Multiple Benefits – Mariners Magazine Preview
Mariners players provide insights into the lessons learned, advantages gained and lasting value from playing multiple sports while growing up.
By Kieran O’Dwyer
The following article is from the August issue of Mariners Magazine. Pick up yours today at any Mariners Team Store, or subscribe to receive all six issues (April-September), plus a free 2015 Mariners Yearbook, delivered to your home or office. Each issue is filled with great action photography, up to date news, player stats and feature interviews.
When Seth Smith was a teenager attending Hillcrest Christian High School in Jackson, Mississippi, he kept busy during the springtime by leading the baseball team to back-to-back Class 4A state championships in 1997 and 1998, all while earning multiple honors at the local and state level. As for the rest of the school year? Well, during autumn he was firing the pigskin all over the gridiron – in his high school career he threw more than 50 touchdowns and accumulated nearly 6,000 passing yards at quarterback – while also earning state honors. As if that weren’t enough, he earned three letters in basketball as an all-conference player and five letters in soccer. Having conquered the high school sports landscape, Smith moved on to the University of Mississippi, where he starred on the baseball team and was a member of the football team that included future two-time Super Bowl winning QB Eli Manning.
When Austin Jackson was a teenager attending Billy Ryan High School in Denton, Texas, he helped lead the baseball team to the class AAAA Texas State championship game. Moreover, Baseball America named him the best 15-year-old baseball player in the nation. Pretty heady stuff. Much like Smith, however, Jackson wasn’t the type to rest on his baseball accomplishments. So when he wasn’t tearing it up on the diamond, he could be found schooling opponents on the hardwood. Ranked by some media outlets as one of the top point guards in the country, Jackson looked like he was headed to Georgia Tech – a member of the mighty Atlantic Coast Conference – to play baseball and basketball. Ultimately, his desire to pursue a baseball career won out and he decided to turn pro out of high school.
Each year, only a select handful of youngsters achieve the level of successes across various sports that Smith and Jackson enjoyed. Yet, even though the championships and honors are fun to reminisce about, both Mariners, as well as their teammates interviewed for this feature, focused instead on how participating in a diversity of sports from elementary school through high school proved invaluable toward their development into well-rounded individuals and athletes.
“I truly believe I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for the different sports I played coming up,” said Smith. “Not only that, but [also] the different coaches and people that I was around that were part of my life. People I was able to learn from along the way who can kind of help propel you forward. As well as the different lessons that different sports teach you – whether it’s time management, working as a team, picking each other up, whatever it may be. All of that definitely came from playing a lot of different sports and I’m thankful for the opportunity.”
Developing Well-Rounded Athletes
It’s no secret that one of the hottest issues related to youth sports in recent years is the debate over whether youngsters should specialize in playing one sport year-round from an early age or play multiple sports while
The vast majority of literature available on this topic suggests that the latter approach may provide a healthier long-term path, both physiologically and psychologically, for kids. Still, there are those who believe focusing on one sport and consistently fine-tuning the skill sets and mechanics needed to excel can give a kid a big advantage on the field or court over “seasonal players.”
That said, and without diving head-first into this debate now (including its related factors such as medical issues and financial costs), at least one thing is certain among those Mariners who played multiple sports: there is no debate.
“Growing up in Maine you’re forced to play two or three sports [because of the weather],” said reliever Charlie Furbush, who also excelled on the soccer pitch and basketball court through his high school years. “I was fortunate and think it was a blessing in disguise to get to play more than one sport instead of trying to be all-in in one. I think it broadens your physical and mental ability athletically.
“I’m not saying that [specialization] doesn’t work, but I certainly learned from playing soccer and basketball [about] the competitiveness and what it takes in each sport to do well. I took those things and translated them to baseball.”
Like Furbush, Jackson is quick to give a nod for his overall success as a baseball player today to having played more than one sport as a kid. Mariners fans enjoy watching the athletic center fielder fly around the bases, lay out for line drives in the gap and leap into the night sky to haul in deep fly balls. He believes the countless hours of work he put in dribbling and driving, and dishing and swishing on blacktops all around the Dallas-Ft Worth area proved beneficial to his overall athleticism.
“For me, being a point guard and having to focus on footwork and being quick was big,” he said. “Those things transition easily to baseball – the first step you take [on defense when the ball comes] off the bat, that first step after your secondary [lead] on the basepaths. That was pretty similar to the first step in basketball, making that move to beat the guy defending you. All those things helped, especially when I was going from basketball season straight to baseball. I knew I wouldn’t have to get back as much of my speed and quickness because basketball had already pretty much helped. With those things the fast-twitch muscles, the explosiveness, were pretty much already trained and ready to go.”
“Being a point guard and having to focus on footwork and being quick was big. Those things transition easily to baseball.”
Fellow former hoopster Nelson Cruz agreed. As a youngster growing up in the Dominican Republic where baseball reigns supreme, Cruz wanted to “Be Like Mike.” Not Trout, of course. Michael Jordan. He even played basketball for his country’s Junior National Team.
“With basketball I think you have to have quick feet, quick hands,” the All-Star slugger pointed out. “You’re running and jumping, always moving. It all transfers to baseball – hitting, defense. I think it helped me become a good athlete.”
Transferring Skills Among Sports
Smith believes his time on the football field provided vital transferable lessons that still apply to his approach as a baseball player.
“As a quarterback, you have to prepare yourself in a certain way to be successful,” he explained. “You have to know what everybody is supposed to be doing, where they’re going on any given play. You have to be able to take charge in the huddle. Also, you can’t get too high or too low no matter what’s going on. You have to be the calming, steady influence for the offense. Things like that kind of mold your personality.
“Certainly, as you get into professional baseball, there is a lot of failure and a little bit of success and you have to find a way to stay on an even keel. You learn to understand that the hard times won’t last forever and, at the same time, neither will the good times.”
Should Smith ever want to talk football, he could easily bond with Pat Kivlehan. Like Smith, the 25-year-old infielder currently playing for Triple-A Tacoma starred in both baseball and football through high school and played both sports at the collegiate level.
“I truly believe I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for the different sports I played coming up.”
“I think playing different sports helped keep me a more well-rounded athlete,” said Kivlehan, who played safety and linebacker for Rutgers University for four seasons, and baseball in his senior year. Amazingly, after a three-year absence from competitive baseball, he returned to the diamond as a senior and thrived – so much so that he earned the first Triple Crown in Conference history and was named the Big EAST Player of the Year.
“Concentrating on just one sport, let’s say baseball year-round, you kind of get specific and geared into that sport and can lose your overall general athleticism,” he added. “Things you don’t do a lot in baseball, like running and jumping in a football or basketball way, you kind of lose that and the sense of ‘burst’ that you’d get playing those other sports. When you bring that over into your baseball season, you’re ahead of those guys who are just concentrating on a few baseball motions throughout the year, while guys who played basketball and football maintain that more athletic body frame.”
Kivlehan said the physicality and mentality of football also proved advantageous when it was time to move into the baseball season.
“I felt like I was physically stronger, and wouldn’t wear down as easy,” he noted. “Baseball workouts are obviously different than football where you’re looking to lift as much weight as possible. I learned the mentality of knowing there’s a guy over there trying to knock you over and you’ve got to knock him over first. It’s not really that kind of a mentality in baseball; it’s a more laid back approach. Still, when I took the mentality and physicality that I learned in football over to baseball I felt like that confidence and athleticism gave me an advantage.”
Beyond developing into well-rounded athletes, getting the opportunity to learn from various coaches and bond with other players, Furbush emphasized that there is another valuable – if less talked about – benefit to playing multiple sports when growing up. Indeed, it’s something that he said he and his Mariners teammates continue to seek comfort in as professional athletes: the opportunity to step away and catch your breath.
“It’s nice to talk to kids and tell them, ‘Hey, don’t be afraid to take a break. It’s ok if you want to let your mind and body recover from baseball. Play another sport or do something else for a while.’ As Big Leaguers, we play almost every day, so sometimes when we have those days off, they’re really valuable, not just physically, but [also] especially mentally. Just to be able to get away and shut it off. Then to come back fresh and ready to go.”
Kieran O’Dwyer is a freelance sportswriter based in New York.