Saturday, August 20, 2011

St. John?s signee will pursue college basketball and pro baseball

At a time when many athletes are encouraged to pick the sport they intend to specialize in before they even enter high school, St. John's signee Amir Garrett still isn't ready to give up on either basketball or baseball just yet.

Garrett signed a contract with the Cincinnati Reds on Monday that includes a $1 million signing bonus over five years, but the hard-throwing 6-foot-6 left-hander will only play professional baseball during the summer. That will allow him to spend the rest of the year playing basketball at St. John's and working toward his college degree.

Many have advised Garrett to focus on one sport or the other to maximize his pro potential in either of them, but both Garrett and his father believe it's wiser to keep his options open for now.

How can he give up on basketball when he's a consensus top 100 prospect headed to a Big East school despite playing the sport competitively for the first time in ninth grade? And how can he give up on baseball when he's still able to hit 96 miles per hour on a radar gun despite not stepping on a mound for months at a time during most of his high school career?

"People always ask me, 'How do you know your son can do this?'" Darrow Garrett, Amir's father, said by phone. "The only answer I can give them is that's what he does, that's what he's been doing. I wish the kid could have one whole year of baseball or one whole year of basketball, but ever since he was little it has been baseball in the morning, basketball in the evening or vice versa. It's the competitive drive he has in him that you can't teach. That's why he's reaching all these goals and getting all these accolades. He just gets it done."

That Garrett is a Major League prospect as a pitcher surprised many in basketball circles who had no idea baseball was his first love. Garrett spent his senior year at Findlay Prep, a Las Vegas basketball power that doesn't even have a baseball program, because he and his father believed the hoops exposure he would receive there was worth putting pitching on the back burner at the time.

Garrett hadn't pitched in an organized game in nearly a full year when he began working with College of Southern Nevada pitching coach Nick Aiello three times a week in March to strengthen his arm and hone his mechanics prior to the Major League draft. Within weeks, Garrett could consistently sling the ball in the mid-90s, prompting Aiello to call every Major League scout he knew and stake his reputation on Garrett's rocket arm.

"He picked everything so fast I was blown away," Aiello said in June on the eve of the draft. "The next thing I know he's throwing 92 to 96 in front of 40 scouts. It was unreal. It was absolutely the most bananas thing I've ever seen on a baseball diamond."

Although Garrett's live arm, imposing frame and lack of wear and tear were enough to make Baseball America label him a top 200 prospect in last June's draft, concerns about whether a Major League team would be able to sign him caused him to slide. Even after Cincinnati drafted him in the 22nd round, the Reds needed to see him pitch again before they were willing to invest a large signing bonus in such an unproven talent.

Garrett had already enrolled in summer classes at St. John's, so the Reds arranged for him to pitch in a New York summer league. He threw three no-hit innings despite not knowing a single player on either team, a feat that made the Reds get serious about signing Garrett.

Darrow Garrett said it would have taken a signing bonus of "more than a few million" to persuade his son to break his promise to St. John's coach Steve Lavin and walk away from basketball for good. The Reds had no interest in investing that much in Garrett, but they eventually offered a $1 million signing bonus paid in installments over five years in order to minimize the risk of Garrett taking the money and then focusing on basketball.

"That was a fair contract because they're taking a risk," Darrow said. "They were concerned about him coming in, grabbing the money and taking off. We understood teams didn't want to waste money. Everyone's looking out for their best interests."

That certainly includes the Darrow and Amir Garrett, who will reevaluate their two-sport plan every semester in order to make sure circumstances haven't changed. They both know that very few athletes have succeeded in pro baseball and college basketball at the same time, but they still believe it's a good risk.

"I think he can do both," Darrow said. "There's not to many people who have done this and those who have done it we've never met, so we're just going to jump right off this cliff and learn to fly on the way down."


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