years. When he and his high school basketball coach, Jerry Brown, fielded calls from interested small colleges, they rebuked each offer with the same message: He's going to get drafted, so he's focusing on baseball. With summers devoted to the diamond, McElroy never played on the AAU hoops circuit. He won preseason all-state honors and averaged 18.7 points in 14 games (he tore his hip flexor, shortening his season) for the Warriors in 2010–11. But that was four years ago, and McElroy had only played in a handful of pick-up games since graduating from Chattanooga. Now he wanted to play in the best college basketball conference in the country?
Four Seam Images via AP
McElroy points out that he already had a background in college hoops ... sort of. Out of high school, he attended Eastern Oklahoma State, a junior college four hours east of his hometown. MLB draft rules stipulate that prospects who attend four-year schools must stay for at least three years before joining the professional ranks, but players who attend a two-year school can be picked up after just one season. McElroy figured he'd play one year of college baseball and turn pro. As a freshman shortstop for the Mountaineers in 2012, McElroy batted .276 in 59 games, recording seven doubles, three triples, eight home runs and 33 RBIs. As the off-season neared, he made plans with the Eastern Oklahoma State basketball coaches to take up hoops his sophomore year. But then he started wondering if he was missing out on "the D-I life."
"I wanted to know what that was like—going to football games, playing in front of big crowds, going to the [College World Series]," McElroy says.
He heard stories from buddies back home playing at Power Five schools about the passion and pageantry that accompany big-time college sports. So McElroy transferred to Texas for the 2013 season. Some Oklahoma natives might view playing for the Longhorns as a betrayal of sorts. McElroy grew up in an OU house—his dad, Joe, attended college in Norman from 1984 to '86—but remembered advice he received from his father at age 8: "If it ever comes down to OU and Texas," Joe told his son, "you'd better choose Texas. Because Texas is Texas."
Just as he had anticipated, McElroy had an opportunity to start professional baseball after his freshman year, when the Seattle Mariners called him in the sixth round of the 2012 draft that June and offered him slot money, which McElroy says was "around $300,000." He had set a price tag in his mind of $350,000; if a team was willing to offer that, McElroy would sign. But when the Mariners fell short and declined to draft him, he headed for Austin. (Asked if he was surprised his son would walk away from such a big paycheck, Joe McElroy responds with an incredulous, "Uh, yeah.")
With basketball on hold, McElroy started 16 games for the Longhorns in 2013, boasting a .978 fielding percentage with 163 putouts, 14 assists and just four errors as first baseman, and hitting .161 in 56 at-bats. He got his fill of big-time football, and often went to Longhorn basketball games, especially enjoying when Iowa State and former guard Tyrus McGee—who McElroy remembers as "the guy who beat us in the 2008 state finals in high school basketball"—visited. But for a kid who grew up in a town where there wasn't even a McDonald's or a Wal-Mart, Austin could be overwhelming. So he transferred again, this time to Division-II Cameron in Lawton, Okla., about a 30-minute drive from his family. In 2014, he hit .318 for the Aggies, recording a team-best 31 RBIs and once slamming three home runs in one game.
The Braves drafted him in the 19th round of that year's draft, where he signed for what he describes as "a lot, lot less" than $300,000. That led to Rome, Ga., home of Atlanta's Class A team, and those long bus rides, when McElroy would contemplate his future. He struggled in 32 games, hitting just .168 as a shortstop and outfielder.
"When he called and said he wanted to retire, I just told him, 'You only get once chance to quit, so you'd better be sure,'" Joe McElroy says. "And when he said he wanted to try college basketball, I told him he'd only get one shot to sell himself (to OSU coaches) so say whatever you want.'"
First though, Codey had to find someone to listen to his pitch. By mid-May 2015, Codey told the Braves he wanted to pursue hoops before his NCAA-allotted five-year clock ran out, and left baseball. (NCAA student-athletes have five years to play four seasons, beginning any time they enroll at any four-year school.) In early June, he moved home, and started doing laps around the OSU gym. He had played pick-up games there during the Braves' off-season and wanted to play hoops near his home. He started asking everyone he encountered if they knew how to get in touch with Cowboys coach Travis Ford. "I just need someone to give me a chance," he'd say. Eventually an OSU compliance officer sent an email on McElroy's behalf, with a note that intrigued Ford.
"It started like all the thousand other emails we get about walk-ons, but then it mentioned he was 6'6"," Ford says. "Well, most the emails we get about walk-ons are from guys who are 5'8" or 5'9". But he had some [life] experience, and he was older, which I liked."
Courtesy Oklahoma State Athletics
Ford set up a meeting with McElroy and, impressed with his maturity and stature—"people have always told me I have a basketball body," McElroy brags—invited him to a team workout. McElroy practiced first, getting up shots and running suicides by himself in the gym. It didn't help much. "I was trying to act like I wasn't tired but it was quite the change of pace [from baseball]," McElroy says and laughs. What he lacked in aerobic fitness, he made up for in grit. "There's a loose ball on the ground and he goes after it harder than one I've ever seen," Ford says. "He must have dived 20 feet through the air. That's when I was sold [and knew] this is our guy.
"Codey increases the energy level of any workout he's in. If you don't raise your level around him you'll get exposed, because he's playing so hard it'll make you look bad."
McElroy's still getting used to a sport where he gets to charter to every away game and lounge in a two-story locker room that features, among other amenities, a marble staircases that leads to an upstairs kitchen, fluffy white bathrobes and whirlpool hot tubs in the shower area. "It's not like I'm trying to play in the NBA," he says. "I just wanted to experience a bunch of cool things." At 23, he's the fourth-oldest player on the roster and is grateful he's "not the grandpa" of the group.
"We always have guys who are pouting because they don't get to play, or not practicing as hard because they're mad about their minutes," Ford says. "Then you've got Codey, who's still chasing his dream."
Though he's played only one minute this season, in the Cowboys' Big 12 opener against TCU on Jan. 2, where he recorded one foul, for Oklahoma State (12–15, 3–11 Big 12), McElroy considers college basketball one of the most rewarding adventures of his athletic career. He's asked frequently about what it was like to be a professional athlete—awesome, he says, and not like what's portrayed on TV—and his journey from wanted to walk-on. He's not sure baseball is gone forever, either: He says a few MLB teams have called to inquire about his future plans, and he knows he wants to coach college baseball someday. For now, he has no regrets, even about turning down all that cash from the Mariners. No amount of money could give him a moment like Jan. 19, when Oklahoma State stunned Kansas 86–67 in Stillwater and fans rushed the floor in celebration.
He wanted the Division-I lifestyle, he says, and he got it. It just came in a way he didn't expect.