Jimmie Lee Solomon spent 21 years as an executive in Major League Baseball. He oversaw a nationwide facelift to minor league facilities. He started the Futures Game and the Civil Rights Game, and opened Major League Baseball’s first Urban Youth Academy. From 2010 until his departure in 2012, Solomon served as MLB’s executive vice president of baseball development.
So if there’s anyone situated well enough to extoll the virtues of baseball over football for Kyler Murray, it’s Solomon. He counseled Russell Wilson during his baseball-or-football decision in college and keeps in constant contact with Hunter Greene, the No. 2 overall pick from the 2017 MLB draft.
I rang Solomon this week because, honestly, I got tired of seeing my fellow football writers talk about how Murray, the Heisman Trophy-winning Oklahoma quarterback, should so obviously choose football over his baseball future. I wanted to hear baseball’s pitch, and surely Solomon—a man who gave two decades of his professional career to the sport—would push for it. Right?
In Q&A form, here’s the conversation I had with Solomon the day after Murray declared for the NFL draft, as MLB and the Oakland A’s try to keep the No. 9 overall pick in 2018 away from football.
JJ: Have you seen Kyler Murray play? What do you make of Kyler Murray, singularly, the baseball player?
JLS: It’s kind of interesting that you bring this up. I had a similar situation that took place when I was still in Major League Baseball. Russell Wilson was in school and he got drafted by the Colorado Rockies, and Russell’s father and I were teammates at Dartmouth College. And we were best friends and roommates on the football team. Harry and I were very close and I met Russell when he was like 1 year old. Harry passed away in 2010 and when Russell was trying to decide what to do, he used me as his sounding board. He went in the third round [of the NFL draft], and he was deciding if he should play baseball or football. I told Russell if you can be drafted that high, you should let it play out and see what happens. Because the money that you can make in football if you’re a decent quarterback, it’s so far more than you could get in baseball. Plus your immediate gratification would be quicker.
Now in the case of Kyler Murray, he won the Heisman and he signed with the A’s, and got almost $5 million as the ninth pick, and that’s decent money. But right now he will be a first-round draft choice [in the NFL draft]. Baker Mayfield signed a $22 million bonus. Even if you go all the way to the last pick in the draft, Lamar Jackson got a $5 million signing bonus. And let’s assume Kyler is in the top five, we’re talking about putting away 15-20 mil. [Ed note: Solomon's evaluation of Murray as a football prospect is on the high end. While new Cardinals—and then-Texas Tech—head coach Kliff Kingsbury said in the fall that he'd take Murray with the No. 1 overall pick, Murray is widely considered to be anywhere from a first- to third-round pick, due largely to his 5'9" and 190 pound stature.]
I’ve heard he’s asked the A’s to match that sum and the A’s probably will not. He’s got to understand he’s a raw talent in baseball. I’ve already heard he has a suspect arm, so now you probably can’t play shortstop. He can’t play centerfield. So all that speed he has is negated by the fact that he has a crummy arm. And if you have a crummy arm, that means you’re going to play second baseman or maybe they’ll put you in right field. I don’t think he can play third. Now you’ve further limited yourself in what you can do. Then he has a high strikeout ratio per at-bat, which means he needs to develop his hitting and discipline with the bat. Well the average college player takes about 3 1/2 years to make it to the Majors. I don’t care how high they’re drafted. And the average high school player takes 4 1/2 years to make it.
I advised Hunter Greene also. He’s a tremendous talent, but I’ll tell you that he’s probably another year—possibly two—from making his Major League debut. He throws 102 and all that kind of stuff. Right now he’s got a lot of work to do. I’m telling you, Hunter is a tremendous talent and he could possibly still be two years away.
JJ: So let me stop you here. Everyone who is talking about this baseball vs. football argument is talking first about how the toll baseball takes on your body is clearly not what football does to you. That’s inarguable. But second is the money. And some are saying that money, at the end of it, will be better in baseball. I understand that could be the case. But at the quarterback position where some guys who aren’t that good relative to their peers make $20 million per year, does it not stand to reason that the chances are higher that he makes more money in his career in football than baseball?
JSL: I say at this stage, yes. That could all change if he develops really quickly. He has his $5 million bonus and he [reportedly] wants $15 million. Let’s say he gets 10. Say he makes it to the Majors in a couple years. He’ll be making the league-minimum unless he has a tremendous year and he’ll be up for arbitration in his third year. So we’re already five years down the road. And that’s if all things go great. He could get a big bite at the apple. But he has to finish his contract before he has a chance at the free agent dollars. But now we’re talking seven years down the road, and a lot of things can happen in seven years.
JJ: OK, so obviously from a money perspective we’re both going football. But neither one of us is Kyler Murray. And maybe his heart is in baseball and the heart wants what the heart wants…
JLS: If his heart were in baseball, he’d be playing baseball right now. I’m just going to let you know. He basically went out there to play football with all the chances of getting hurt and played anyway. With $5 million pretty much sitting there. I don’t know his injury provisions, but in theory he could have lost it right there. But he didn’t. And he didn’t go work on his arm strength or his bat discipline, all those things you do if you love something. That’s what I would have done if I loved baseball. I would have worked on my bat discipline as fast as I could to make to the Majors to make that arbitration check.
JJ: That’s a fine and fair point. Everything that was coming out two-to-three months ago was “Kyler is going to the A’s” and there was no doubt about it. And so the perception, real or not, is that baseball lost Kyler Murray to football. What does that do for baseball’s brand?
JLS: Like anything else, baseball is always going to have that fight with football. We don’t get two-sport athletes anymore. It has surpassed baseball as America’s pastime. I think the TV viewership shows that. I think the revenue generation shows that. Baseball has a lot more content. But baseball is not seen as the hip sport as football is. It’s not the gladiator sport. The bloodlust that we have as a country, as individuals, is satisfied by football. So will baseball have lost a talent? Yes. But if that talent went to baseball, I promise you, you would not see Kyler Murray for two-to-three years. Society wants to see him. I’ve worked in baseball for 21 years. I love the sport. I would love to see Murray play baseball. But I tell you what, I would also love to see what he does at the next level at football.
JJ: You say society won’t see him for two-to-three years, and outside of the minor league cities he’s in, you’re probably, literally, right. I’ve long heard and believed baseball does a poor job of marketing its stars. We’ve all heard that “you can’t pick Mike Trout out of a lineup.” I assume you agree with that line of thinking, but how much would Kyler Murray disappear in the minors? And even if he didn’t, would baseball be able to market him as they should?
JLS: Only a couple baseball players transcend the sport. I think Derek Jeter could have if he had the stomach for it, but I don’t think he did. Because he was such a household name. A-Rod would have been if you didn’t hate him so much. But baseball, for the most part, markets the sport. It does not market the player. Jose Altuve was the MVP two seasons ago and if he walks into a restaurant outside of Houston, not a soul would bug him. But baseball markets the game, and I think it’s a self-defeating prophecy because the marketers don’t look at baseball players like they look at other players like basketball or football player.
JJ: So if you’re baseball, what’s your pitch to Kyler Murray? All your chips on the table. What’s your pitch where you leave saying “I did everything I could”?
JLS: I’m going to tell him the longevity of his career. I believe based upon your talent, you’ll be in the Majors at some point in your second year. We’ll get you up and we’ll have you on the 40-man roster. You’ll have the opportunity to play at the top level, and you’ll have a very good chance of having a long career by virtue of the fact that you won’t get injured out there like you would in football. And I would negatively market against football and its violence. A marketing plan that could capitalize on your Heisman and the popularity you got in your football season. And I would try to say that we would do all these things for you to get you into the Majors ASAP and have another bite at the apple in arbitration and free agency.
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