Commentary

Celebrating baseball players' athleticism

Originally Published: June 1, 2011
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

Now that the NBA Finals are under way, it seems like an appropriate time to name the All-Hoops team from Major League Baseball and to ask the question: What percentage of MLB players have dunked a basketball once in their lives? It doesn't have to have been in a game; it could have been alone in a gym when they were 16.

I asked this of several of the best athletes in baseball, beginning with Red Sox outfielder Mike Cameron, who, when asked several years ago whether he could dunk, said, "Whatever way you like." He said that 70 percent of major league players have dunked once in their lives. We went to Padres center fielder Cameron Maybin, the cousin of former North Carolina star Rashad McCants, and like his cousin, Maybin can slam in every way possible.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kemp
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesMatt Kemp is among the best athletes in the major leagues.

"I'll say between 75 and 80 percent; I'll say 78 percent," Maybin said. "I say that because on our team, we do a lot of other sports as a team, especially in spring training. Baseball players are great athletes. I asked [Padres pitcher] Dustin Moseley if he could dunk. He was offended that I asked. I thought it was a legit question. He said, 'Oh, I can dunk."'

Moseley is 6-foot-4. The average major league pitcher is nearly 6-3. Nineteen major league pitchers are 6-7 or taller, and my guess is that every one of them can dunk. Dunking a basketball implies a certain level of jumping ability and body control, size and hand-eye coordination -- and isn't that the combination that defines our greatest athletes? So I ask this question to make the case that baseball players are tremendously underrated athletes. NBA players are the best athletes in the world. For LeBron James to move like he does, with remarkable hand-eye coordination, at 6-8, 250 pounds, is breathtaking in every way. There has never been anyone quite like him. Derrick Rose's quickness off the dribble, and his strength to finish, is inconceivable. For Dirk Nowitzki to do the things he does at 7 feet is stunning.

I love basketball. I love basketball players. That is not the point. The point is that, baseball players, I believe, are more well-rounded than the athletes in any of the four major sports. More baseball players, we contend without official proof, were two- and three-sport stars in high school than were basketball and football players. (Former major leaguer Brad Wilkerson was all-state in four sports in Kentucky.) The special skill and athleticism required to hit a baseball that's coming at 95 mph and to catch a baseball that's whizzing at you at an inconceivable rate of speed translate well to playing other sports.

Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, a great athlete, said, "I've told players from other sports, 'We [baseball players] could play your sport better than you could play our sport.'"

That is the point. LeBron has been seen taking batting practice with a major league team, and according to one major league player, "he couldn't even get it out of the cage." Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald will likely go into the NFL Hall of Fame and is an athlete of unfathomable ability, yet when he threw out the first pitch at a game, he didn't even look athletic throwing a baseball. But you take the average baseball player, drop him into another sport and, chances are, he would at least look like he knew what he was doing.

Joe Mauer was an all-state basketball player in Minnesota. When asked what kind of player he was in his senior year, he said, "I was a defensive specialist," he said. How many points a game did he average? "Twenty-two," he said. Former teammate Torii Hunter said he has seen Mauer shoot a basketball. "He looks like an NBA player," Hunter said. Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson said, "I really believe if I had concentrated solely on basketball, I would be in the NBA right now." Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp played only high school baseball during the high school baseball season; the rest of the time, he was playing basketball. He was recruited to play basketball at Oklahoma. Chris Young of the Mets and Will Venable of the Padres (now in the minor leagues) played basketball at Princeton.

Again, I'm not here to disparage athletes in other sports, I'm here to celebrate the athleticism of major league players. Go to a ballpark any day, and you realize the sporting backgrounds of the players. I recently went to a Red Sox-Indians game in Cleveland. Boston left fielder Carl Crawford was recruited out of high school to play basketball at UCLA and football at Nebraska. Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore rushed for 3,081 yards his senior year in high school and had offers to play major college football. Cameron was a high school basketball star. Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury worked out with the basketball team at Oregon State when he wasn't playing baseball.

Adam Jones I've told players from other sports, 'We [baseball players] could play your sport better than you could play our sport.'

-- Orioles center fielder Adam Jones

Those guys look like great athletes. ESPN's John Kruk might not look like one now, but he was only joking when he famously told a woman years ago, "I ain't an athlete, lady." Trust me, Kruk was a great athlete; he was a great high school basketball player; he could dunk when he was in high school at 5-9. Cecil Fielder looked like a big, fat guy in his prime, but in his prime, he could easily dunk a basketball. David Wells was built like Babe Ruth, but in his prime, he could dunk a basketball without a problem. Ruth, by the way, was a great basketball player as a young man. So was Al Kaline, who said he was a better basketball player than he was a baseball player in high school, and he won a batting title for the Tigers when he was 20 years old.

In the late 1980s, one of the Orioles' beat writers with a passion for basketball had grown tired of asking baseball questions, so he asked all 25 players on the team whether they had ever dunked a basketball in their lives. Granted, maybe some of them were lying, but 23 out of the 25 Orioles said they had dunked at least once. One of them was John Shelby, who is now a coach for the Brewers. He recently had knee surgery, but to prove his knee was OK, a few weeks after surgery, at age 53, he went out and dunked a basketball.

So, in that spirit of dunking, and in honor of the NBA Finals, here is our All-Hoops team from Major League Baseball:

First team
Forward: Derek Lowe, 6-6
Forward: CC Sabathia, 6-7
Center: Chris Young, 6-10
Guard: Will Venable, 6-2
Guard: Matt Kemp, 6-3

Second team
F: Derrek Lee, 6-5
F: Joe Mauer, 6-5
F: Scott Rolen, 6-4
G: Carl Crawford, 6-2
G: Austin Jackson, 6-1

I kept it to two teams. I could have made five teams and still had good basketball players left off. That's the athletic level of baseball players. And I say 75 percent of them have dunked a basketball.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.

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