Scout reminisces about signing Elway, Lynch

Veteran baseball executive renowned for signing multisport athletes

February 6th, 2016
Veteran baseball executive Gary Hughes used former high school teammate Jim Fregosi as a model for evaluating players. (Getty)

Gary Hughes was the left fielder on a Serra (Calif.) High School team in the late 1950s that featured future All-Star shortstop Jim Fregosi. In addition to being a star shortstop, Fregosi was the star quarterback on Serra's football team, as well as a standout in basketball who also set the California high school record in the triple jump.

Hughes never forgot. As one of the higher-profile scouts in baseball, Hughes always had Fregosi in his mind when he evaluated players, and has become known over the years for his willingness to take a chance on multisport stars.

He won some, like Delino DeShields, who backed out of a basketball scholarship to Villanova, where he was told he would start as a freshman.

And he lost some, too -- like John Elway, whom he signed as a scout with the Yankees. Hughes also fell short with Erick Strickland and John Lynch, both of whom he signed as the scouting director for the expansion Florida Marlins in 1992, the year before the Marlins played their first Major League game.

Elway was the prize, though. He went on to become an All-Pro quarterback with the Denver Broncos, and this weekend he is in the Bay Area as general manager of the Broncos, who play the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50. It was the leverage Elway generated by signing with the Yankees that forced the Baltimore Colts, who drafted Elway out of Stanford, to trade him to the Broncos.

Hughes reflects on those moments in this week's question and answer. Fregosi was the stimulus for your attraction to the multisport athlete?

Hughes: You see [guys] play so many sports so well and then it comes time to concentrate on one and they take off. Think about it, two potential Hall of Famers, just the wrong Hall of Fame (laugh). John Elway is in the [Pro Football] Hall of Fame. John Lynch will be. How hard did you push for the Yankees to draft Elway out of Stanford?

Hughes: All I did was put in my reports on him -- detailing the way he was and the player I felt he would become. It is what I was paid to do. There was no question in my mind he would be an outstanding Major League player. But drafting him? That was George Steinbrenner. You didn't want to draft him?

Hughes: I told George all along that John was going to play football. George said, "OK, but we are going to take him." I said, "Let's take him in the lower rounds." George took him in the second round. We had two rounds the first day, and George was convinced that when the Draft broke for the day, the other teams would go back and re-evaluate the Draft board and take him, so we drafted him. I'm up in the front of the Draft room on the squawk box with George, [and] a third-year scout. He says we're going to pick him and he better sign. I said, "Wait a minute, I already said I'd be astounded if he did not play football. I don't want you to come back at me if he plays football." So after the Draft, what happens?

Hughes: I went down to talk to [Elway] after he was drafted by Baltimore. We went fishing. I asked him what he was going to do. He told me, "If [the Colts] don't trade me, I'm going to play baseball." I believe he would have, too. He did, however, go to the Yankees' Short-Season team in Oneonta, didn't he?

Hughes: He did, and he was impressive. I think he started off 0-for-19 or 1-for-19, but within six weeks, he was leading the team in every offensive category -- including stolen bases. He was built for Yankee Stadium. He had that left-handed power. Obviously, he was an outstanding athlete and he had a great arm. It's become popular for scouts to say he wasn't that good, but that's not true. If he played baseball and concentrated on the game, the sky was the limit for that guy. With the Marlins, in their first Draft, you selected Lynch in the second round. Why?

Hughes: [Lynch] was going to quit playing football. [Dennis] Green was the coach at Stanford and [the program had its] problems. He threw the first pitch in the Marlins' franchise history, starting that first game ever for Erie back in 1992. There was no consideration of him going back to play football. Then, I got a call in the middle of the season. He said Bill Walsh had been hired as the Stanford coach and [Walsh] wanted him to come back for his senior year. He told me, "I hate to do this, but I always wanted to play for Bill Walsh." Then, Walsh told everyone in the NFL how good he was, and I never saw John again. That same year, you took Strickland out of high school.

Hughes: He was one of the four players who modeled the Marlins' original uniforms. We told him he could go to Nebraska and play basketball. He was a smaller guy. I never figured that would last. So what happens? He winds up signing as an undrafted free agent with the Mavericks and spends seven years in the NBA. He was one of the best defenders in the game. He was a tough guy. In between, however, you took DeShields with the Expos -- even though he was committed as the only signee of that class with Villanova?

Hughes: [The Wildcats] were the defending national champions. I told him he could go to Villanova, but instead of $125,000 -- which was the bonus money for that spot in the first round -- I told him I could only give him $75,000 because of the basketball. He agreed. He signed the contract and I told him, "Never sign a contract without reading it." He asked, "Why?" I told him to look at the deal he signed. It was for $125,000. He deserved it. So how did he wind up never playing for Villanova?

Hughes: We sent him to the Rookie league team in Bradenton, Fla., and I told all our people not to say one word to him about the basketball deal. I told them we made the commitment he could play for Villanova, and we were not going to pressure him to change his mind. He is down there playing and Jerry Manuel, one of our instructors, calls and tells me Delino wants to play baseball. I said, "[Darn] it, Jerry, I promised him he could play basketball and we wouldn't bother him about it. I'm not going back on my word." Jerry told me he never said a world to Delino -- Delino came to him. So a week or so later, I am in Bradenton and [went] to his dorm room and talked to him about it. He told me, "If I am going to be any good, I have to concentrate on baseball." The rest, as they say, is history.