From all appearances, former NBA star Tracy McGrady’s attempt to become a professional baseball pitcher is nothing more than a fun publicity stunt for the 34-year-old, seven-time all-star and two-time NBA scoring champ.
For starters, there’s the team that signed him, the Sugar Land Skeeters, the same independent minor league outfit that gave the ball to a 50-year old Roger Clemens for one game in 2012. For another, there hasn’t been a single positive scouting report on McGrady as a righthanded pitcher. His fastball, which he doesn’t command well, is in the mid to low 80s. His off-speed stuff is a work-in-progress. His first appearance in a game —on May 10— lasted 1 ⅔ innings. He threw 35 pitches (18 strikes) gave up two earned runs on two hits, including a home run, and walked two batters. He admitted afterward that his goal was just to throw strikes.
How hard would it be for McGrady to become a legitimate baseball prospect?
“I know it was very difficult for me to become a great pitcher while I was still playing basketball,” recalls former NBA player Scott Burrell, who pitched for the Toronto Blue Jays while attending the University of Connecticut in 1990 and ’91. “I was never able to get my arm strength where it needed to be and never really mastered my craft.”
Burrell says one positive, in McGrady’s case, is that his arm has not been taxed.
“He can start from scratch building up the muscles in his shoulder,” explains Burrell, who’s an assistant basketball coach at Quinnipiac University. “It can be done. As long as he doesn’t skip any step along the way in building it up, he can do it. And I think it’s awesome he’s trying. You only get so many years as an athlete, so you might as well try things while you can.”
There is a history of basketball players who have been able to make it on the mound. There was Knicks legend Dave DeBuscherre, who threw for the White Sox in the early ’60s. There was Tim Stoddard, an Orioles reliever, who helped N.C. State win an NCAA basketball title in 1975. There was Mark Hendrickson, a first-round draft pick of the Philadelphia 76ers out of Washington State, who pitched for five big league teams. Chris Young, a veteran 6-10 righthander on the Mariners, was an All-Ivy hoops player at Princeton who was offered a contract with the Sacramento Kings while he was pitching Double-A ball.
Asked if he’d ever contemplated a return to baseball after his basketball career was over (Burrell played basketball professionally in China, Japan, Spain and the Philippines), the 6-7 guard says with a laugh, “Only as a position player. I miss hitting and running the bases.”
There’s no reason to think McGrady won’t keep getting the ball for the Skeeters. His first start, after all, drew a sell-out crowd of 7,701 to Constellation Field, just outside Houston.
“If he’s enjoying the challenge then good for him,” says Burrell, who had a 2-6 career record, pitching no higher than A-ball. “And if it helps the team sell some tickets, then good for them.”
Asked what was the most memorable moment of his baseball career, Burrell laughs before giving what McGrady can only hope is not a forecast of what’s to come.
“I gave up a home run to a guy on the Batavia Phillies,” Burell says. “I can still hear the sound of it coming off that wood bat. I threw a 90-mile-per-hour fastball, and he hit it well over 400 feet. I watched it disappear. It was awesome."