Football roots run deep in Phillies camp

Football roots run deep in Phillies camp
February 23, 2014, 9:00 am
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Plenty of Phillies had offers to play college football, starting with manager Ryne Sandberg, who was offered as a quarterback by Washington State, Oklahoma, Arizona State, Oregon State and UCLA. (USA Today Images)

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Ethan Martin has one of the most powerful arms in Phillies camp and he can thank the West Coast offense for that.

Martin was a star quarterback at Stephens County High School in Georgia. He was good enough to make an official visit to Georgia Tech.

The right-hander chose baseball when the Dodgers made him the 15th overall pick in the 2008 draft. He was the first high school pitcher chosen in that draft.

Whether it’s a bat or an arm, scouts love power. As a high school senior, Martin was throwing fastballs in the mid-90s. That’ll get you some attention.

Martin, whose fastball now reaches the high-90s, traces his power arm back to the football field. His school switched to the West Coast offense after his sophomore year. In preparation for the new scheme, he spent the summer before his junior year in daily morning passing sessions. The workouts strengthened his arm, but he didn’t realize how much until baseball season rolled around.

“I went from throwing 84 as a sophomore to 92, 93, 94 as a junior,” he said.

Martin is one of many players in the Phillies’ spring clubhouse with an extensive background as a quarterback.

In addition to Martin, pitchers Mike Stutes and Kyle Kendrick were standout high school QBs. So was catcher Lou Marson, who was being recruited by Boise State until he suffered a broken collarbone his senior year. Reliever Brad Lincoln was a quarterback in Houston until he stopped playing to focus on baseball.

Cliff Lee was not a high school quarterback -- he dabbled at receiver but didn’t stay with the sport -- but wishes he had been one.

“I should have done it,” he said. “I could have done it. But I was more into running around and being a kid at that time of the year. And I think I knew baseball was going to work.”

You were right on that, Cliff.

The top former quarterback in the Phillies' clubhouse is the guy in the corner office.

Manager Ryne Sandberg was a football, basketball and baseball star in high school in Spokane, Wash. He was one of the top quarterbacks in the nation his senior year and had offers to play the position at Washington State, Oklahoma, Arizona State, Oregon State and UCLA.

There are more than just former quarterbacks in the Phillies' clubhouse.

Domonic Brown, a wide receiver, was courted by 60 colleges and would have played baseball and football at Miami had he not signed with the Phillies.

Marlon Byrd, an all-state running back in Georgia, was recruited to play football at Georgia, Furman, Georgia Tech and Florida State.

Though Byrd chose baseball, he’s still confident in his football skills.

“I’m going to say I was the best football player in this clubhouse,” he said good-naturedly. “When I was with the Cubs, I was No. 2 behind [Jeff] Samardzija,” the former all-America receiver at Notre Dame.

Byrd lockers near to Ben Revere, who was a star receiver/defensive back in Kentucky. Georgia wanted him to play baseball and football, but he chose to sign with the Twins after being a first-round draft pick. Revere’s father, John, is the running backs coach at Eastern Kentucky University.

There’s more. Cameron Rupp was recruited to play linebacker at Iowa, but chose to play baseball at Texas. Kevin Frandsen was a high school standout on both sides of the ball in San Jose, Calif. Darin Ruf was an all-state linebacker in Nebraska. Jonathan Papelbon was a standout linebacker/tight end in high school. He wanted to play football at Mississippi State, but baseball team officials had given him a scholarship and weren’t keen on it.

To a man, the Phillies’ cast of former quarterbacks said playing the position has helped them in baseball.

“I still throw a football to keep up my arm strength,” said Lincoln, the fourth overall pick in the 2006 draft.

“That was my arm care in high school,” Stutes said. “I conditioned my arm by throwing a football.”

Sandberg, whose 15-year playing career led to enshrinement in the baseball Hall of Fame, said his over-the-top style of throwing a baseball was developed by throwing a football.

“Not once did I miss time because of a sore arm and that was because I learned the fundamentals while throwing a football,” he said. “Football helped develop my overall strength. Quarterback teaches you mental toughness and leadership skills.”

Sandberg had committed to play both baseball and football at Washington State before opting for baseball and a pro contract with the Phillies.

“I had always dreamed of being a pro athlete and with baseball I could be one right now,” he said of his (smart) decision to sign.

Stutes was a star quarterback at Lake Oswego High School in Oregon. His teams went to the state semifinals, finals and quarterfinals in his three years as starter.

Coming out of high school, Stutes made an official football visit to the University of Nevada. He ended up at Oregon State, where he was a star pitcher on two College World Series championship teams.

Focus and concentration in the heat of a tight game are crucial to a major-league reliever like Stutes. He learned those intangibles quarterbacking his high school football team.

“You learn how to block things out,” he said. “You go up to the line, read the defense and make audibles in a split second.

“I loved getting in the shotgun, calling plays in a two-minute offense, and throwing the ball.”

Kendrick, a three-year starter at quarterback in high school, was recruited to play both sports at Washington State, the same school Sandberg was headed to before the Phillies wooed him away.

“Playing quarterback definitely helped me in baseball, just the quick thinking that’s involved,” Kendrick said.

“Pitcher and quarterback, they’re similar. In both positions, the game starts with you.”