This was going to be a big year for Patrick Mahomes, no matter which of his lives he chose to live.
You know all about the one he chose. The one that led him to being the 10th selection in the NFL Draft, the Chiefs’ quarterback of the future who in his first start at Denver on Sunday will do the impossible: make a meaningless, no-stars-play, no-postseason-implications Week 17 game appointment viewing.
But these words will be about the life he could have chosen, the life many expected him to choose — the life in which he would now be one of baseball’s top pitching prospects, with a seven-figure signing bonus in his past and a big league debut coming in 2018.
“We’d be pretty similar pitchers now,” said Michael Kopech, a high school rival of Mahomes’ and now baseball’s No. 10 prospect according to MLB.com. “He was just a bulldog. To be honest, I think anyone who ever played with or against Patrick would’ve assumed he would’ve been a pro in any sport he played.”
The Chiefs have a different kind of quarterback here. The position is the single most important in major pro sports and the most lucrative in football, and that means a steady line of prospects who’ve gone to every camp, paid for lessons with every specialty coach and generally fed a cottage industry of quarterback specialization.
Josh Rosen, the UCLA quarterback and one of the top prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft, is often held up as a renaissance man because he played tennis in high school and had other interests.
But Mahomes is truly counterculture in the world of American specialized youth sports. Where Rosen didn’t play football full-time until he was a senior in high school, Mahomes didn’t play football full-time until he was a sophomore in college.
He was a good enough draft prospect that teams scouted him as both a pitcher and outfielder. He was likely a third- or fourth-round pick as a pitcher out of high school if he hadn’t told scouts he wanted to play college football, and he averaged 19 points and eight rebounds for Whitehouse High (Texas). The athletic director said there was “no doubt” Mahomes could’ve been a Division I player in that sport, too.
But Mahomes’ future was always going to be in football or baseball. His father, Pat, pitched 11 big league seasons for six teams.
“Our scouts loved him, I know that,” said Lonnie Goldberg, Royals scouting director. “I don’t think there are any givens. But he had a couple things you look for. He was loose, and athletic, and had a good arm. Where that takes him, you can’t guarantee anything. But he was a guy everyone knew about, and would’ve been scouted more if not for his interest in football.”
Mahomes had a fastball that sat around 93 mph, with some breaking pitches developing behind that.
He almost certainly wasn’t as good in any of his three sports as he could’ve been by choosing one. That showed up most obviously in baseball with his pitching mechanics (and in football, that he was in a quarterback competition as late as his junior year of high school).
But there were flashes. Even these years later, Goldberg remembered hearing about the playoff game with Mahomes and Kopech each on the mound. Kopech was great that day, too. Gave up just one hit and one run.
Because Mahomes threw a no-hitter.
“Yeah,” Kopech said. “He was a stud, man.”
Here’s another story: Whitehouse once played twice in a day. Mahomes threw a no-hitter with 16 strikeouts in a 2-1 win, and went 3-for-4 with a homer and three RBIs in a 10-3 win.
He started every position but catcher, and his high school coach called him the smartest baseball player he’d ever had. MaxPreps once wrote a 1,313 word story with the headline: Patrick Mahomes may be country’s best all-around athlete, and more.
“Humblebrag, I’m 2-for-4 off him,” Kopech said, laughing. “But the other two were strikeouts, and the only hits were on offspeed pitches. I couldn’t touch his fastball.”
Mahomes had a head start, of course. There are stories of him shagging flies in big league stadiums as a preschooler, and taking tips from Alex Rodriguez while hitting off a tee. LaTroy Hawkins, the 21-year big leaguer, is Mahomes’ godfather. When he talks about what baseball taught him, Mahomes usually mentions the work ethic of his dad and stars like Derek Jeter.
Aside from the talent, what Goldberg remembered from Mahomes in high school was the maturity. Usually, parents handle all the conversations with scouts, and that might’ve been a natural with Patrick’s father being a longtime pro.
But Patrick was the point in all of that, and was open about his commitment to football. He never told baseball scouts no, and an offer presumably could’ve been made to change his mind, but Patrick told everyone he wanted to play football and baseball in college.
It was a risk either way, but Mahomes felt more passion for football and if that sport didn’t work out, he would’ve have been the first to go back to baseball.
Mahomes became Texas Tech’s starting quarterback midway through his freshman year, when starter Davis Webb (who, coincidentally, will be active for the first time for the Giants on Sunday) was injured. The next year, Mahomes became just the 13th FBS quarterback to go over 5,000 yards of offense. That’s when he quit baseball, to concentrate full-time on football.
In another life, perhaps Mahomes would be playing across the Truman Sports Complex parking lot at Kauffman Stadium. Men with lesser gifts have done it.
But there can be no doubt he made the right decision. The Chiefs can save $17 million in 2018 salary cap space by cutting starter Alex Smith, and that’s the likeliest outcome even with Smith playing the best season of his professional life.
“Yeah, but I’m always going to look at him as a baseball guy,” Kopech said. “When you face a guy like that growing up who gives you so much trouble, you kind of hope he’s a baseball guy.”