Thursday, July 9, 2009
McNair's baseball path not chosen
By Amy K. Nelson ESPN.com
On an April afternoon in 1991, Dan Jennings experienced baseball kismet. Jennings, at the time an area scout for the Seattle Mariners, had some time between college games and scanned the newspaper for a listing of other local games. In Mendenhall, just off U.S. Highway 49 between Hattiesburg and Jackson, Miss., he took a chance.
When he got out of his car, he saw a future star playing shortstop.
"He was Adonis," Jennings says. "A muscular kid; athletic build. I'm thinking, 'This is my day. The baseball gods are shining on me.'"
The scout was locked in on Mount Olive High School's shortstop: a tall senior whose baseball skills were raw, but clearly a pure athlete. Jennings scanned the park for other scouts, realized he was alone and started quizzing people in the stands about the Greek god on the field.
"Steve McNair," they told him. Good kid, extremely popular at his high school, real involved with the community, all-American character. Convinced McNair had huge baseball potential, Jennings invited him a month later to a private workout the Mariners held for a dozen local kids.
It was clear to Jennings and fellow scout Mickey White that day that McNair's baseball skills lagged behind his athleticism. When he fielded a ball at shortstop, Jennings says, it looked as if McNair were a Catholic priest because he "bent down on one knee like he was praying."
Jennings moved McNair to the outfield during the workout and the two scouts' eyes lit up. They were wowed by his power, athleticism and ability to take instruction.
What might have happened if Steve McNair had signed with baseball's Mariners in 1991? He might not have been able to kiss the NFL MVP trophy.
"He was a joy to be around," says Jennings, now the vice president of player personnel and assistant general manager for the Florida Marlins.
He convinced the Mariners to draft McNair in the 35th round of the '91 draft, and soon thereafter Jennings was in tiny Mount Olive, Miss., negotiating with the McNair family.
He sat down in the family's small home and offered Steve $15,000 and a college scholarship to play baseball for the Mariners. Steve, his mother and one of his brothers went into a back bedroom and pondered the decision. That left Jennings with McNair's grandmother as the two watched "Wheel of Fortune" on an old 13-inch black-and-white TV.
"Just me and his grandmother," Jennings says with a laugh.
After about an hour of debate and myriad questions, McNair politely declined the offer. For McNair, the offer wasn't high enough to forgo following his brother, also a quarterback, to Alcorn State to play football.
"I had made the decision to go," McNair told The (Memphis, Tenn.) Commercial Appeal in 1994. "It wasn't the idea of the money for me. It was the idea of the money for my mother. But my mom and my brothers talked to me about the long-term, and that I wasn't ready to control life on my own."
Jennings wasn't able to counter with a better offer, but he followed McNair's career. Four years later Jennings made sure he was at the Senior Bowl in his hometown of Mobile, Ala., to watch McNair prepare for the all-star game. Standing on the sidelines, he marveled at "Adonis" and admired how McNair was still effervescent. McNair immediately came over after practice and embraced Jennings.
"Son, you made the right choice," Jennings told him. "I have no idea if you'd be in the major leagues right now. But if you change your mind, I'm sure we could find a spot for you in Seattle's outfield."
It was the last conversation Jennings ever had with McNair. On Saturday while at a family barbecue, Jennings got a call from one of his sons about McNair's tragic death.
"It saddens me," Jennings says. "I'll always remember standing on the sidelines, watching Steve and that million-dollar smile he had."
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at Amy.K.Nelson@espn3.com.