March Madness is in full swing, with brackets across the country being busted every few hours (especially with the #1-seeded University of Virginia’s shocking loss late Friday night to 16-seed University of Maryland, Baltimore County).
The chances that players in the tournament turn up at the Major League level in the near future are mighty slim, but it does happen on occasion as a dozen former college basketball players who have played in the yearly March playoff have found later employment following their hoops careers on a big league diamond.
Four of the eleven men to do so have spent time on the shores of Lake Erie, including one Hall of Fame outfielder, another who was a Cooperstown snub, and a pair of pitchers.
One of the more beloved players from the Indians’ glory days of the 1990s, Kenny Lofton got his first taste of stardom at the University of Arizona, where he attended college on a basketball scholarship. The junior Lofton was a backup on the Wildcats’ club that reached the Final Four of the Dance in 1988, backing up point guard Steve Kerr, who has his own ties to Cleveland as a former guard for the NBA’s Cavaliers and the current head coach of their rivals, the Golden State Warriors.
The Wildcats, the #1 seed in the West after a 31-2 record under Lute Olson during the regular season and conference tournament, won by 40 points over #16 Cornell and won by 29 over #8 Seton Hall in the second round. They enjoyed a 20-point blowout of #5 Iowa in the West Regional Semifinal and knocked off the #2 North Carolina squad (which included future NBA players J.R. Reid, Scott Williams, and Rick Fox) in a 70-52 decision. Within a win of the title game, Arizona fell 86-78 to the #1 seed out of the Southwest, Oklahoma, and their big names, Stacey King, Harvey Grant, and Mookie Blaylock, bringing an end to their 1987-88 season.
The athletic and high-flying Lofton averaged 4.7 points in 38 games that season while shooting 53.4% from the field. It was during this same junior year that he joined the baseball team, but he played in just five games and made it to the plate for just one official at bat. Despite a lack of game evidence indicating that he had the skill set to play professional baseball, he caught the eyes of scouts and the Houston Astros selected him in the 17th round of the draft that summer.
Lofton took over more of the duties at the point in the 1988-89 season in his senior year for the ‘Cats, teaming with fellow fourth-year man Sean Elliott. They were again a #1 seed in the West, defeating Robert Morris, 94-60, in the first round and #9 Clemson, 94-68, in the second round before a heartbreaking upset loss to #4 UNLV in the regional semifinal (Sweet 16), bringing Lofton’s collegiate career to a close. He played 33 games that season for Arizona, averaging 5.5 points, 4.1 assists, and 2.0 steals per game, all career bests. He was the school’s all-time steals leader when his career ended.
His baseball transition was slow, as he hit .214 in his first pro season for the Astros in 1988, but his speed was evident and his bat came along. He stole 40 bases and hit .292 in 56 games in 1989 in A-ball, then hit .331 with 62 swiped bags at High-A in 1990 while fully focused on baseball. He made the jump to Triple-A in 1991, hitting .308 with 40 more stolen bases and 17 triples and made his MLB debut in mid-September, logging 20 games of action while hitting .203.
The Astros had a young and crowded outfield at the time, with Luis Gonzalez and Steve Finley just making their marks on the big league stage. Eric Anthony was ready to make the jump as well, making Lofton a bit expendable. He would find a new home in Cleveland, which dealt for him and Dave Rohde in December of 1991 in exchange for catcher Eddie Taubensee and pitcher Willie Blair.
The rest was history as Lofton spent ten years in Cleveland and a year or less with nine other organizations outside of Houston during his 17-year career. He finished with a lifetime slash of .299/.372/.423 while stealing 622 bases, 15th-most in MLB history. He also remains one of just two players to appear in a Final Four and in the World Series.
Another big name player to go to the Dance and spend times in the Majors shared time in Cleveland with Lofton. Outfielder Dave Winfield, on the final leg of his 22-year MLB career and relegated to designated hitter’s work, signed with the Indians to provide veteran leadership to the young Tribe club. The 43-year-old played in 46 games for Cleveland, batting .191 while hitting the final two of his 465 career home runs. He did not appear during the team’s postseason run, but he was part of Toronto’s World Series winning club in 1992 in one of the two playoff appearances of his career.
Before his big league heyday, Winfield was a three-sport superstar in high school and earned a full baseball scholarship to the University of Minnesota, with whom he also played college basketball. On the courts, the power forward helped lead his team to its first Big Ten Championship in 53 years. In the tournament, his Golden Gophers were eliminated by Florida State in the second round. His time on the hardwood for Minnesota, however, was marred by an ugly brawl that occurred against the Ohio State University on January 25, 1972, when three Buckeyes players ended up hospitalized following a sudden fight that occurred in the final minute of a game with Minnesota down six points. Winfield threw several punches from behind to the head of Ohio State’s Mark Wagar. Fans of the Gophers also chipped in, both before the melee and during. Two of Winfield’s teammates would be suspended for the remainder of the year, while he saw more time on the court with the “Iron Five” due to the lack of available talent on former Ashland coach Bill Musselman’s roster.
Winfield would have plenty of suitors and job options as his collegiate playing days ended. After being a 40th round selection by the Baltimore Orioles out of high school in 1969, the MVP of the College World Series in 1973 was selected fourth overall by the San Diego Padres in that year’s draft – as a pitcher. He would also be selected in the drafts for both professional basketball leagues of the times, the Atlanta Hawks (NBA) and the Utah Stars (ABA). He was such a gifted athlete that, despite never playing football at the college level, the hometown Minnesota Vikings of the NFL picked him with their 17th round selection, making him one of just six players to be drafted in three different professional sports.
Baseball would be Winfield’s calling and he would take the field for the Padres less than two weeks after being drafted. He played for San Diego from 1973 to 1980, making four All-Star teams and winning one Gold Glove before signing with the New York Yankees in free agency. He would play his way onto eight straight All-Star teams for the Yankees from 1981 to 1988, winning five more Gold Gloves and five Silver Slugger awards before spending time with the California Angels, the Toronto Blue Jays, the Minnesota Twins, and finally, the Indians.
Winfield remains active within MLB today, serving as a special assistant to the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, Tony Clark, who like Winfield, is another one of the eleven men to have played in the NCAA Tournament and MLB.
Tim Stoddard, the only other man to play in a Final Four and a World Series, took the Major League mound 485 times (all in relief) over a 13-year career. Before that, the 6’7” hurler and hoopster spent time at Washington High School in East Chicago, Indiana, incidentally the same high school that produced Lofton.
Stoddard attended North Carolina State and was a starting forward for the Wolfpack. In his first year, the club went 27-0 during the 1972-73 season and won the ACC championship, but were excluded from tournament play due to recruiting violations around player David Thompson. NC State went a combined 30-1 the next year, breezing through the East bracket with wins over Providence and Pittsburgh before an 80-77 Final Four win over UCLA. The Wolfpack won the whole tournament with a 76-64 win over Marquette in the Finals.
He wrapped up a final season at NC State in 1974-75. Meanwhile, his baseball prowess had also caught eyes, as he was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the 25th round of the 1974 draft. He did not sign and was selected again, this time in the second round in January of 1975 by the Chicago White Sox. After his second selection, he signed, and he debuted professionally that season and even made an appearance for the Sox’s parent club before year’s end. He spent 1976 in the minors but was released and later signed with Baltimore, where he would have his most sustained success.
Stoddard spent six years with the Orioles and later spent a year with the Chicago Cubs and parts of two seasons with the Padres before he was traded to the Yankees (where he was a teammate of Winfield’s). He signed with the Indians in 1989 and pitched in 14 games, failing to post a record in 21 1/3 innings before his release midseason.
He spent more than 20 years after his playing career serving as the pitching coach for Northwestern University and the last two years as a pitching coach for North Central College. He also has an acting credit to his claim, appearing as a Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher in the movie Rookie of the Year.
Steve Hamilton, champion of the “folly floater” eephus pitch, spent 12 seasons in the Majors as a left-handed pitcher after making a pair of appearances in the NCAA college basketball tournament.
The Kentucky native stayed home for school, going to Morehead State University. He was part of the baseball and basketball programs during his time at the university from 1954 to 1958 and was named to the school’s Hall of Fame in 1985. He averaged 16.4 rebounds per game and once pulled in 38 in a game. He led Morehead State to its first two NCAA Tournament appearances, losing in the Sweet Sixteen to Iowa in 1956 and losing in the Round of 23 game against Pittsburgh in 1957, 86-85.
“Gomer” was signed by the Indians ahead of the 1958 season, but he appeared in just two games for the big league club in 1961 before he was traded to the Washington Senators early in the 1962 season. During the same time that he was working his way through the Indians farm system, Hamilton was also a pro basketball player, suiting up as a power forward and center for the Minneapolis Lakers for a pair of seasons (1958-59; 1959-60).
Hamilton would stick to baseball from there and would log a dozen years at the Major League level, playing for the Yankees, White Sox, Giants, and Cubs. His best years came in New York, where he served the club regularly in relief. He became known for his “folly floater”, better left shown in the video below (incidentally, while pitching for the Yankees against Cleveland’s Tony Horton).
Following his pro careers, he came home to Morehead State to coach the baseball team, something that he did for ten seasons while winning four division championships and one regular season title. His teams made a pair of trips to baseball’s NCAA tournament and he was a four-time winner of the Ohio Valley Conference’s Coach of the Year award. He took over as the school’s Athletic Director in 1988, a role that he held until his death in 1997.
In addition to the above four players and MLBPA Executive Director Clark, Danny Ainge, Dave DeBusschere, Cotton Nash, Ron Reed, Dick Ricketts, and Randy Winn have appeared in the Majors and in the NCAA Basketball tournament.
Photo: Elizabeth Mangelsdorf/Arizona Daily Star (Tucson.com)