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Helmet swap – ESPN
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s March 31 MLB Preview Issue. Subscribe today!
ON JAN. 6, as Jameis Winston lifted a crystal football and brought the Rose Bowl to a roar, Florida State baseball coach Mike Martin stood quietly offstage. Known around Tallahassee simply by his jersey number, Martin beamed when a fan asked: “Hey, 11! Is he seriously going to play baseball again?”
Martin quipped: “Heck yeah he is. He’s mine in two weeks.” Then he raised his hands to assuage fears. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of him.”
So far, so good. Thanks to a wicked off-speed slider and a 90 mph fastball, Winston has allowed five hits and one earned run (with three saves and 13 strike outs) in seven outings as the closer for the No. 1 Noles.
“A lot of people thought I wouldn’t set foot again on the baseball field,” says Winston, a part-time outfielder who made 32 starts last spring before his Heisman-winning campaign. “But one of the main reasons I came here is to play both. If any school knows how to help me handle it, it’s this one.”
After all FSU produced Deion Sanders, the All-American cornerback who, in 1987, won a conference track and field title in the 4×100 relay and then ran across campus to deliver a Metro Conference championship-clinching base hit for Martin, and Charlie Ward, who won the 1993 Heisman and a national title as a quarterback and starred at point guard. If the Noles’ two-sport legacy wasn’t enough, Winston was born in Bessemer, Ala., hearing stories about hometown hero Bo Jackson, the only other Heisman winner since 1956 to hit the diamond after hoisting the trophy. But those legends did their moonlighting pre-Twitter. Now every at-bat, pass and step in between is scrutinized.
“I know expectations are higher this year,” says football coach Jimbo Fisher. “But I think last year might have been more stressful for him. He became a big part of the baseball team in a hurry, and then he’d come to practice and was in a four-man fight to be our starting quarterback. This year, he’s much more settled.”
Easy for Fisher to say. On Feb. 25, FSU faced the Yankees in an exhibition in Tampa. More than 7,700 fans — most in garnet and gold — saw Winston arrive with a police escort, as he does in Tallahassee. Derek Jeter joked that it was the first time the Yanks have been outdrawn at home. From March 19 to April 12, Winston will shuttle between a team abuzz about a repeat and one primed for its third trip to the College World Series in five seasons.
There are surprisingly few conflicts during that span. Football practice tends to be held early on weekdays and baseball games during the week are mostly in the evening while three-game series take place over the weekend, when football is off. On the rare days when football does bleed into baseball, Winston will likely head straight to the bullpen.
“There has always been a lot of cooperation,” says Martin, who is in his 35th season as FSU’s skipper. “It was that way with Bobby [Bowden], and it’s still that way with Jimbo.”
But word is Martin will be down an arm April 12, when FSU’s Garnet and Gold Game airs live at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN. An hour later, the baseball squad faces Georgia Tech in Atlanta, 270 miles away.
“He might be in Atlanta on Friday and Sunday,” an FSU official admits, “but there’s no way he won’t be behind center on Saturday.”
Call it the Johnny Manziel Effect, but people in the FSU athletic department are still worried about overexposure. Winston is already drawing an unprecedented level of attention to the typically under-the-radar world of college baseball, which will only increase if the Noles make a run to Omaha. So any meeting with the media comes with hovering athletic department officials — dugout or sideline.
“We trust Jameis,” the FSU official says, “but he’s a gregarious kid and you don’t want someone to take advantage of that.”
A preseason third-team baseball All-American, Winston has already been drafted once, taken in the 15th round of the 2012 MLB draft by the Rangers, employers of another two-sport star, Super Bowl champ Russell Wilson. Though still in need of a third pitch, Winston’s heater and natural switch-hitting ability have baseball scouts advising teams to draft him again in June 2015.
But they will have to wait their turn behind teams in the NFL draft a month earlier — if all goes according to Winston’s two-sport plan.
“I told Coach Fisher I’ll be coming by football practice each day to make sure that Jameis’ green jersey is on good and tight,” jokes Martin, referring to the no-hit shirt reserved for football’s most precious arms. “He said he wants me to put one of those on him during baseball games too.”
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