Eric Wilbur's Sports Blog

Jeter and Brady: The Last of the Great American Sports Icons?

Ed Creech had different ideas for Tom Brady.

Creech was the scouting director for the Montreal Expos in 1995, when the franchise took the recommendation of scout John Hughes and drafted the 17-year-old San Mateo, Calif. baseball star in the 18th round.

Brady, the three-time Super Bowl champion quarterback of the New England Patriots, was once a left-handed-hitting catcher who excelled at the same high school that produced Barry Bonds. His baseball resume was impressive enough that the Expos felt compelled to take him with the 507th overall pick, despite the fact that Brady had already committed to play football at the University of Michigan.

“Obviously, a great-looking kid,” Hughes, a scout from Northern California, told the Newark Star-Ledger in 2012. “Athletic, with a really good swing and an accurate arm. You looked at him and there was no doubt, really. You thought, ‘This kid’s got quite a future in the game.’ He was superior for his level, but there were things for him to grow into. He was what we call ‘a project-able player.’

“Where we took him in the draft was not indicative of his talent. Everyone knew, with the commitment to Michigan to play football, he’d be tough to sign. We were certainly willing to pay him a lot more than a typical 18th-round pick, but we still knew it would be tough.”

Three picks earlier, the New York Yankees selected pitcher Steve Randolph out of the University of Texas. Randolph went on to amass a 10-7 record, with a 5.52 ERA with the Arizona Diamondbacks from 2003-04 and the Houston Astros in 2007. Three years earlier, a shortstop out of Central High School in Kalamazoo, Mich. turned down a full scholarship to play baseball at Michigan in order to sign with the Yankees, who took him in the first round of the 1992 draft.

He was on the cusp of his big league career just as Brady was starting his freshman season with the Wolverines.

The possibility that Derek Jeter could have possibly been baseball colleagues - hell, perhaps even teammates - is a fun path of fantasy to imagine. Maybe the Washington Nationals, and not the Patriots, are the beneficiaries of a trio of championships, with Brady on their roster. Perhaps Jeter plays a rival on par with Peyton Manning to Brady over a generation of Major League Baseball.

There’s also the very real possibility that Brady doesn’t pan out as a big league prospect, and spends the rest of his days regretting his decision to forgo football, left resorting to convincing his kids he can still throw the ball over the Golden Gate Bridge like a Bay Area Uncle Rico.

But even though their paths never crossed on the diamond, Brady and Jeter remain contemporaries of professional athletic greatness, featuring similar career pinnacles and idolization with a mutual respect for each other’s impact on his sport and historical significance.

“You see someone who plays the game the way you think it needs to be played, like Derek Jeter. I love the way he plays the game,” Brady said a few days before the Super Bowl in 2012. “Those great-caliber athletes you look up to and admire for what it takes day in and day out to be a great player. You always watch other athletes and how they play the game, what makes them successful.”

In many ways, the quarterback and shortstop share more in common than Brady does with Peyton Manning. They boast eight championships between them (five for Jeter, three for Brady). They are both the darling faces of corporate America, lending their names to brands including Gatorade, Movado, Nike, Gillette, Visa, and UGGs. Both have hosted “Saturday Night Live.” Each is the face of a franchise in his respective sport, winning a title in his first year at the helm full-time, Jeter with the Yankees in 1996, Brady with the Patriots in 2001.

In fact, the NFL Network even turned to the Yankees shortstop while it was producing its countdown of the top 100 NFL players of all time. Jeter introduced Brady’s segment - chosen at No. 21 - in “The Top 100” back in 2010.

“I think of a winner, champion,” Jeter said. “Those are the first things that come to mind when you mention his name. What he’s been able to do in his career…champion.”

Both players have found otherworldly success in big markets. Both are regarded for their signature clutch moments - Jeter’s World Series, game-winning home run against the Diamondbacks as the calendar flipped to Nov. 1 and the “flip” play against the Oakland A’s; Brady’s career-defining drive in the waning moments of Super Bowl XXXVI and the improbability of the Snow Bowl. Stack their accomplishments side-by-side, and their legends transcend their respective fields of play.

Between them, they have played in 13 World Series and Super Bowls, combining for an 8-5 record. Like Jeter, who won the World Series MVP in 2000, batting .409 with a 1.3444 OPS against the Mets, Brady has performed best in the big games, with a pair of Super Bowl MVP trophies of his own to show for it. Each has also found denial of a championship from the other’s city in question. Jeter hit only .200 in the 2004 ALCS against the Red Sox, while Brady is 0-for-2 in Super Bowls against the New York Giants.

Jeter went through a nine-year drought before winning the World Series again in 2009, suffering a pair of defeats at the hands of the Diamondbacks and Florida Marlins over that period. It’s been 10 years since Brady last hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, with the same amount of evasion along the way.

Maybe it’s fitting that Jeter will finish his storied major league career this weekend in Boston, not because it’s home to the team he tortured for the early portion of his career, but because it’s the place where he’ll find a modern day athlete closest to him in universal appeal. No player in Major League Baseball is more beloved - or derided - than Jeter, thanks to the allegiance Yankee fans have pledged to him over the years, even to the detriment of New York’s division odds in 2014. The same goes for Brady and Patriot fans, who likely would welcome the same going away party Jeter has enjoyed this season, even if it meant watching the quarterback for one more season at the expense of the Patriots’ chances.

That is to serve as a reminder that their legacies are intact.

Brady has been known to rock a Yankees hat in public, but Jeter has yet to don any colors of the New England Patriots. Brady is happily married to a supermodel, while Jeter simply goes through them with the frequency of shaving blades.

Two career paths that nearly collided have taken parallel trips to mystique that will forever define them as among the best to play their sports.

Similar in stature, different in nature, Tom Brady and Derek Jeter remain the two biggest icons in professional sports.

Still fun to imagine Brady calling for a curveball though.

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