McGrady simply loves baseball

Tracy McGrady was a highlight machine at the peak of his NBA career, but he's planning to take a subtler, more nuanced approach in his quest to pitch professionally with the Atlantic League's Sugar Land Skeeters. Yes, his fastball checks in at a Barry Zito-like 85 mph. But he complements it with a curveball, changeup, slider and a splitter. If he can add one or two more pitches to his repertoire, he'll be approaching Daisuke Matsuzaka territory.

The other aspects of McGrady's game -- from fielding his position to holding baserunners -- continue to evolve. He's working out three days a week in Houston with the help of former big-leaguer-turned-Arizona Diamondbacks scout Scipio Spinks, and recently enjoyed a one-day lesson in the art of pitching from a guy named Roger Clemens.

Why would a star athlete who earned a reported $163 million (give or take) subject himself to this type of grind, and try playing a sport where he's going to be regarded as a curiosity at best and risk embarrassment or injury at worst?

Would it be too sappy to suggest McGrady is doing it because he's eternally smitten by what baseball has to offer? McGrady spoke by phone Tuesday night about his quest to reinvent himself, and the enthusiasm was evident in his voice.

"I've thought about this since high school," McGrady said. "For 16 years, I've told people I'm a baseball player and how much I love baseball. We have an independent league team right here in my backyard. I'm five minutes away from the stadium. So I had to give it a shot.

"This is a story of someone who is truly, genuinely playing for the love of the game. I made a lot of money during my NBA career. This is for the sheer love of playing baseball."

When word leaked out over the weekend that McGrady wanted to pitch for the Skeeters, I put out an all-points bulletin to MLB scouting directors in hopes of finding someone who might have a warm memory of his high school days in Auburndale, Fla., or Durham, N.C.

The reaction was less than muted. These scouts never forget a prospect, and not a single one recalled a smidge of an iota of a detail about McGrady as a baseball player. Even the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau, which tracks aspiring professionals of all shapes, sizes and talent levels, didn't have a file on him.

But McGrady's ardor for baseball is legit. Growing up in Florida, he made a habit of watching the Yankees, Braves and Cubs on television. His favorite player was Ken Griffey Jr., who eventually became his neighbor in the fashionable Isleworth community in Orlando.

A 1997 Washington Post profile wrote of how McGrady, as a 12-year-old Little Leaguer in Florida, would step to the plate, point to the fence and go deep, a la Babe Ruth. His friends insisted that if he had stuck with baseball, he could have been a big leaguer.

McGrady obviously made the right choice. After some ups and downs and a little arm trouble as a pitcher in Auburndale, he transferred to Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham for his senior year of high school. Mount Zion didn't have a baseball team and the big NBA money began to beckon, so he packed away his cleats and focused strictly on hoops. McGrady signed with the Toronto Raptors as the ninth overall pick in the 1997 draft directly out of high school, and went on to make seven All-Star teams and score 18,381 points in the NBA.

Now, at age 34, he's back to square one. If he does manage to land that spot with Sugar Land, the hitters will tell him if his mid-80s fastball is sufficient. Unless, of course, he's able to nudge it up a couple of ticks.

"I'm sure I'll throw a lot harder in a game," McGrady said. "There's no adrenaline right now. It's just like in basketball. I hated practice. I'm not saying I hate practicing baseball. But it's just not the same feeling as when those lights are bright and the seats are filled.

"Right now I'm in the tutorial stage, learning pickoffs and other stuff. I'm really not concentrating on velocity. I need to get the other things down pat."

McGrady and his wife, CleRenda, have four children -- sons Layden and Laymen and daughters Layla and Laycee -- and the entire family is on board with this whole baseball adventure. He's received an invitation to the Skeeters' spring camp on April 14, so he has roughly 10 more weeks to prepare. If he ever gets a whiff of the Atlantic League, it's sure to be a boon to Sugar Land's ticket sales and concession receipts. As of Tuesday night, McGrady could barely keep pace with the media requests.

"I've been answering a lot of text messages and phone calls," McGrady said. "The reception from this has been overwhelming. It's been unbelievable, the amount of press we've been getting."

Maybe he's not quite Michael Jordan walking away from basketball at the peak of his career to take a crack with the Chicago White Sox organization. There's still nothing the press likes more than a fish out of water. Unless it's a dreamer.