What if? Inside Mahomes' baseball career

In another world, he could have been a baseball phenom

February 7th, 2021
Art by Tom Forget / MLB.com, images courtesy Texas Tech Athletics

A version of this story was first published in January 2020.

In a different world, one where football doesn’t exist, Patrick Mahomes would not be taking the field on Sunday in the Super Bowl. Instead, he might be getting ready to report for Spring Training in a few weeks. A heralded baseball prospect with a low-90s fastball coming out of high school (where he threw a no-hitter, natch), there was a bright future for him on the diamond -- one that was helped by having a big league dad. The Tigers selected him in the 37th round in the 2014 Draft -- and that late pick had more to do with his commitment to play football at Texas Tech than it did his ability to play baseball.

While Mahomes will be remembered for his feats on the football field at Texas Tech, he did make it into three games for the baseball team. His final line: 0-for-2 at the plate with one appearance out of the bullpen where he walked two batters, hit another, and was charged with three runs. Those may not be the kind of numbers you’d expect from a potential baseball star, but that’s not the whole story.

In fact, in some circles, he was a highly regarded baseball prospect long before he was considered one of the best quarterbacks to ever grace the field. Texas Tech’s baseball coach, Tim Tadlock, had been recruiting Mahomes since he was coaching at Oklahoma in 2011. At that time, Mahomes was just a high school freshman.

“As a ninth-grader, he was playing on a team where every kid [would go on to play] Division 1 baseball. First time I saw Patrick play, he was playing shortstop on that team,” Tadlock told MLB.com. “I’m telling you, if you saw him play, you would never forget it.”

Tadlock didn’t stumble upon him either. He was tipped off by Tommy Hernandez, who has run the Dallas Tigers for 27 years -- a travel select team that can claim Corey Kluber, Clayton Kershaw and fellow NFL quarterback Matthew Stafford among its alumni.

Having played against Mahomes many times, Hernandez was well aware of the skills that the youngster had. He even had him join the team one weekend when the Tigers were short-handed.

“He had all the tools. He was a five-tool guy at 12,” Hernandez said. “I wish he could have played the remaining five years of his summers with us.”

He even believes that Mahomes had the talent to take him to the Major Leagues.

“Pat could have made it,” Hernandez said. “He could have played in the big leagues, as well. He reminded me of Austin Jackson -- who played for me as well -- with a better arm.”

Excitement was high when Mahomes reached Texas Tech’s campus in the fall of 2014. Sure, by then, he was a top football recruit, but it was also important for him to get the chance to play baseball.

So, after the fall of 2014, when Mahomes had taken over the starting QB job as a freshman -- once throwing for 598 yards and six touchdowns against Baylor -- he was ready to report for baseball season. The football team moved its spring practices to the morning, so that Mahomes could attend classes and show up for baseball practice in the afternoon. But that’s not conducive to baseball -- a sport predicated on repetition and countless hours working on drills.

The team was planning on pitching him an inning at a time and spotting him in the outfield or at third base when it could. But even a player as freakishly gifted as Mahomes was going to struggle when he hadn’t picked up a bat in nearly a year, while the rest of the team had spent the entire fall practicing for the upcoming season.

(image via Texas Tech Athletics)

“He struggled a little bit,” Tech shortstop and 2017 Giants draftee Orlando Garcia said, “but I mean -- not picking up baseball for a year and expecting him to go 4-for-4 with four homers? There’s probably only one guy who can do that, and that’s Bo Jackson. Pat was probably second-closest to it.”

“He was [throwing] like low to mid 90's, got picked up in the Draft out of high school and he was the real deal. So when he signed to play baseball, too, we were like ‘This guy could be legit,’” said Tech catcher Tyler Floyd, who played for the team from 2014-16. “During football, he put on probably 30 or 40 pounds of muscle, and he gets out there to play baseball and he just couldn’t throw. It’s a different motion, and it’s like he had the yips -- it wasn’t really a mental thing, it was just his body changed so much in such a short period of time that the baseball never really came back.”

His problem was also a lack of time devoted solely to the sport.

“If the [NCAA] allowed you to practice in December like you can in high school in some states, and he had 75 at-bats under his belt, he’d have played every day,” Tadlock said. “There was never a time when he was just doing baseball.”

Mahomes is second from the right in the back row.Texas Tech Athletics

But growing up around big league fields with his father, Patrick Mahomes Sr., who pitched for six teams across an 11-year Major League career, still had him preternaturally prepared, and no amount of time away from the sport could kill that. Garcia remembered one practice when Mahomes was placed on second base and took off for third before the pitcher started his delivery.

“And sure enough the pitcher delivers, and Pat is standing up at third,” Garcia said. “Tadlock goes crazy. Tadlock likes those guys that are very scrappy, very hard-nosed, baseball-savvy. And that’s just what you get. Was he physically ready to play baseball when he got out of football season? I don’t know if he was. But mentally, you could put him in a game and he was savvy enough to compete.”

When you have a player with that much natural ability, you have to give him a chance to show that off, and the Red Raiders did that early in the year. In the final game of the season’s first series against the San Francisco Dons, Mahomes stepped to the plate as a pinch-hitter to face pitcher Logan West, with Tech up 9-3.

The famously frenzied Texas Tech crowd grew louder.

“The only reason I remember it was notable is they were already beating us … and the crowd went nuts. It was a Sunday, the stadium was filled out, but people were going crazy. At the time, I didn’t really know who he was, or even that he was on the team,” West said.

A self-described “complete junkballer” at that point, West threw a combination of cutters, changeups and forkballs to strike out Mahomes.

“I came back to the dugout and somebody was like, ‘That’s Mahomes, their starting quarterback!” West remembers.

(image via Texas Tech Athletics)

Six days later and Mahomes took the mound for his lone pitching appearance.

In the top of the ninth with the Red Raiders ahead, 6-1, Mahomes was called upon. Given his ability to zip passes all over the field, it may seem strange, but the right-hander couldn't find the strike zone. After walking the first batter, Malique Ziegler, who was drafted by the Giants in 2016, stepped to the plate.

“You could tell something was different because the way the crowd started roaring, the whole demeanor changed when he got on the mound,” Ziegler said. “I figured he had to be somebody special because I was like ‘What the heck?’ You hear chirping throughout the game, but when he came in it was a different vibe."

After working the count full, Ziegler got drilled by a pitch.

“I know he was a little wild that day, he didn’t really have command of it, and he pegged me with like a 95-mph fastball. I’m like, ‘That’s cool,’” Ziegler joked. “I guess I'm always going to remember that.” (Floyd remembers him throwing in the mid-80s, but I guess this is a case where your perspective matters).

“[He threw] all fastballs. We were just trying to get outs in any possible way,” Floyd said. “He hit a guy, he threw one behind a guy, so after a couple of walks, I went out there. I said ‘Dude, you’re the best athlete out here. Just be that guy.’" After a minute and a sigh, Floyd continued. “It didn’t work, so …”

Mahomes was pulled from the game one walk later, and those three runners would come in to score, leaving the Pro Bowl quarterback with an unsightly infinity ERA and, perhaps more shocking, a standing ovation from the home crowd.

Mahomes got one more at-bat with the team. This time, he at least made contact as he grounded out to San Diego State third baseman and current Padres infielder Ty France. Though he didn’t make another appearance in a game, he stayed with the team and was often included on the travel roster. That's a testament to the kind of person he was. Every person we spoke to gushed about his character and attitude.

“When he was on our team in '15, he was throwing an incredible amount of footballs every day and studying a lot of football through the spring, but there was never a time when we were going, ‘Where’s Patrick?’” Tadlock said. “If there was ever a time when he was supposed to be there, he was there. He’s the epitome of a great teammate.”

It’s one of the reasons why no one is all that surprised at how successful he’s been on the football field. They all sensed there was something different about him when he took the field -- even if it never showed up in a box score. And that’s also why everyone associated with him is looking forward to seeing what he’ll do every Sunday.

Well, maybe not Ziegler.

“I’m definitely going to have to root against him because I’ve still got that bruise,” Ziegler said, laughing. “I’m just playing. I’m rooting for him, he’s a terrific player, and my grandfather’s a big Chiefs fan.”

It’s hard not to think of what could have been if not for football. What if he played and practiced baseball every single day? Could he have followed in his father’s footsteps and been a big league pitcher? Would his bat have come around and let him play the infield?

“It’d have been fun to watch him play third base,” Tadlock said. “All those arm slots he can throw from … golly.”

Dare we dream bigger?

“Maybe he’s like Ohtani," Hernandez joked. "He may have been the first two-way guy since Babe Ruth."