They’re giving out the Heisman Trophy tomorrow, as they are wont to do at this time of year. Not everyone is aware that baseball has an equivalent award for its collegiate stars. Obviously, it’s one that suffers from being in the long shadow of the much older football award. The Heisman began life in 1935, while the Golden Spikes didn’t come along until 1978.
Since everyone has Heisman fever, I thought it would be interesting to compare the winners of each award by year and see how they fared as professionals. While these awards were never meant to be predictors of professional performance, that doesn’t mean we can’t use them as such, what with free speech and all. Here, in chronological order, is my assessment of which of the collegiate winners won the post-award battle.
1978: Bob Horner (Arizona State University) vs. Billy Sims (University of Oklahoma). A high-caliber running back who is done by the time he is 30 is pretty common. There are quite a few on this list. A top-rated third baseman, though? Not so. Horner was overrated in his time but could have, with better self-discipline, had a better career than he did. The nation got to see Sims at Thanksgiving every year as he ran his way from Detroit toward Canton. A knee injury got in the way of that. Advantage: football.
1979: Tim Wallach (California State University, Fullerton) vs. Charles White (University of Southern California). White had one big year (1987) and a few seasons in which he caught a pretty good number of passes coming out of the backfield. Wallach made the All-Star team five times and was respected with the bat and in the field. Advantage: baseball.
1980:Terry Francona (University of Arizona) vs. George Rogers (University of South Carolina). Rogers made the Pro Bowl his first two seasons in the NFL and closed out his fairly brief career as a running back with the Super Bowl champion Redskins in 1987. He rushed for 1,000 yards four times and scored 54 touchdowns. Some personal problems and a toe injury kept him from being all he could be. Francona was never more than a platoon player in his 10 seasons in the majors, although he did once played third base, notable because he threw left-handed. Advantage: football.
1981: Mike Fuentes (Florida State University) vs. Marcus Allen (University of Southern California). Fuentes was taken in the second round of the Rule 4 draft by the Montreal Expos, giving them their third consecutive Golden Spikes winner. How did this pan out for them? Very well…provided you are the sort that takes an extremely bright view of everything. In four games in late 1983, all three of their Golden Spikers–Wallach, Francona and Fuentes–appeared in the same game. The results? A 3-1 record, although it should be pointed out that Fuentes had just one at-bat in those three contests. He got into three more games in 1984 and that was it for his big-league career. Allen, of whom you may have heard, is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Advantage: football.
1983: Dave Magadan (University of Alabama) vs. Mike Rozier (University of Nebraska). When Magadan came up with the Mets in 1986, he had the look of the next Wade Boggs. He never developed the power necessary to hold down a full-time job on somebody’s corner, but he had a long run and finished with a career .290 EqA–nothing to sneeze at. Much more was expected from Rozier, but his career just never quite got to the lofty heights that were predicted for him. Advantage: baseball
1984: Oddibe McDowell (Arizona State University) vs. Doug Flutie (Boston College). Save for a brief comeback in 1994, McDowell has been essentially done since the administration of George the Elder. Flutie, on the other hand, actually got into a game this year–not that that alone should be the criterion. Flutie has spent most of his post-collegiate life as the outsider, but did have the big years with Buffalo in 1998 and 1999. Had McDowell been able to build on what he showed in his first two seasons, this would be a lot harder to pick. Advantage: football.
1985: Will Clark (Mississippi State University) University vs. Bo Jackson (Auburn University). Jackson’s yards/carry numbers would make Jim Brown blush: 6.8, 4.3, 5.5 and 5.6. Staggering stuff. His split career costs him in a comparison with Clark, however. The years spent learning baseball undo him in this face-off, injury or no. Advantage: baseball.
1986: Mike Loynd (Florida State University) vs. Vinny Testaverde (University of Miami). Loynd’s was an extremely short trip to the majors. He was taken in the seventh round by the Rangers and, after less than 30 innings at Tulsa (where he put up a 31/3 K/BB), he was starting against Hall of Famer Phil Niekro and the Indians. (Is that the fastest-ever rise for a seventh-rounder?) By the end of the following season, his big-league career was over. Testaverde has played for very few winning teams in his long career, but he has, at least, played–and still is, actually. Advantage: football.
1988: Robin Ventura (Oklahoma State University) vs. Barry Sanders (Oklahoma State University). The only instance, so far, where both winners were from the same school. Too bad for the baseball cause that one of the better players ever to win the Golden Spikes comes up against one of the greatest running backs of all time. Advantage: football.
1989: Ben McDonald (Louisiana State University) vs. Andre Ware (University of Houston). Ware didn’t play much in the NFL. When it didn’t work out there, he didn’t fare much better in the Canadian Football League, either. The Lions, the team that drafted him and gave him a $1 million bonus, could have used a football equivalent of the Davenport Translations on his run-and-gun college career. If McDonald’s shoulder hadn’t gone south on him for good in 1998, he would have just signed with Toronto for four years and $44 million. Advantage: baseball.
1991: Mike Kelly (Arizona State University) vs. Desmond Howard (University of Michigan). Kelly’s high-water mark was a 1.8 WARP1 with Cincinnati in 1997. It earned him a trip to the expansion Devil Rays where he managed a 1.2. That was pretty much the end of his big-league career, as he never hit quite enough to hold down a corner outfield spot. Howard’s career would have been similarly disappointing had he not discovered the joys of special-teams work. He went insane in the 1996 postseason, culminating in a Super Bowl MVP. He also had a Pro Bowl appearance four years later. Advantage: football.
1992: Phil Nevin (California State University, Fullerton) vs. Gino Torretta (University of Miami). 8-to-5. That’s the ratio of number of times waived to number of games played for Torretta in his NFL career. Nevin has certainly had his share of disappointments, but he’s got a great year to his credit (2001) and still has a career. Advantage: baseball.
1993: Darren Dreifort (Wichita State University) vs. Charlie Ward (Florida State University). Dreifort may have been the signatory to one of the more infamously misguided contracts of the past decade, but at least he stayed in the sport for which he was rewarded in college. He wins this one by default as Ward wasn’t even selected in the NFL draft and opted instead for a career in the NBA. Advantage: baseball.
1994: Jason Varitek (Georgia Institute of Technology) vs. Rashaan Salaam (University of Colorado). Just about anybody can rush for 1,000 yards in a 16-game season if they get the ball enough. Salaam did it as a rookie while averaging just 3.6 yards a carry. Off the field, it was a case of life imitating art. Unfortunately, that art was Reefer Madness. Last seen in the XFL. Varitek is still going strong, posting his second straight .300 EqA in 2005. Advantage: baseball.
1995: Mark Kotsay (California State University, Fullerton) vs. Eddie George (Ohio State University). George was a grinder who churned his way into the top 20 all-time in rushing yardage. Doing so took its toll, as it always must in the cruel world of the NFL. Kotsay is in the midst of an OK career. He was excellent in 2004 with an 8.8 WARP3. 5.5 to 6.0 is more his usual speed, though. Advantage: football.
1996: Travis Lee (San Diego State University) vs. Danny Wuerffel (University of Florida). To date, Lee has had one pretty good season (2003). To best Wuerffel’s 23-game NFL career, that’s all he needs, really. Advantage: baseball.
1997: J.D. Drew (Florida State University) vs. Charles Woodson (University of Michigan). Drew has now appeared in eight seasons and qualified for the batting title once. Woodson–the only defensive player to appear on this list–has been to the Pro Bowl frequently. At this point, he gets the nod, although a healthy Drew could surpass him over the next five or six years. Advantage: football.
1998: Pat Burrell (University of Miami) vs. Ricky Williams (University of Texas). The Whacker vs. the Weeder. Burrell had an excellent 2002, fell off the face of the earth and then normalized without approaching ’02 levels again. Williams’ best season so far also came in 2002. Overall, he’s been more productive than Burrell, although his advantage is given grudgingly given his abandonment of his sport to get in touch with his inner Willie Nelson. Advantage: football.
1999: Jason Jennings (Baylor University) vs. Ron Dayne (University of Wisconsin). Jennings is going to get the nod here because he has had to perform under the difficult playing conditions of Coors Field. True, Dayne had the pressure of playing professionally in his home state (New Jersey) but responded with some truly uninspired running. The linemen in the NFL are simply better equipped physically to jackknife a truck. Advantage: baseball.
2001: Mark Prior (University of Southern California) vs. Eric Crouch (University of Nebraska). A non-starter. Crouch never played a down in the NFL and never will. Advantage: baseball.
2002: Khalil Greene (Clemson University) vs. Carson Palmer (University of Southern California). This could change over the course of time, but right now, Palmer is cooking with gas, as those bribed by the Gas Council used to say. Greene’s .296 OBP last year is troublesome. Meanwhile, Palmer is among the league leaders in all sorts of passing stats. Advantage: football.
2003: Rickie Weeks (Southern University) vs. Jason White (University of Oklahoma). “Sometimes I think that you have to swallow your pride a little bit and know when you are done,” White told UPI upon his retirement in August of this year. He cited knee problems as the reason his NFL career ended before he ever played a game. Advantage: baseball.
The final tally: Football 15, Baseball 11. We lose…but it’s early yet.