“Do you know what it feels like…when you simply don’t belong?”
That’s a line uttered by the titular Beverly Luff Linn in the (incredibly weird by also amazing) film An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn. I would imagine we’ve all felt that way from time to time, right? The world’s a big, confusing place and we all mostly just try to find out way through it. But what happens if you spend your whole life playing a sport, get drafted, and still feel out of place.
Not like, existentially, but literally. Well, thankfully baseball has 10 spots for you on the roster at all times, and while MLB might be banning the shift in 2023, here are some of the players whose position changes ended up not just saving their careers, but in some cases, maybe changing the whole game.
Michael Jordan (SG to OF,) Deion Sanders (CB to OF,) Bo Jackson (RB to OF)
Let’s kick this all off with me definitely cheating and writing a whole section just about players who only changed positions because they changed sports. I mean, it is still technically a position change. And as we all know, technically correct is the best kind of correct.
Anyway, with that out of the way, I’ve kind of ordered this trio in ascending order of accomplishment on the diamond, but maybe in descending order of overall fame? I dunno, that all seems pretty subjective. What’s pretty objective is that I’m not just cheating by including all of them, but I’m super extra cheating by including His Airness Michael Jordan, who never actually played above AA. But I mean, c’mon, it’s MJ, you gotta mention him, right? Coming off a record-setting performance in the 1993 NBA finals in which the Bulls locked down their third championship in a row, Jordan shocked the sport when he announced his retirement in October. Early in 1994, he shocked another sport when he signed a minor league contract with the White Sox, reporting to their AA affiliate in Birmingham.
Jordan’s baseball career was rather unremarkable, as he hit a scant .202/.289/.266 over 127 games in 1994 before leaving the team in 1995 out of concern he would be used as a replacement player to try and break the MLBPA strike (which is pretty rad of him, as well.) However, he did have 30 stolen bases over the course of that 1994 season, which ain’t too shabby. (He was caught stealing 18 times but who’s counting?) We all know that Jordan went back to the NBA and pretty much picked up right where he left off, leading to his summer in Birmingham to be more of an interesting footnote rather than a true two-sport tale. Plus it means we can go to milb.com and look at this:
That’s just fun stuff.
Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson beat Jordan to the baseball punch in the 80s, both having played baseball and football in college and being drafted by both NFL and MLB teams. Deion was the Yankees’ 30th-round pick in 1988 and the fifth overall pick by the Falcons in the 1989 NFL draft. Sanders made his MLB debut in 1989 and ended up hitting a home run and scoring a touchdown in the same week later that year, being the only person in history to do so (I don’t see anybody joining or beating him there anytime soon.) But it was his 1992 season with the Atlanta Braves that really sticks out. In 97 games he hit .304/.346/.495 (136 wRC+) with 26 stolen bases to go with plus defense in CF (this predates defensive stats so you’ll just have to take my word on that) combining for 3.3 fWAR/3.2 bWAR. But he wasn’t done. In the postseason, he definitely embraced the Prime Time and hit .400/.455/.500 with 5 stolen bases. Specifically, in four World Series games, he led the Braves in AVG, OBP, SLG, total bases, and WPA. And he did all that with a broken foot. Sanders’ baseball career never again reached the same heights, although he continued to put up respectable offensive numbers through 1997 when he left the sport for three years (his 2001 is mostly unremarkable.) During that time he also won two Super Bowls, making him the only person to play in both a World Series and Super Bowl game. Again, I don’t see anybody joining or surpassing him on that list anytime soon.
Bo Jackson tracked a similar path as Deion, although he went in the fourth round of the 1986 draft, selected by the Royals and first overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A brouhaha with the Bucs over an NCAA violation that cost him a year of college baseball ended with him refusing to play and going with the Royals instead. He didn’t really get into a groove until 1989, when he hit .256/.310/.495 (121 wRC+) in 135 games with 26 stolen bases, and being voted MVP of the All-Star game that year. His 1990 season numbers were even better, playing in 111 games and hitting .272/.342/.523 (140 wRC+) while somehow not getting a second All-Star appearance?! What was everybody doing with their votes that year?
Oh, they were doing that. I still think he should have at least been a reserve. Either way, 1989 means Bo is the only person to play in both the MLB All-Star Game and NFL Pro Bowl. Much like Deion’s records, Bo will probably be keeping that distinction for a while yet. But even beyond that, Bo Jackson just kind of ruled, there was the entire Bo Knows ad campaign from Nike, he would apparently set up a target in the clubhouse before games and shoot a crossbow at it, and also he did this:
I mean c’mon.
Bryce Harper (C to OF)
We’re keeping things iffy here with Bryce, although I feel like this is something of a forgotten part of his career. The Washington Nationals drafted Harper first overall back in 2010, and you can see him listed as an OF in all the recaps and notes…except that prior to then he was pretty much a full-time catcher. I remember that draft season I only ever saw photos like this:
The Nats saw the OF as a better option so that he could focus on his offense (which seems like a good call by them) and also offered a shorter path to the bigs (which seems like a good call by them.) I reckon we’re all pretty familiar with what Harper has done since that draft, right? He made his MLB debut in 2012, hit .270/.340/.477, won Rookie Of The Year, and has pretty much never looked back at all. He’s won two MVP awards, been an All-Star six times, and won a pair of silver sluggers. He’s also still not even 30. (Another fun fact I remember from that draft season: Harper got his GED after 10th grade so he could enter the draft early.)
And while we haven’t gotten to see Bryce strap on the Tools Of Ignorance as a pro, C/OF types are in fashion these days and he has offered to get behind the dish as recently as last year…
Kenley Jansen (C to RP)
Ok, now we’re getting into well-trod and oft-repeated fun fact territory here. Although, I don’t think we really appreciate how long Kenley was a catcher by trade and how much LA must have believed in his arm. He was signed by the Dodgers in 2004 as a catcher and actually hit quite well in a short rookie ball appearance, although his bat would fall off almost immediately. He was still just Kenley Jansen, Catcher by the time the World Baseball Classic rolled around in 2009, and you can definitely see he had a live arm even as that half of the battery:
What’s the best defensive gem we’ve seen in the WBC? How about Kenley Jansen (as a catcher) throwing out Ryan Braun? https://t.co/Bz6iSWRUs6 pic.twitter.com/M8cosHgeRs
— WBC Baseball (@WBCBaseball) February 28, 2017
Raving about his arm indeed, Buck. The Netherlands team actually upset the Dominican Republic team, beating them twice in that WBC. But it would be the last time he made any notable plays from behind the plate, as the Dodgers decided to convert him to a pitcher later that season. He finished the year with only 11.2 IP and 5 ER to show for it, but the Dodgers added him to their 40-man that winter, and the rest is history, I suppose.
But it’s not just Kenley’s story here that I like, it’s the fact that his move to the mound made a Clayton Kershaw fun fact even more fun:
That’s Kershaw’s first save since 2006 when he was an 18-year-old in rookie ball. Against the GCL Nationals. And his catcher was none other than Kenley Jansen. Gotta love it.
Jacob deGrom (SS to SP)
Ok, we’re diving back into their nebulous waters of “Does this count?” with this one, but I’m the writer and I say it does. Yes, deGrom was drafted as a starting pitcher and he’s only ever been that as a professional, but he was a shortstop in high school and for his first two years of college. During the summer after his sophomore year, he was invited to play in the Florida Collegiate Summer League but declined when they said it would be as a pitcher. It was in his junior year that his coach figured maybe the light-hitting SS with the great arm could help them on the mound and planned on having him close. But then their rotation fell apart and suddenly Pete Dunn didn’t have a choice but ask him to start. “We did take a hit defensively at shortstop but I think we more than made up for it in putting him on the mound.” And as I’ve said several times already: You know what happened from there.
But for deGoat I think it’s almost instructive to know this part of his backstory since it wasn’t like his move to the mound turned him into A Dude overnight. He still went in the ninth round, he was still behind plenty of other guys on the prospect lists, he only got the MLB call-up due to an injury and was slated for the pen, and then only moved into the rotation because of another injury. So what this story misses out on in drama or full-circle storytime it makes up for in sheer sticktoitiveness. Now we just gotta hope we get to see him back on the mound in the second half of the season doing his thing.
Rick Ankiel (SP to OF)
deGrom is the one on the HoF course, but Rick Ankiel is The Guy when it comes to the subject of this article, bar none. Drafted in the second round by the Cardinals in 1997 and immediately becoming one of the top-ranked pitching prospects in the game, he made his debut in 1999 and had his first full season in 2000 putting up stellar numbers, with a 3.50 ERA, 194 strikeouts, and an 11-7 record. he was tabbed to pitch the first game of the NLDS and while the first two innings went without issue, things fell apart in the third:
The Cardinals won the game (and the DS) and Ankiel laughed it off. He was a rookie after all, and sometimes things happen. Except it wasn’t just that one night. He started game two in the NLCS and was pulled after throwing 20 pitches because five of them went all the way to the backstop. He came out of the pen in game five to face a total of four hitters, walking two with another pair of wild pitches for good measure. The Yips had come for Rick.
The offseason didn’t offer any respite, as Ankiel returned in 2001 and walked 25 batters in 24 innings. He was sent to AAA and walked 17 batters in 4.1 innings, with 12 wild pitches to boot. The Cardinals demoted him all the way to rookie ball where things did seem to turn around. He was also the part-time DH during his time in Johson City, hitting 10 HRs and putting up a .638 SLG. Injuries kept him on the shelf in 2002, and his 2003 season ended with Tommy John, but not before he walked 49 batters in 54.1 innings. He returned from the surgery in 2005 and looked good command-wise. But then, in 2005 after a Spring Training outing where he threw three of 20 pitches for strikes, he announced he was going to be an outfielder.
And well, he meant it. He slugged over .500 at A and AA, and finally got the call-up back to the big club in 2007, hitting .285/.328/.535 (119 wRC+) over 47 games. It would be the high water mark, offensively, but Ankiel continued to play in the majors as an OF for another six seasons, where he didn’t seem to have much trouble with assists:
And it’s not just perseverance that’s noteworthy here, as his successful comeback meant that Ankiel was the first player since Babe Ruth to win at least 10 games as a pitcher and also hit at least 70 home runs, plus he’s the only player other than Ruth to both start a postseason game as a pitcher and hit a home run in the postseason as a position player. I can think of one guy who can definitely meet that second benchmark, although maybe not on the Angels…
But I digress. Ankiel turned his experiences into a memoir (that I need to read) titled The Phenomenon as well as being the subject of the MLB-produced documentary Truth Be Told.
Well, that was a fun road to wind down, and it seems fitting to end on another quote from An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn that could probably sum up the mood for all of these guys the first time they found themselves standing in a totally new spot under the bright lights: “Although I don’t know what what’s going on here, I’m having a great time.”
Feature image by Michael Packard (@CollectingPack on Twitter) / Photography by Cliff Welch & Ric Tapia / Icon Sportswire