Any time I have a chance to use this classic photo, I’m going to do it.
On the right, that’s Jim Hendry, the man who invited me to move from media relations into the baseball operations department – and gave me a diamond-side view to the inner workings of what it takes to put together a baseball team.
On the left, that’s Gary Hughes, the man who saw something in Jim to help launch his professional baseball career.
Gary – also known to his legion of fans as Boomer – has helped launch a bunch of careers and has been a friend to multitudes both inside and outside the game. I had the pleasure of working closely with him during my time in baseball ops, and he continues to be a sage source of advice and guidance for me.
How connected is Boomer in the industry? Mr. Hughes first began working in professional baseball in 1967. That’s 50 full years of service scouting for the San Francisco Giants (1967-72), New York Mets (1973-76), Seattle Mariners (1977), New York Yankees (1978-85), Montreal Expos (1986-91), Florida Marlins (1992-98), Colorado Rockies (1999), Cincinnati Reds (2000-02), the Cubs (2003-2011) and the Boston Red Sox (since 2012).
For those of you who don’t know him, his career honors include being selected by Baseball America as one of the Top 10 scouts of the 20th century. He also was inducted into the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame in 2008.
But it’s not because of baseball that I’m writing about Gary today. OK, it is about baseball, but more in the “What Could Have Been, But Wasn’t” category.
The NFL draft is coming up this week, and Gary kinda-sorta has a hand in it – as he has been directly connected to a pair of football executives: John Elway, executive vice president of football operations/general manager of the Denver Broncos, and John Lynch, the general manager of the San Francisco 49ers.
Hughes was involved in the signing of both to play baseball – as a Yankees scout in 1981 (Elway was selected in the second round with the 52nd overall pick) and as the Marlins’ scouting director in 1992 (Lynch was Florida’s second pick in the Marlins’ first-ever draft).
Elway was attending Stanford University en route to a Hall of Fame career with the Denver Broncos.
“John was eligible to be drafted in baseball as a sophomore, and we did not have a first-round pick; as we often did in those days, we signed a free agent,” Hughes said. The Yankees surrendered their first pick to the Padres as compensation for the signing of Dave Winfield. “I was in my third year as a full-time scout, and here I am talking to George Steinbrenner while the president, the scouting director, the player development director and the GM all sat there – listening to me talk to him.
“George was infatuated with the idea of drafting John Elway. I said to him, ‘We don’t have to take him this high; he’s probably going to play football. Nobody is going to take him this high.’
“And he said, ‘Yeah, but.’ And his ‘Yeah, but’ made sense.
“In those days, after the first and second round, the draft was shut down for a secondary phase for those who were passed over the year before or were drafted and didn’t sign. Mr. Steinbrenner said, ‘What will happen is, everybody will look at their board, and they’ll see how their boards have been beat up, and Elway will look awfully good to someone picking in the third round.’ He had a point there. Then he said, ‘So we’re going to take him.’
“And then he said, ‘He’s got to play baseball.’ And I said, ‘Whoa. Listen, I just got this job. I don’t want you to come back and say I said he’d play baseball only. There’s a very definite chance he’s going to play football.’ And he said, ‘Duly noted.’
“That took me off the hook. So we drafted him with our first pick.”
Due to the timing of when Elway and the Yankees agreed to terms, he didn’t play baseball until the following June with Oneonta in the New York-Penn League. He started his pro career 1-for-19, and when he left six weeks later to return to Stanford for football practice, “he was leading the team in every offensive category – including stolen bases,” Hughes said. “He showed power. He showed speed. It was exciting to see that he could do all that.”
A rightfielder, Elway batted .318 with four homers, 25 RBI and 13 stolen bases in 42 games for Oneonta.
After a stellar senior season at quarterback, it became evident that Elway could be the first player selected in the 1983 NFL draft. As has been well documented, he informed the Baltimore Colts before the draft that he wouldn’t sign with them if they drafted him first overall; they did, and he held his ground.
“Shortly thereafter, I took John and a couple other guys fishing,” Hughes said. “I was talking to him on the boat, and I asked him, ‘What are you going to do now?’
“He said, ‘If they don’t trade me, I’m going to play baseball.’
“I basically told him, ‘You’re full of baloney,’ or some such language. And he said, ‘I’m not kidding. I’m not playing for Baltimore. If they don’t trade me, I’m playing baseball.’
“Not much later after that, they traded him to Denver. The rest is history.”
How good of a baseball player could Elway have been?
“He could have had a long and successful career,” Hughes said. “The ability was there. He could run. He had power … a left-handed hitter with power at Yankee Stadium. He would have played a long time. Obviously, he had a good arm. He could play rightfield. It just didn’t work out for us. But I think George was happy with the outcome. He was happy that there were a lot of headline stories.”
Lynch’s story was, indeed, a completely different story. Like Elway, he attended Stanford. Unlike Elway, he quit football to concentrate on baseball.
“We drafted him, we signed him, and he goes out and ends up pitching the first game of the season (for Erie) – which made him the first pitcher in the history of the Florida Marlins’ organization,” Hughes said. A right-handed pitcher, Lynch made nine minor league starts in 1992-1993 for Erie of the New York-Penn League and Kane County in the Midwest League.
“Dennis Green was the football coach at Stanford – but then he left to become the coach of the Minnesota Vikings. When he left, Bill Walsh came back, and John came up to me and said, ‘I know I told you I quit, but I always wanted to play for Bill Walsh. Can I at least go back and play?’”
Walsh, a legendary coach, is best known for leading the 49ers to three Super Bowl championships.
“I said, ‘John, I can’t stop you from doing anything. We’ll see you next spring,’ Hughes said. “Well, next spring never occurred. He played, and Bill Walsh let the NFL people know just how good he was.”
A safety on the gridiron, Lynch was selected by Tampa Bay in the third round of the 1993 NFL draft. He went to nine Pro Bowls in 15 NFL seasons – and has been a finalist on the Pro Football Hall of Fame ballot four times.
“He had a strong arm. Obviously, he was a good athlete. He never really had a chance to develop to see how good he might have been,” Hughes said. “We were excited to get him. He threw hard. But we lost him to Bill Walsh.”