Tracy McGrady lasted one and two-thirds innings in his professional baseball debut, and laugh at that if you will, but only once did he work this deep into May in his entire 16-year NBA career.
His adopted sport, therefore, affords him a chance to throw us all for a changeup. And speaking of his best pitch, T-Mac used it Saturday to raise the curiosity level significantly of a crowd that came to see a bigger fish out of water than any beached whale. A 6-foot-8, lanky, 34-year-old rookie right-hander had the anxious giddy up of a teenager, and he looked … what’s the word? Not “promising” or even “good.” Content, that’s it. It was strange, and he seemed out of uniform, and you almost expected him to toss a finger roll off the mound. But content.
“Had a great time,” he said. “A lot of nerves running through my body.”
A potential Hall of Fame basketball player who always wanted to play every minute of every game was on a pitch count and didn’t seem to mind getting pulled early. Really, what’s to be annoyed about? He’s easily the main attraction of the Sugar Land Skeeters and perhaps the entire Atlantic League, and he’s able to live out a mid-life fantasy, and he can pursue and satisfy his baseball jones without any pressure to perform at a high level, and if this mushrooms into something more than a novelty act, at the very least he can say he was better than Michael Jordan at something.
“If this is the only time I pitch this season, it’s a gratifying feeling,” he said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, ever since I started training for it.”
He’s not aiming for the major leagues and perhaps it’s just as well. His night was over after 35 pitches and five outs. He faced nine batters, walked two, struck out none, allowed two runs and tossed 18 strikes against the Somerset Patriots, who won’t flood the major leagues with talent anytime soon. In the baseball vernacular, he was roughed up and yet still walked off the mound with a smile bigger than his 10.80 ERA.
“I give myself a B-minus,” he said. “All in all, I did pretty well. I was just trying to relax and keep my composure. This is different territory for me.”
There’s no harm in doing a labor of love, even if it means long bus rides to games, staying in budget motels and essentially working for free. After spending his final sunset NBA season in San Antonio, and coming so close to finally winning a championship ring last June — damn you, Ray Allen — and having tired of playing overseas, McGrady swapped his sneakers for cleats and here he is.
That McGrady is able to play baseball anywhere on any level says plenty about the kind of athlete he is. How many NFL players could make a D-League team, for example? Or hockey players? The best all-around athletes are in basketball, and while baseball is mainly about technique — hitting, pitching, etc., things that take years to develop — a good athlete can at least be a pinch-runner or shag flies in the outfield if he can catch.
McGrady had a highlight-filled NBA career even if none of those highlights involved lifting a championship trophy. He could score from almost anywhere, and in his prime was regarded as the two or three best at his position. Bad luck with injuries and lousy timing with the Magic (who lost Grant Hill) and Rockets (who lost Yao Ming) conspired to keep him from reaching the second round of the playoffs, and only when the Spurs signed him late last season did he make it to the third week of May. At that stage of his career, only his ego was healthy.
This idea about giving baseball a try was hatched with the help of his neighbor, Roger Clemens. The Rocket’s son Koby is a catcher with the Skeeters and McGrady would often pitch, just for fun, with the family at the Clemens compound, which has a batting cage and regulation pitcher’s mound on the property. One conversation led to another and suddenly, McGrady began to take things seriously. All winter, he sought advice and was given lessons from Clemens, who pitched for the Skeeters two years ago at age 50. McGrady worked arm muscles that hadn’t been groomed since he was a high school junior.
He transferred to another school for his senior season — basketball reasons — but Mt. Zion Christian Academy didn’t have a baseball team and so his two-sport life ended. Perhaps for the better, as well; McGrady went straight from high school to the NBA and long story short became a seven-time All-Star and two-time scoring champ. The length of the NBA schedule made it near impossible for McGrady to pull a Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders and give two sports a try in the same year. And anyway, McGrady never seriously thought about it, at least not seriously enough to take any action.
In retirement, though, one can get all sorts of antsy. For McGrady, baseball is a way to keep his competitive spirit alive and to simply connect with baseball from point-blank range without needing it to prove a point or earn a living.
“I’m just out here to have fun,” he said. “No money, just the love for the game.”
For someone who lacks experience and is finally turning to the game at such an advanced age, what McGrady is doing makes little sense. But that all depends on how you look at it. If he sincerely hopes to reach the majors or even the minors, that would be a stretch (although, in his wildest dreams, T-Mac would love that). If he’s just looking for a release and an excuse to stay involved in sports, which he says is the case, then it’s harmless. For the Skeeters, he’ll sell tickets whenever he pitches. Otherwise, the club, like others in the independent league, is lucky to get a few thousand fans a game.
His only concern is being viewed as a joke, and he realizes that’s a possibility. In a warm-up exhibition game last month, McGrady surrendered three hits in one inning against a community college. And his debut Saturday didn’t exactly make anyone believe he could last three innings, much less a complete game. So he’s trying to look the part, at least.
“I’m working every day to get better, just to get into a good flow,” he said.
McGrady worked with Clemens on a split-fingered fastball, curveball and slider, in addition to the changeup. That’s a lot of arm motion for someone who hadn’t pitched in 18 years, and even then, only on the high school level. McGrady is throwing 85 mph but his control isn’t terrible for someone with his circumstances. His arm strength and mechanics are a work in progress and it’s a good thing he can fall back on his enthusiasm, which is the best thing he has going for him.
After his debut, he said baseball teams “aren’t used to seeing a 6-8 guy on the mound pitching to them.” No, they aren’t, especially when such guy was drawing an NBA paycheck just a year ago.
He had a handful of good seasons for the Houston Rockets, but they’ve since added James Harden and Dwight Howard and are good for now. That said, it’s too bad T-Mac is taking up baseball late in his athletic career. The major league team in his current town could use some help.