At the age of 20, Danny Ainge is living a life that others might fantasize about—that of a Frank Merriwell excelling at whatever he does. "I always dreamed about being a college basketball player and I always dreamed about being a professional athlete," says Ainge. "But I never dreamed of playing two sports like this. Never at the same time."
Nevertheless, Ainge is doing precisely that. He is not only the best basketball player at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, but also the best and most promising second baseman in the Toronto Blue Jays' baseball organization. Ainge (it rhymes with range) is one of the few athletes—Chris Bahr, former Penn State kicker and NASL midfielder, is another—to take advantage of a five-year-old NCAA rule that permits college athletes to play professionally in one sport and still retain their eligibility in another.
Last winter, playing basketball, he was ranked among the finest sophomore guards in the country—an honorable-mention All-America who took the Cougars to the WAC championship. They beat San Diego State for the conference title when he sank a one-and-one free throw with six seconds to play, to win the game by a point. During the season he led BYU in scoring (18.7 points per game, 55% shooting from the field), assists (122) and steals (46). "No question he is a professional prospect," says Frank Arnold, the BYU coach. "A lot of scouts are interested in him. At 6'5", he's an excellent size for a pro guard."
Which also happens to make him, as best anyone can remember, the tallest second baseman ever to play major league baseball. Toronto Batting Coach Bobby Doerr, once an outstanding Red Sox second baseman, can recall no one that tall. This spring, playing with the Jays' top farm club, the Syracuse Chiefs, Ainge showed enough at the plate and in the field to persuade the front office to bring him up to Toronto.
June 10, 1979
No one has regretted the decision. As of last week, as the last-place Blue Jays began a trip to the West Coast, Ainge was hitting .324 after 34 at bats. And, despite his inexperience, he hasn't embarrassed himself in the field. He has worked hard, practicing with Shortstop Alfredo Griffin and spending extra time in the batting cage, tutored by Doerr.
In his senior year in high school in Eugene, Ore., Ainge was an all-state wide receiver in football, as well as a basketball and baseball star, but by spring he had turned down all football scholarship offers and decided to concentrate on basketball and baseball. In April he signed a letter of intent to attend BYU, in part because he is a Mormon, in part because of what the school had to offer him athletically. "A good baseball program as well as a good basketball program," he says.
That spring the San Diego Padres approached him, telling him they would take him high in the draft if he would sign with them, but he had made up his mind and he was adamant. "I said, 'No, I'm going to college to play basketball, I'm not going to play pro baseball,' " he says. That was the last he would hear from the Padres. He heard nothing from the Blue Jays, he says, until they picked him in the 15th round of the 1977 June draft—389th overall. "We took a flyer," says Pat Gillick, vice-president of baseball operations. "If you're fainthearted, you better not run an expansion club. You've got to gamble, be it in trades or drafts."
The Jays set out to woo Ainge. They sent him three contracts, which he ignored, and several letters urging him to report to Utica. He threw them away. "It was the last thing on my mind," he says. "I never answered them."
Doerr, who lives in Oregon, went to see him play American Legion ball, and liked his quickness and his instinct for the game. Doerr reported to Gillick, who contacted Ainge and offered this: if Danny signed while he was in college, he wouldn't have to report to the Blue Jays until school was out in April, and could return to BYU for the beginning of classes in September, before the baseball season was over. More, he offered a bonus, reportedly $50,000 over three years, and suggested that Ainge go straight to Triple A ball, saying he sensed that Danny was the kind who thrived on challenges. The Blue Jays, as it turned out, were simply too accommodating to be turned down.
At BYU, Coach Arnold was skeptical. "He was nervous," Gillick says. "Dan's a blue-chip basketball player, and Frank thought we might put pressure on him not to return once he got to the pros. I talked to Frank for an hour. I told him we wouldn't induce Dan to quit school, that we have an extraordinary athlete on our hands who has a mind of his own. I told him, 'Let's try to do it. Let's work together.' "
"It was a very natural concern," Arnold says. "After visiting with him [Gillick], I feel very comfortable with Toronto, their willingness to keep their word. I think there's room for both of us and it can be done comfortably. Our commitment to them is to let him practice baseball as soon as the basketball season is over." The school, in fact, has been letting Ainge use its baseball facilities to prepare for the season.
"We want him to have a successful baseball career," Arnold says. "I don't want to mess with him. Nor do I want professional basketball people messing with him. We tell pro scouts that he's in college and he's playing baseball and we want no basketball people talking to him until he's graduated." Which obviously suits Toronto fine. The Blue Jays have been making baseball as attractive as they can to Ainge since Gillick approached him with the offer. The summer he signed, for instance, the team took him on a road trip, as a non-roster player in uniform. "Anaheim, Oakland and Seattle," Ainge recalls. "I worked out with them, took batting practice and infield. I was really impressed."
That following spring, when school was out, he reported to the Jays' Triple A club in Syracuse. Coming off final exams without a spring training, he struggled at first. He threw erratically and was woeful at the plate, hitting .167 the first half of the season. But he came around, and hit .313 in August. One thing troubled him for a time, though. Playing shortstop then, he beat out Hector Torres for the job. "Torres has five kids," Ainge told his dad. "What am I doing here?"
What he was doing was playing second base before very long and going back to school. This year, when the Jays' regular second baseman, David McKay, was playing poorly, Gillick brought up Ainge to replace him. In his second year he had made it to the bigs.
"I wouldn't be up here if it weren't for my basketball," he says. "They know I've done pretty well so far and there's that chance I might play in the NBA. I think that's why they brought me up so early. That had to be a factor, to give me a taste of the majors. They're trying to persuade me to play baseball."
Blue Jay officials say Ainge is mistaken. "Of the fellas that we had," Gillick says, "he was the best ballplayer. McKay was batting around .200."
"Danny used to say he wanted to be a major league baseball player and an All-America basketball player," says his father, himself an accomplished athlete as a youth. "It was his fantasy. He used to talk about it as a kid. I used to go by Wrigley Field [in Los Angeles] and dream about doing it myself. I'm his dad, and I get chills thinking about it."