tampabay.com

5 for the court, 4 for the links

What if the Rays dropped the gloves to take up basketball and golf?

By MARC TOPKIN
Published March 9, 2007


BRADENTON - Outfielder Carl Crawford thought his future was on the basketball court. Pitchers Chad Orvella and Jason Hammel wonder if theirs eventually could be on the golf course.

Walk through the Devil Rays clubhouse, or that of any other team, and you're bound to hear players bragging about what they could do - in another sport.

Whether it's basketball in the summeror a weekly golf or bowling tournament, there's going to be someone who could've, would've or should've had the chance to excel at something else.

"You play one sport, and you think you can play them all," Hammel said. "Or at least that's the thought."

Among the Rays, the talk is probably a little more legitimate, given some of the multisport athletes on the roster, such as Crawford (who had baseball, basketball and football offers), Rocco Baldelli (baseball, basketball, volleyball) and Elijah Dukes (baseball, football).

"With all the athletes on this team," Baldelli said, "there's probably a lot more guys who actually could play other sports."

This week, with top basketball players in Tampa for the ACC tournament and some of the PGA's best on the course at Innisbrook, the Devil Rays are talking a lot of hoops and golf.

We decided to see just how good they were by trying to put together the best basketball team and golf foursome we could among the Rays.

The basketball team might not have much height, but it should make up for it with quickness and athleticism. Seth McClung already was plotting strategy: "We'd run a little motion offense, and use our quickness on defense."

The golf team looks like a morning meeting of the pitching staff - "Like Rocco says, the pitchers are going to be the best golfers because they don't have anything else to do," infielder Greg Norton said - but has the ability to hit some long balls.

Here's the lineups:

The starting five

G Carl Crawford

He was a fleet, slashing guard at Houston's Davis High - averaging 26 points as a junior, second in scoring to current NBAer Rashard Lewis - that there was recruiting interest from NCAA power UCLA. "You ask anyone who knew me growing up and everyone thought I'd be a basketball player, not football or baseball," he said. "I thought I was going to play basketball. I thought I was going to the NBA." But he didn't want to give up his other sports to attend all the requisite camps, so he quit basketball. That doesn't mean he's lost his skills (which he said compare to NBAer Mike Bibby), or his confidence that he's the best basketball player among the Rays. "I'll play anyone in this room one-on-one," he said. "Right now."

G Ben Zobrist

He played basketball like he plays baseball - heady, fundamentally sound, pesky, always hustling. He was a high school point guard (and co-captain) who scored about 10 points a game, but did a lot more. "I played defense, passed, stole the ball, made a lot of layups," he said. Zobrist, who passed on the chance to play small college basketball, would be the perfect man on the point with his sure hands, calm approach and tireless effort. "When's our first game," he said.

C Jeff Niemann

He hasn't played competitively since being beaten out for a spot on his middle school team by current NBAer Emeka Okafor, but he has the size, at 6 feet 9 and 260 pounds, to be in the paint. "I could still go out there," he said. "This would be a sick team."

F Rocco Baldelli

He played more basketball than baseball growing up in Rhode Island, spending most of his summers on AAU hoops teams. His size (6 feet 4), speed and athleticism (a 40-inch vertical leap) made him an appealing wing man, and a number of colleges noticed. "Almost all the mail I got was basketball mail," he said. Baldelli, who had volleyball offers, figures he could have played Division I basketball, possibly for a lower-level Big East school. As for being on the Rays' starting five: "I'm in there, trust me."

F Seth McClung

McClung is something of a basketball junkie, sponsoring elite youth teams in his native West Virginia and helping coach the University of Tampa women's team. But he can play, too, boasting that he can dunk two-handed and would be the top shooter on this team, as well as the coach. He can also clog up the lane, according to Dukes, who says: "I've played with Seth. All he does is hack you like Shaq, and then tells you he won." McClung earned high school all-state honors and interest from many colleges.

BENCH: B.J. Upton - Slick, smooth and with a silky shot, he could be instant offense off the bench - but that's about it. "I'm a shooter," he said. "I don't rebound, and I don't play defense."

Elijah Dukes - Three years of high school ball and the body of a powerful power forward makes him a great addition.

Brendan Harris - Another scrapper who averaged 23 points and was sixth-team all-state in New York.

 

The foursome

Chad Orvella

Orvella may be short (5 feet 11) for a baseball player, but he is a big hitter on the golf course, regularly driving the ball 350 yards or more and usually down the middle. He usually shoots in the high 70s and occasionally in the low 80s. "My dad always wanted me to play golf," Orvella said. "He put golf clubs in my hands when I was like 2 years old." He played through high school before getting burned out, but picked it up again and is at least intrigued by the possibility of someday playing for a living.

Jason Hammel

He is the only one of the Rays who can beat Orvella, though it doesn't happen often. Hammel, too, is a long hitter and, with regular scores in the low 80s. "When I'm done with baseball I'd love to try to go out and get my tour card," Hammel said.

James Shields

His aggressiveness on the mound transfers to the course, where his game is best described as "grip it and rip it." He is another regular in the low 80s.

Scott Kazmir

Kazmir's golf game has tremendous potential but needs some polish. hHs fearlessness on the mound is a good indication he's not going to have any trouble with nerves or pressure when facing a putt on the 18th.

ALTERNATES: Akinori Iwamura - The Japanese third baseman plays right-handed (as opposed to hitting left-handed) with a 12-handicap that he is working hard to reduce.

Doug Waechter - Another solid player, St. Petersburg's own has the ability to hit it long and straight, and he has good touch around the greens.