April 20, 1981
April 20, 1981

Table of Contents
April 20, 1981

Dave Winfield
Danny Ainge
Pro Basketball
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over


His sublime basketball career at BYU over, Danny Ainge has been declared the messiah at third for the Blue Jays

Setting: Heaven's gate, decades from now. St. Peter clutches a clipboard and nervously checks his watch. A crowd of dignitaries and a group of cherubic cheerleaders wearing white sweaters emblazoned with the letter A are also on hand. Two older men wearing varsity sweaters stand patiently at St. Peter's side. St. Peter calls for quiet. The sound of a basketball being dribbled off in the distance is heard. It gets closer until, suddenly, a tall, thin figure with a boyish face and wearing a Toronto Blue Jays cap appears out of the clouds.

This is an article from the April 20, 1981 issue Original Layout

ST. PETER: Danny Ainge! How are you, my son? We've been waiting for you.

AINGE [shyly]: Thank you.

ST. PETER: Got a lot of your old Brigham Young teammates up here, Dan. A few Blue Jays, too.

AINGE: That's nice to hear.

ST. PETER: We wanted to arrange a thematic kind of thing for you, maybe some sort of BYU reunion, but they like to keep things nonsectarian up here.

AINGE: Oh, I wouldn't have wanted any special...

ST. PETER: NOW one thing that I was able to get through the board was a little cheering section [pointing to the girls]. I call them [grandly] Danny's Ainge-els! Ainge-els, you get it? Not bad, eh?

AINGE: It's very kind, sir, very kind.

ST. PETER [pointing to the two older men]: And, Danny, here are two gentlemen I want you to meet, Frank Merriwell and Jack Armstrong. They'd like to—how do you say?—slap five with you. AINGE [shaking hands with them]: You're the guys sportswriters kept confusing me with. I'm glad to meet you.

ST. PETER [leading Ainge away]: Well, come along. We've got a press conference at one—there are a few journalists up here, believe it or not—and a speech at two. We'd like you to speak on "How I Beat Notre Dame." You'd be surprised at how many people up here want to hear that one. Then an infield clinic at three and a jump-shot clinic at....

If you think heaven can hardly wait for Danny Ainge, you should have seen the Blue Jays earlier this spring. Four weeks into spring training, the third baseman Toronto Vice-President Pat Gillick calls "the next Brooks Robinson" hadn't even caught a pop fly, much less charged a swinging bunt and whipped a throw to nab somebody by an eyelash at first.

The day the Blue Jays opened spring training, Ainge was leading Brigham Young's basketball team to an 80-69 victory over Colorado State. The day the Jays opened their Grapefruit League schedule, Ainge was practicing for the NCAA playoffs. The day the Jays played their fifth exhibition game, Ainge was scoring 37 points in a victory over UCLA. The day the Jays played their 10th game, Ainge wrote himself into the NCAA history books by beating Notre Dame on a frantic, full-court drive. But last Thursday, the day Toronto opened the 1981 season, Ainge was right where the Blue Jays wanted him, starting at third base against Detroit.

Ainge's performance in Toronto's 6-2 loss was uneventful—0 for 3, with a walk, and no chances in the field. But it was remarkable that he was even in the lineup after just 10 Grapefruit League at bats. The original plan was for him to stay in Florida to work on his hitting and join the team in late April. But Ainge had been in camp only four days when he cornered Manager Bobby Mattick and told him he was ready to start an exhibition game. Like magic, the next day's lineup card read "Ainge, 3B." Ainge had three hits in his 10 at bats and fielded well, too, so Mattick and Gillick decided he was ready.

"I'd spent an hour and a half every day just hitting down there," says Ainge. "Compared to the spring training I'd had before [none], it was real concentrated, real good work. They thought I looked comfortable at the plate and I was. I wanted to be in there Opening Day."

For a while, it looked as if Ainge wasn't even going to make it to Florida before Opening Day. The season began only 18 days after BYU lost to Virginia 74-60 in the NCAA Eastern Regional final, but just 10 days after Ainge's first appearance in spring training. Instead of reporting right away, he and his wife, Michelle, spent a week in New York City, seeing a movie (The Devil and Max Devlin) and a musical (A Chorus Line) while Ainge waited to receive Kodak's player of the year award, voted to him by the college coaches. After the Kodak presentation he played in an all-star game in Philadelphia on the Sunday between the NCAA semifinals and final. Through all this, the Toronto management remained very understanding.

"We felt it was something we owed to [BYU Basketball Coach] Frank Arnold," says Gillick. "He really wanted Danny to play in the all-star game because it was good exposure for the BYU program. We've had such good cooperation over the years that we let him do it." Ainge, for his part, couldn't understand why anyone would be upset. "I don't know how my teammates could complain about it too much," he said before heading south. "They've had the whole winter to sit back and think about the upcoming season. I think it's only natural that I take a little time off after a long basketball season to get excited about baseball."

On Monday, March 30, Ainge finally arrived at the Blue Jays' camp in Dunedin, Fla. to meet management, teammates, press and the bat and glove he hadn't touched since the previous September. After suiting up at 3. p.m., he walked to the press room and spent the next hour answering questions. Meanwhile, the good-natured Mattick was chafing to get him outside to play baseball. Finally, everyone followed Ainge onto the field, looking like the uninvolved trailers on one of his one-man fast breaks, and watched him hit against a pitching machine fed by batting instructor Bobby Doerr. Next, Gillick, a former Triple A southpaw in the Baltimore organization and a man not insensitive to a good photo opportunity, played catch with Ainge to warm him up. Then, Ainge fielded Mattick's ground balls at third for 15 minutes before calling it quits.

The workout was inconclusive. Ainge didn't look like Brooks Robinson, and he didn't look like Brooke Shields. But he was there at last, and that's all anyone really cared about.

Ainge, Daniel Ray, 22, 6'5", 185. Bats right, sometimes left, throws right. Dribbles left, right, behind his back. Signs autographs, plays tennis and uses the fork lefthanded and righthanded. But lives down the middle. All the way. NBA immortal Walt Frazier called him "the baddest guard in the country," and USC Football Coach John Robinson once said Ainge could play both wide receiver and safety for his team. He has also conquered golf (he once played with a five handicap), bowling (227 high game), swimming, diving, backgammon, chess and the public-relations curriculum at BYU, and Michelle says he can change the diapers of their 16-month-old daughter, Ashlee. Yes, in the storybook tale of Danny Ainge, the kind of balanced-mind-and-body story that would have made even stern old Brigham Young smile, there remains only that age-old baseball concern: "Can da bum hit da coive?"

The Blue Jays think he can, but in 785 at bats at Syracuse, their Triple A club, in 1978, '79 and '80 he hit just .239, the same figure he had in 419 at bats in the bigs before this season. That's consistency, but the Blue Jays expect more than that from the man who has been handed the third-base job. Doerr, one of baseball's most respected hitting coaches, projects Ainge as a .280 to .300 hitter with 15 to 20 home runs. "It's just a matter of getting to know the pitchers and learning to relax," says Doerr. "The number one thing in hitting a baseball is not to be afraid of it. Danny isn't afraid. Second, you have to work. Danny will do the things it takes to make him good."

Despite that ringing endorsement, Ainge might have opted for pro basketball if the helter-skelter NBA game were more like the rah-rah collegiate version. Baseball's other attractions for Ainge include less hectic traveling than in basketball, a greater chance for a long career and a part-time home in Toronto, where the Mormon church is strong. But the most intriguing theory as to why he chose baseball is that it's the sport he has mastered least. His family, his teammates and Arnold all agree this may be the reason, and so does Ainge.

"I think there's something to that, even if it's kind of subconscious," he says. "I had to prove myself this year in basketball, and I think I did. Now it's the same in baseball. I don't think I've even played close to my ability yet.

"I've failed at things before. I think I've failed at baseball the last three years. I've set goals for myself, and I haven't come close to them. If I keep failing for a certain period of time, I'll definitely try something else. Basketball? Probably. But, really, I don't know if that option will still be open to me. I hope so. But, to tell you the truth, I rarely think about failing. I don't let it enter my mind."

Others have considered it, however. Some of Ainge's teammates have doubts about his ability to be an everyday player. Others resent the preferential treatment given him since he signed his first contract in August 1977, a few weeks before the start of his freshman year at BYU. The deal guaranteed Ainge that the next summer he'd be sent directly to Syracuse. He was then sent up to the big club for 87 games in '79 and 38 games last season, all without any spring training. Ainge admits that not having to spend any time in the low minors was a major factor in his signing a three-year Blue Jay contract worth $500,000 in September of last year. It contains a no-pro-basketball clause that has the aching-for-Ainge NBA crying.

"Because we're an expansion club, there are a lot of young players here who wouldn't make it with some other teams," says Outfielder Rick Bosetti. "Danny has proven he's an exceptional athlete, but whether he can play at the major league level remains to be seen.

"We all knew he wasn't dogging it when he was away playing basketball and stuff, so there wasn't much resentment. But there's a lot of feeling that Danny was in the right place at the right time. He had negotiating power because of basketball. If one of us went in and tried to negotiate a contract on the statistics he had, we'd get nothing."

The Blue Jays and Ainge contend that his stats are misleading. "A .239 average is not too bad for a boy with no spring training who jumped right out of American Legion ball to Triple A," says Doerr. And Ainge contends that dividing his time and concentration between two sports has hurt him. "I've got to improve now that I've made a firm decision," he says. "I'm a baseball player and I'm going to start playing like one. Missing time has always been a factor and so has the fact that I've experimented so much at the plate. [The Blue Jays even let him switch-hit for a while in 1979, and he went 2 for 8 lefthanded. He may go back to it.] In the past three years I'd experiment with different stances in the middle of a game. The way things have gone, the experimenting became more important than the game because we were so far out of it. But my stats have suffered for it."

There is also the question of Ainge's readiness to take over third. He's always been a slick fielder, but he spent his entire amateur career as a shortstop. When he got to Syracuse in '78, he was converted into the world's tallest second baseman, and he was still at second when Toronto brought him up for the first time in May of '79. In his first start for Toronto last season he was in leftfield, and he eventually played all the outfield positions, as well as second, third and designated hitter. When Toronto became satisfied with Damaso Garcia's play at second, Ainge went to Syracuse to learn how to play third. But following an injury to Barry Bonnell in August, Ainge was recalled to play center, where he remained until his return to school on Sept. 2.

In the off-season the Blue Jays made no effort to re-sign incumbent Third Baseman Roy Howell and, with their typical Danny-can-do-it thinking, left the position to Ainge. Says Bonnell, one of three other Mormons on the team, "He's going to be good someday, but he's really kind of untried and untested. I'm glad they have that kind of confidence in him, and I hope he plays real well, but I think it's a pretty big gamble."

It's a gamble Toronto fully expects to win. "There was something about him that told me to take a chance and get him when we did," says Gillick, who selected Ainge in the 15th round of the 1977 amateur draft, even though Ainge had already committed himself to college basketball. "We wouldn't have done it with everyone. He was special."

Special. People have been saying that about Ainge almost since he was born, on March 17, 1959, in Eugene, Ore. Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. And some, my dear Malvolio, are named Danny Ainge.

Born great. Ainge's father, Don, was one of Eugene's best athletes ever: all-state in football, basketball and baseball. He received a football scholarship to the University of Oregon as a wide receiver, but his career ended when he tore up his knee. Ainge's mother, Kay, was an excellent gymnast. And Danny, who was backflipping off diving boards when he was four years old. benefited from both sets of genes.

Achieve greatness. From the time he was a baby, Danny played competitive sports with his older brothers, Doug and David, both of whom are excellent athletes. "Burnout" was one popular front-lawn sport. Doug, now 26, and David, 25, would throw a baseball at Danny as hard as they could, and he would be expected to catch it or get his teeth smashed. "On Saturday mornings we'd go out and play two-on-one football," remembers Don. "Laurie [20, the youngest of the four Ainge kids] would center the ball to me, and two of the boys would cover one receiver. It was brutal—I mean it. I'd burn the ball to them and they'd cream each other. Horrible things. David and Doug never let Danny win. I mean never." Danny remembers playing one-on-one basketball twice a day with David. "I honestly don't think we ever got to the end of a game," says Danny. "Every single one ended in a fight."

Greatness thrust upon him. "His skills were always there," says David. "And we recognized them early. We weren't jealous of him. We'd go play other kids in the city, and we'd pick Danny for our side. They'd wonder what we were doing taking that little shrimp. Well, he'd take off down the sideline and catch the ball over his shoulder. There was just something, well, special about him."

Ainge's athletic career at North Eugene High School was fairy-tale stuff: three years varsity starter in three sports. In baseball, he hit .507 his senior year and was one of the top shortstops in the state. In basketball, he led North Eugene to two straight state titles and a 52-1 record his last two seasons. In football, he caught 82 passes in two seasons before moving to quarterback his senior year because there was no one to throw him the ball. In a two-month period in his senior year he was picked to participate in state all-star games in all three sports.

Ainge's build—6'4", 168 pounds in his senior year—ruled out college football, so he decided to concentrate on basketball, choosing Brigham Young over nearby Oregon and Oregon State. Religion was an obvious factor in Ainge's decision, but not the only one. He was also inspired by Arnold's recruiting pitch. Arnold saw Ainge play once and came away unimpressed; it was Arnold's former assistant, John McMullen, who urged him to go after Ainge. On Ainge's recruiting visit to BYU, Arnold told him, "We've already got two guards. And we've recruited a kid out of Provo who's one of the best shooters I've ever seen [Greg Ballif, who played four years but could never win a starting job]. We still want you bad, but you're going to start out as No. 12." That was just the sort of challenge Ainge finds irresistible.

Arnold was 12-15 in each of his first two years before Ainge arrived, but with Ainge as a starter for four years, BYU was 80-36. In his first three seasons he averaged slightly under 20 points a game and three times made the Western Athletic Conference all-star team. Still, doubts persisted. Some of Ainge's baseball teammates who had never seen him play—BYU was on national television only twice in his career—questioned whether this skinny white kid was a big-timer. First Baseman John Mayberry often said Ainge couldn't even play on the west side of Detroit where Mayberry grew up and was himself a basketball star.

Most such remarks were spoken in jest, but they hurt just the same. "I wanted to show everyone what kind of player I could be," said Ainge. "My senior year was very important to me." So important that Ainge scored 24.4 points a game, shooting 51.9% from the field and 82.4% from the foul line.

If Mayberry needed any more convincing, Ainge gave it to him in the NCAA tournament. In the second round against UCLA at Providence, he scored 37 points in a 78-55 win. Said Mayberry, "He can play on the west side, and the east side and the north side."

And in the semifinals of the Eastern Regional against Notre Dame, he made what will become one of the most famous scoring plays in NCAA tournament history. With BYU trailing 50-49 and only eight seconds left, Ainge broke away from a press and caught an in-bounds pass about 85 feet from the basket. He eluded one defender with a reverse dribble and took the ball behind his back at midcourt to get by two more. High up in the stands, Don and David Ainge started celebrating. "It was three or four seconds early, and the people behind us told us to sit down," says Don, "but we knew it was over." On the bench, Arnold watched patiently, too, as Ainge avoided the final defenders and scored his layup. "I wasn't that worried. If they were pressing us, we were simply going to give Danny the ball and say, 'Do your thing.' Great coaching, huh?"

There's another side to Ainge, however. Fans who had tired of the all-Mormon, All-America, all-vanilla image of Ainge got a glimpse of that other side in the Cougars' subsequent loss to Virginia. The guy can be a pain in the butt on the court. He griped at his teammates constantly, at Arnold occasionally and at the officials when a call went against BYU, even drawing a technical foul. When things didn't go BYU's way, displeasure was etched on Ainge's boyish face. "All my boys are very facial," says Kay Ainge, "and it has gotten them in trouble from time to time."

But it never sullied Ainge's image in the Mormon community. "Down here in Florida, Danny is just another baseball player," said Michelle during spring training. "But in Provo you wouldn't believe it. Danny is it." "I graduated from Brigham Young and I'm a Mormon myself," says Lee Benson, sports editor of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, "but if there's one thing that's disturbing about Mormons, it's this habit of not admitting they're human. They seem to have that problem with Danny."

Ainge isn't vanilla. For one thing, his basketball style was taken right off the playground. It often included the kind of shots that cause a coach to rise off the bench in protest before saying, "Oh, the heck with it." And Ainge wasn't a workaholic on defense. Arnold first called him a "poor" defensive player, then amended that to "average."

Ainge was also recognized as the team's top Arnold impersonator; the coach would often walk into practice when Ainge was wrapping up one of his imitation chalk talks. And then there was the Great Hawaiian Sunburn Scandal when BYU played in Honolulu's Rainbow Classic during Ainge's sophomore season. Arnold told the players to be off the beach at a certain time, but Ainge talked three teammates into staying out 45 extra minutes with him. When they changed into their uniforms that night they could barely move because of sunburn, and BYU played poorly before pulling out a victory. "We were tired, half dead for that game," says Arnold. "I scolded Danny like I never had before. But even then I couldn't stay mad at him. He just gives you that big, silly, blue-eyed grin."

Nobody seems to be able to stay mad at Ainge. Some of his BYU teammates have told him to shut up after he has criticized them on the court. He and his best friend on the team, Steve Trumbo, exchanged words in the locker room after one game when Trumbo thought Ainge had popped off one too many times. "But that's just Danny," says Trumbo. "It never was a real problem on this team because he didn't stay angry at you. You knew he was telling you something to make you better. The guy's the most unselfish person I've ever met." Even the older, more hardened players in the Toronto organization get along with the youngster they used to call "Pup." Says Bosetti, "He's a good kid, an excellent kid."

That's it exactly. Ainge is a kid—a kid with exceptional athletic gifts and a big, silly, disarming grin. Those gifts and that smile are going to be tested in the next couple of years because Toronto players and fans want to see a return on the Jays' investment. If he produces, it's just another installment in the Ainge Success Story; if he doesn't, his faith in himself and his personal values may be truly tested for the first time in his life.

Ainge's private life is far different from the average pro athlete's and, by all accounts, falls well within the demanding Mormon code of conduct. He and the former Michelle Toolson met on their first day at Brigham Young when Ainge asked to sit beside her in a health class. They married in their sophomore year and had Ashlee almost nine months to the day after the wedding. Michelle is now four months pregnant with their second child, who is due on the last day of the season, when the Jays will be in Seattle.

Ainge has never found the no-tobacco, no-caffeine, no-premarital-sex, no-a-lot-of-things code at Brigham Young to be a problem. "I'm sure some guys struggle with the code," he says. "I know guys who have. But I've been expected to live that way my whole life, so it didn't change because I went to Brigham Young. I get razzed about a lot of things, sure. They tried to get me to chew tobacco when I first got to Syracuse. They told me you couldn't make the big leagues without doing it. It didn't bother me. Nothing like that does. If your faith is strong, you don't worry."

And Ainge's faith is strong. In himself and in his future. So, for now, heaven can wait.

PHOTOPHOTOSoon after his triumphant performance against Notre Dame, Ainge was taking grounders in Florida.PHOTOAinge's angels: daughter Ashlee and wife Michelle, whom he married when they were sophomores.