Is playing baseball still the dream for sons of big leaguers?
For those who choose to take on the family business, it can be a struggle
When Patrick Mahomes raised the Lombardi trophy at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami on Feb. 2, many people saw the obvious: a young man who’d just become the first player before the age of 25 to win an NFL and Super Bowl MVP award. Yet, for some of us, we saw a baseball player’s son climbing to the height of success in a different sport.
It’s no secret that Mahomes’ father, who goes by Pat, was a pitcher in the Major Leagues for more than a decade. We’ve seen the photos of the two when the quarterback was a little boy, hanging out with his dad as a member of the Minnesota Twins. You might recall that Mahomes wore a Kansas City Monarchs jersey to a prime-time game last season, a tribute to the first Negro League squad.
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) October 6, 2019
But the rocket-armed quarterback isn’t just the son of pitchers, he was an actual baseball player himself who just chose not to pursue the game beyond high school. It’s a familiar story, one we’ve seen recently with Kyler Murray, whose exploits in both sports are well-documented; he also choose football over baseball.
With numbers trending in the wrong direction for black players in baseball, though, there’s something more to be said when the sons of athletes choose other sports. All of this is their choice, of course, but it can be frustrating for baseball fans seeing the oldest pipeline to the game in the book – family – potentially drying up.
“We do have a few that have been formed in Major Leagues. But, my generation probably exposed our kids to different sports,” former MLB manager Jerry Manuel said last month at MLB’s Dream Series in Arizona. “In those different sports, the glamour and the athleticism that they had, they were able to go there and be top-notch.”
Barry Larkin, who passed up playing football at Michigan to stick with baseball, went on to become a World Series champion and former National League MVP. But his son, Shane, played college basketball at Miami and did a stint in the NBA. Earlier this month, he joined the Turkish national basketball team.
The Griffeys, perhaps the most famous black baseball family of the modern era, have seen a similar situation unfold. It’s still crazy to think that not only did Ken Griffey produce a son who became a No. 1 overall pick and a Hall of Famer, but they also played on the same team. On top of that, they once hit back-to-back homers in a game. But Ken Griffey Jr.’s son, Trey Griffey, chose to play college football. After going undrafted coming out of Arizona, he’s now a free agent wide receiver.
At the Dream Series, a preseason showcase camp for high school players of color, there were still quite a few sons of big leaguers who were pursuing careers in the family business. But for those who choose to take on the family trade, it can also be a struggle. The expectations alone are enough to make a mark on a young player.
“It’s almost every day, like, almost, when I go to the field,” said Druw Jones, a Vanderbilt commit. “I’ll get a few people ask me, ‘Are you Andruw Jones’ son?’ and things like that. I just mainly try and focus on my own thing, and when I’m at the field just focus on that.”
His name and his lineage is as much a roadblock as it is a facilitator. When you’re a big leaguer’s kid with the same name, the pressure is daunting.
“It’s more of a burden because you got to go to the field every day, and then everybody is expecting you to be great,” said Jones, who is also an outfielder. “You got to go 4-for-4 every game, make 20,000 plays every game. It’s more of a burden, but it comes with a little bit of good things, because now you get to live up to that.”
Speaking of namesakes, there’s Marquis Grissom Jr., whose dad played in the majors for 16 years to some accord. Grissom Jr. wasn’t even really into baseball at first, but eventually learned to love the game.
“My first love was basketball till about 14, then I started changing myself on the field, and then I was just, like, I guess I grew up out of it, and then baseball, I just found something. And I was too short,” Grissom Jr. said of his early career with a laugh. “I was like 5-5 in eighth grade. So I was, like, baseball is the one for me. And I just fell in love with it.”
He’s dealt with the usual amount of target-on-one’s-back-type things, including people telling him his dad wasn’t that good of a player. Fact-check: Grissom Sr. was a two-time All-Star, four-time Rawlings Gold Glove Award winner, two-time NL stolen base leader, American League Championship Series MVP and, oh, yeah, a World Series champion.
But family history is not always something to shy away from or focus on solely; it can be a building block.
You might remember Carl Crawford, a dazzling outfielder who played for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers. When he was a four-time All-Star, his game was one of speed and power. He was the kind of athlete who had offers to play basketball at UCLA and football at Nebraska before deciding to stick with baseball. His son, Justin Crawford, is also pursuing baseball. But he sees himself as a different player.
“I’ll say I understand the game a little more than my father,” Crawford, also an outfielder, said matter-of-factly. “Because, you know, my father, I would say, he was like an insane athlete, but he was more of a raw baseball player. I say I just studied the game … and I just take pride in knowing the game.”
Crawford and Jones were roommates at Dream Series. They bonded immediately over their life paths.
“It’s awesome because this was the first time I got to meet Druw,” Crawford said. “We’ve known each other from when we’ve talked on social media and things like that, but just being able to come and connect with other guys, especially who play, whose fathers have played in the major leagues like that. It’s truly just awesome to me. Being able to just talk about it with each other. Even just talking about things about off the field, not even about baseball. It’s just a great experience.”
There’s always the possibility that none of these sons makes it as far as their fathers. But that’s not where their heads are at right now. They aren’t really sweating the expectations. There’s a season to play, and impressions to make, and work to be done. And that’s the point: They’re still in the game.
“I’m going to still give it all my 100%,” Grissom Jr. said. “If I know I gave it all my 100%, I can’t be mad.”