ATLANTA — It’s kind of surreal, a virtual capacity crowd occupying Russ Chandler Stadium for a college player who’s not a lock to hit the field on Friday night.
Sure, Georgia Tech (22-13 overall, 9-7 in ACC play) has now won seven straight games (including Friday), and Tech baseball has a long-standing legacy of cultivating top-notch pros in the college ranks (Kevin Brown, Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Varitek, Mark Teixeira, to name a few), and yes, Florida State baseball is a national drawing card on its own.
But let’s be honest: A sizable chunk of the crowd are here to catch a glimpse of college football’s current Big Man On Campus … and one of the most personable Heismans in recent memory.
Between the baseball lines, Winston has a 1.76 ERA, 16/2 K-BB rate, 0.73 WHIP and four saves for the season.
With the football Seminoles last fall, the redshirt freshman passed for 4,057 yards, tallied 44 touchdowns (40 passing) and led FSU to an easy-breezy 13-0 regular-season record — with the Seminoles holding a double-digit lead entering the fourth quarter every time — before taking home the Heisman and solidifying Florida State’s berth in the BCS title game.
In the championship bout, Winston and the Seminoles overcame a 21-10 halftime deficit against No. 2 Auburn before rallying for a 34-31 victory in the final minutes — with wideout Kelvin Benjamin pulling down Winston’s 2-yard scoring pass with just 13 seconds left.
On that night, Winston passed for 237 yards and two touchdowns, with both scores coming in the Seminoles’ 21-point fourth quarter (sandwiched between Levonte Whitfield’s lightning-fast, 100- yard kick-return TD).
* * *
At 5:19 p.m. on Friday, just a few minutes after the stadium gates opened for the fans, Winston nearly gets impaled by a line drive during a running drill. Standing a few feet from second base, but with his back momentarily turned to the fungo drill at home plate … a ball goes rocketing by the reigning Heisman — a mere inches from the back of his neck.
Feeling the whooooosh of the passed line drive, Winston exhales/smiles in relief before mock yelling at the Florida State coaches for the errant ball.
* * *
Winston’s first official appearance for the night came during the team-wide pregame handshake — celebrating good sportsmanship throughout ACC play. At 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, it’s astoundingly easy to pick Winston out of a crowd, among his smaller teammates.
Nevertheless, the affable kid from Hueytown, Ala. stood at the front of FSU’s receiving line, amicably chatting up every Georgia Tech player who extended a hand … even though some might have been leery of showing too much awe for the Heisman winner and national champion.
After all, Georgia Tech — no shoo-in for the ACC or NCAA tourneys — needs signature victories to boost its seasonal resume … and sometimes, a little gamesmanship is required when glad-handing the opposition.
No matter how friendly or famous they may be.
Yellow Jackets coach Danny Hall smiled when asked about the "awe factor" notion during the group handshake.
"Hey, he’s the Heisman trophy winner. That’s instant respect right there."
* * *
On a molecular level, it’s physically impossible for a person to occupy two different spaces at the same time. However, that didn’t deter Florida State officials from capitalizing on the illusion of Winston’s presence around campus.
On Friday, the school officially unveiled its new logo and uniforms for the football program at the "Downtown Get Down" in Tallahassee — a showcase of the Seminoles’ sleek, Nike-designed uniforms for the coming years.
(The logo change has apparently been a source of contention with FSU fans throughout the South, even if things appear similar to the untrained eye).
And there was Winston, at the front and center of the Seminoles’ uniform/logo transformation, anchoring a school-produced video displaying the new duds — even though he was already in Atlanta, helping the Seminoles improve on their (now) 26-7 record.
* * *
The Heisman Trophy, annually awarded to the most outstanding college football player, bears the name of former Georgia Tech football and baseball coach John Heisman.
But until Friday (as speculated by the sports information department), a college athlete had never participated in a single inning at Georgia Tech’s baseball field while already serving as a Heisman recipient.
Yes, Auburn’s Bo Jackson played against Georgia Tech baseball in the spring of 1985 … but that occurred approximately seven months before he claimed the football Heisman for Auburn (senior campaign).
Fast forward to the following spring (1986), as Jackson — who rushed for 1,786 yards and 17 TDs for the football Tigers in 1985 — would have been part of a Georgia Tech-Auburn home-and- home baseball series … if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hadn’t bungled the situation in a franchise-altering manner.
Here’s the story: Before the 1986 NFL Draft (April 29-30), the floundering Bucs held the No. 1 overall pick — thanks to a 2-14 meltdown — and had their sights firmly squared on Jackson, even though tailback James Wilder was coming off a 1,641-yard campaign (1,300 rushing with 10 touchdowns) and Tampa Bay had more glaring holes.
That’s not to say the Bucs were wrong for targeting Jackson at No. 1. With a little development time, Jackson, Wilder and quarterback Steve Young could have emerged as one of the NFL’s best backfields … if the franchise had any semblance of patience or quality long-term vision.
(In 1987, Tampa Bay would eventually ship Young, a future Hall of Famer, to San Francisco for two non-1st-round picks.)
Which brings us to this: As the legend goes, during Auburn’s 1986 baseball season and a few weeks before the NFL draft, the Buccaneers subtly coerced Jackson into making a visit to central Florida (the team’s facility), while taking a flight in team owner Hugh Culverhouse’s private plane.
Here are Jackson’s own words from the ESPN 30 For 30 special, You Don’t Know Bo, from a few years ago:
"I thought I had the OK to get on a plane that Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse set up. So I got on the jet and went to Tampa Bay for a visit. About four or five days later, I’m back at Auburn getting ready for my baseball game. My senior year, I am tearing the cover off the ball. I’m batting over .400*. I don’t know how many home runs I was sitting on then, but I was as hot as a bottle rocket in July."
In today’s NFL, things are more streamlined, in terms of what prospective draftees can and cannot do before the draft — especially those partaking in spring collegiate sports (baseball or track).
But in 1986, Jackson was too trusting of the Bucs, who apparently told Bo they had cleared the Culverhouse/private-plane trip with the NCAA … even though Auburn reportedly had no knowledge of the Florida excursion.
That trip essentially made Jackson ineligible for baseball at Auburn, effective immediately. It may have also been the driving force behind Bo electing not to sign with the Buccaneers in the spring of 1986.
Instead, he signed with the Kansas City Royals, and immediately joined the club’s Memphis affiliate.
Regarding the long list of Heisman winners … apparently only Johnny Lujack (Notre Dame, 1947), Jackson (Auburn, 1985) and Winston (Florida State, 2012) played college baseball, as well.
* * *
The Texas Rangers baseball club certainly has an eye for charismatic figures — on the football side.
In December 2013, leading up to baseball’s Winter Meetings, the Rangers made a high-profile deal in the Triple-A portion of the Rule 5 draft, acquiring the baseball rights to Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who had already been drafted by two major league clubs in previous years — 2007 with the Baltimore Orioles (41st round out of high school) and 2010 with the Colorado Rockies (4th round out of North Carolina State).
Of course, a lot had happened to Wilson after the summer of 2010:
Before the 2011 football season, Wilson transferred from N.C. State to Wisconsin and instantly became the Badgers’ starting quarterback. For that senior campaign, Wilson accounted for 3,563 total yards (3,175 passing) and 39 total touchdowns, while guiding U-W to a Big Ten championship (beating Michigan State in the title game) and a berth in the Rose Bowl (falling to Oregon).
In June 2012, the Rangers also drafted Winston as a high school prospect from Alabama, snagging him late in Round 15 (486th overall — one slot after former Georgia Tech pitcher Buck Farmer).
The Rangers’ fingers-crossed rationale: Wilson would consider a pro baseball career during the summer, while playing football for Florida State during the school year — one of the convoluted college rules where a star athlete maintains eligibility in one sport … and gets paid in another.
(It’s unknown how much the Rangers offered Winston to pursue a pro career on the baseball side.)
But Winston opted for the full college experience, choosing a split-sport arrangement with Florida State coaches Jimbo Fisher (football) and Mike Martin (baseball) during springtime, a move that brings us to Georgia Tech’s campus on a clear, but crisp Friday night.
"That’s just him (staying busy)," said FSU baseball coach Mike Martin earlier in the week, as reported by The Tallahassee Democrat. "That’s just the way (Winston) operates. He loves to be involved."
* * *
It’s fair to wonder: Are athletes, like Winston, allowed to take a plane to Tallahassee (before Saturday’s football scrimmage) and back to Atlanta (Game #3 of FSU-Georgia Tech baseball) … or do they have to make the interstate treks by car — since they’re not part of the Seminoles baseball traveling party?
Winston’s back-and-forth schedule is above board in compliance circles, not unlike when a handful of players accompany a coach or administrator to an NCAA-sanctioned event — like SEC Media Days for football, ACC Media Day for men’s basketball … or accepting a postseason award recognized by the NCAA.
Here’s the official word from Florida State’s compliance office:
NCAA rules permit institutions to pay any actual and necessary costs associated with transporting a student-athlete to and from competition, which may include commercial or charter air transportation.
That aside, it’s not like Winston has a ton of experience flying from city to city and performing athletic tasks shortly after touching down at the airport.
The kid, despite his immense athletic gifts, is just 20 years old; and would any of the baseball Seminoles really complain if they caught Winston sneaking a peek at Florida State’s football playbook in the early innings of a baseball outing … knowing a flood of expectations were awaiting him at Doak Campbell Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Even if it’s just a harmless live scrimmage, with presumably no-contact rules for Winston and the other Seminoles quarterbacks.
(College football hasn’t had a repeat Heisman winner since Ohio State tailback Archie Griffin in 1974 and ’75).
* * *
As for Friday’s game, Georgia Tech raced to a 5-0 lead in the opening inning (one unearned run) before holding on for a 5-3 victory over No. 2 Florida State. (ACC member Virginia, at 28-5, currently holds the nation’s top ranking.)
Tech starter Josh Heddinger (one run, two hits allowed over five innings) actually carried a no-hitter into the 6th, before encountering some turbulence in the Seminoles lineup.
Nevertheless, Coach Hall was effusive in his praise, saying Heddinger (2-1) posted "by far" his best performance of the season.
Winston got into the game in the bottom of the 7th, as a defensive replacement, and registered a put-out with his first opportunity in left field (elementary flyout).
For Florida State’s batting turn in the 8th, and facing Georgia Tech’s Dusty Isaacs, Winston flied out to left field with one out, leaving a fellow Seminole on second base.
All told, FSU didn’t push a single runner across home plate in the final two innings.
"It didn’t hit me on the mound that it was a real special experience. Like (I’ve been saying), he’s no gimmick, he can play," said Yellow Jackets pitcher Dusty Isaacs (two innings, one save) about Winston, who wasn’t available to the media after the game.
"He’s not out here for attention. He seems as serious (about baseball) as he is for football, so I knew he could really play, and I was trying to go right after him. I just pitched my game."
Hall, a one-time draft pick of the Oakland Athletics (1973), admires Winston’s natural talent and ability to juggle such a hectic schedule over a single weekend. His club didn’t make any special plans for attacking Winston, though, either as a hitter (0 for 1 on Friday) or closer.
"(The fans) are interested in seeing him, (Winston’s) the Heisman trophy winner — that’s select company. He’s a great athlete," said Hall, in his 21st season running the Tech program. "He’s a special guy; they don’t come around very often, and I’m sure Florida State’s fans are enjoying him while they got him."
After the two-run defeat, a horde of Florida State fans ambled over in Winston’s direction, hoping to get an up-close look or secure an autograph. But security was tight, allowing Winston just a few minutes to don a pair of post-game sandals, acknowledge a few young fans and then make his way to a vehicle that would presumably get him to the airport in reasonable time.
These are the spoils of a Heisman hero, the second-youngest in the award’s illustrious history.
These are also the perks of a young man who’s perpetually smiling at his two-sport fortune.