Long before “The Drive” and those two Super Bowl victories, there were the throws from right field.
Thirty years after John Elway played his one and only season of minor league baseball for the Oneonta Yankees in 1982, his manager still recalls the way the future Hall of Fame quarterback would make baserunners pay for challenging his arm.
Ken Berry, a former Gold Glove outfielder who managed Oneonta that season, remembers one throw in particular.
“Ball went to the fence in right field, and it was a pretty deep right field, and the guy was trying for a triple,” Berry says. “And [Elway] picked the ball up and turned, took just a short crow hop and threw it all the way in the air right to the third baseman. The ball got there about 20 feet before the guy did. It was the kind of throw you see guys make when they charge the ball, and they’ve got their feet going underneath them, and they really drive off and release it, and it’s on a line and very accurate.
“Well this, he just picked it up and turned and threw it. So I knew I was looking at something special.”
Special indeed, but it would be in a football helmet that Elway would achieve greatness. Although Elway hit .318 in 42 games that season for Oneonta, he went back to Stanford that fall for his senior season and became the No. 1 overall pick of the 1983 NFL draft, launching a stellar 16-year football career.
Berry and some of Elway’s teammates in Oneonta insist he could have been a major league outfielder -- perhaps even a very good one -- but nobody doubts that Elway made the right choice in going with football over baseball.
After watching Elway play some televised games for Stanford that fall after his summer in Oneonta, Berry says, “It was pretty easy to see that football should be his sport.”
* * *
After being drafted by the New York Yankees in June 1981 in the second round and collecting $140,000 from George Steinbrenner to sign, Elway went to the Yankees’ minor league complex for a week of training during his spring break from Stanford.
It was there -- with Steinbrenner watching -- that he wowed the Boss.
According to a story in Yankees Magazine in 2011, the left-handed-hitting Elway dropped a perfect bunt on his first pitch in the batting cage, hit a liner to left on the second pitch and then hit a ball over the right-field fence on pitch No. 3 -- all just as a Yankees coach had asked him to do.
Suddenly, Steinbrenner thought he had the next baseball superstar.
“Right then I knew,” Steinbrenner said at the time. “He will be a great outfielder for me, in the great tradition of Mantle, Maris, DiMaggio and all the others.”
It didn’t quite play out that way, however, as the next Mantle started out 2-for-22 that June for Oneonta, a member of the short-season Class A New York-Penn League.
Although Elway had been a standout high school player -- batting .551 and .491 his junior and senior seasons before being drafted by the Royals in the 18th round in 1979 -- he was rusty and raw.
He hadn’t played since his sophomore season at Stanford (when he hit .361) and had to adjust to using a wooden bat.
It took awhile to find his swing -- he said extra sessions with Berry helped -- but soon he fell into his groove.
That summer he not only batted better than .300 but hit four home runs, drove in 25, scored 26, stole 13 bases and walked more than he struck out (28 to 25) with a .432 on-base percentage.
He was on a team with some good prospects, including future major league pitchers Jim Deshaies, Tim Birtsas and Jim Corsi, as well as first baseman Orestes Destrade.
Despite the fact that Elway was a national name, already had been the Pac-10 player of the year in 1980 and was about to become a very rich young man -- coveted by the NFL with the leverage of a baseball contract with the Yankees to use as a bargaining chip -- his teammates that season say he was just one of the guys.
Even with media dropping in from all over the country to talk to the wonder-boy quarterback who was playing baseball, Berry says Elway was “real low-key” and a leader who other players looked up to.
“He didn’t flaunt it or anything,” says Berry, who now lives in Topeka, Kan. “He just fit right in with everybody and didn’t make a big deal about who he was or what he was there for.”
Says Deshaies, who pitched 12 years in the majors: “He was real good about not big-leaguing people. Obviously there was a lot of attention everywhere we went. Bud Greenspan came to town to do a piece on him and followed him around for a couple of days. … You know, as you would expect, guys were taking shots at him, teammates were trying to get his goat a little bit, but he played along. He was real good.”
Obviously, says Deshaies, a few more fans would show up to Oneonta games because of the curiosity factor. They wanted to see a Heisman Trophy candidate “more than the rest of us,” he says.
Deshaies remembers how Elway was one of about a dozen players who roomed in a frat house not far from the ballpark that summer, and they all had fun.
“We went out and threw the football around a little in the street,” he says, “so that was kinda neat.”
Elway, now the Denver Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations, politely declined a recent
interview request to discuss his one-year baseball career -- something about being busy putting an NFL team together -- but said he talked about that topic at length for Yankees Magazine last year.
In that story, he recalled the minor league lifestyle and how he adapted to it as the summer wore on, getting to the park at 4 p.m. each day, staying up late, sleeping in and spending almost every waking hour with his teammates.
“I enjoyed traveling on the buses, and we went to a local pizza parlor for dinner and a few beers after every home game, and that was always a great time,” he told the magazine. “None of us had cars, so we walked to the park every day. We walked to the pizza parlor after the games and walked home after that. It was a great experience for me.”
Birtsas, who had been the Yankees’ top pick that June, was tagged to room with Elway for a few games on the road when he first arrived, and said Elway was totally “down to earth” but carried himself the way many great athletes do.
“He wasn’t arrogant at all,” Birtsas says. “He was confident, and you’ve got to have that confidence. But no, he didn’t think he was better than anybody else.”
Although Elway took baseball seriously -- he worked and played hard -- Deshaies says he never got the impression Elway was going to turn his back on football.
“I think he had his mind set on football all along. I think it was a nice, lucrative summer job for him,” he says, laughing. “George [Steinbrenner] probably thought he could convince him to play baseball. Or he certainly wanted to be the guy that had him. … But John basically told us he was going to play football.”
* * *
One of Berry’s tasks was to rate every player on his team for the Yankees' organization.
He projected Elway as a guy who could become a future major league right fielder, had a “way, way above-average arm” and could probably hit 15 home runs a season -- or more if he polished his swing.
His teammates saw a 6-foot-3, 205-pound 22-year-old who could do just about anything, the type of athlete who could excel at baseball and football, become a scratch golfer or beat you in basketball or tennis.
He often bunted for base hits, Deshaies says, and had surprising speed. He hit doubles and covered the outfield. He was a big guy who could “play the little man’s game,” Deshaies says.
“People don’t talk about it, but he could run,” says Birtsas, now in real estate and development in Michigan. “He could get from home plate to first in a hurry.”
To Birtsas, Elway was a bit like a future teammate on the Reds, outfielder Paul O’Neill. He could do anything well. Plus, Birtsas says, he had that intangible quality that he showed so often as a Broncos quarterback: taking over games.
“He’s a winner, you know?” he says. “It’s like those guys that are dangerous. Kirk Gibson might have hit .270 for his career, but I wouldn’t want to face him in the ninth inning. Like that.”
Late in the year, Elway had to leave before the playoffs to go back to Stanford for his senior season. The outfielder called up from Paintsville, Ky., to replace him was Dan Pasqua, who went on to play 10 big league seasons. Although Pasqua and Elway never played together, Pasqua said his new teammates were still talking about Elway’s “great, raw tools” when he arrived.
The arm, of course, was the one thing that stood out to everyone. Later, receivers in the NFL would bear the mark of the “Elway Cross” -- the point of the football on their chests -- left by passes that rocketed right through their hands.
Birtsas still talks about Elway’s “unbelievable arm strength” and the throws he could make to home or third.
“He probably had the potential to have an arm like Roberto Clemente,” Birtsas says. “He had that kind of an arm. It was a gift. I know that he worked hard and he worked out and I’m sure he lifted weights, but a lot of that was just flat-out natural talent.”
Birtsas believes Elway “would have been in the big leagues in two years” if he’d stuck with baseball.
By the end of his baseball summer, Elway, too, believed that sport was a realistic option.
“Finishing the season the way I did gave me a lot of confidence that I could play baseball at a high level,” he told Yankees Magazine. “I was going right into my senior football season, and I was really looking forward to that.
“But baseball had become a viable option for me that summer. I enjoyed playing baseball every day, and I was confident because I had some success. I left there thinking, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen, but this is something I would definitely be happy doing for a long time.'”
Wearing pinstripes in Yankee Stadium, however, wasn’t in his future.
Today, a 1982 mint-condition baseball card of Elway, showing the young outfielder on one knee, a bat balanced on his leg and a smile on his face under an Oneonta cap, will fetch about $400 on eBay.
To Elway, though, that summer of '82 was priceless. He says he was proud he was a Yankee and says he still reminisces about playing ball, hanging with his teammates, the late-night pizza and the fact he probably could have played in the big leagues.
Said Elway last year: “I think about that all the time, even though my football career turned out the way it did.”