A Scout’s View: Baseball Talent on the Basketball Court

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OLD TAPPAN, N.J. — Omar Minaya has been scouting for decades, so he knows a good athlete when he sees one.

One recent afternoon Minaya and his wife, Rachel, escaped the cold by entering the gym at Northern Valley Regional High School at Old Tappan. Minaya, the former Mets general manager, watched as one player in particular dominated the opposition with an ease that an experienced scout like him can spot a mile away.

The only difference this day was that the athlete in question was Minaya’s 17-year-old son, Justin, and the sport he was playing was not baseball.

“I think this experience has shown me how great the basketball players are, how great the athletes are,” Minaya, 58, said with a laugh.

The experience Minaya was discussing — two years of watching Justin, a 6-foot-6-inch swingman, develop into a midmajor recruiting target — has also gotten Minaya thinking. His continuing education in the colorful, often intriguing, occasionally shady world of high school and A.A.U. basketball has opened his eyes not just to the parallels between elite baseball and basketball development, but also to the kind of talented athletes who more infrequently choose baseball as a career.

“I walk in and the first thing that I see, and I’m a scout, I’m a player-personnel guy, so anytime I walk into a stadium I’m trained to look at talent,” Minaya said. “I walked into an A.A.U. event and I’m saying to myself, I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’

“As a baseball guy, I just kept saying, ‘We’re missing all the great athletes.’ That’s the first thing that came to my mind. It was like: ‘Oh, my God. This guy could be a 6-6 pitcher. This guy could be a center fielder.’”

Minaya attended the recent game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Knicks at Madison Square Garden and, according to Justin, wondered aloud how LeBron James would perform on a baseball field. And when Omar Minaya sat behind the Kentucky bench for a recent game at the Barclays Center, he tried to imagine how Kentucky’s potential one-and-done freshmen De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk would do on a diamond.

“These are guys that can be marketed throughout the world,” Minaya said, “and we have to find a way to get them to baseball.”

Baseball acknowledges that this is a problem. One aspect is that only 8 percent of players on Major League Baseball rosters on opening day last season were African-American, well below levels in past decades and below the national population of roughly 14 percent.

In part to address that, and to reinforce a continuing flow of domestic talent, in July 2015 the Major League Baseball Players Association, where Minaya works as a special adviser to the union’s leader, Tony Clark, and Major League Baseball announced a $30 million joint initiative to finance youth development programs in the United States and Canada.

“I think, in general, you always want the best athletes playing the sport that you love,” A. J. Preller, the San Diego Padres’ general manager, said. “So I think from a baseball standpoint, there are obviously different skill sets on a baseball field versus on a basketball court, but in general, when you have really good athletes playing, those are exciting players that the fans want to come see play.

“And those are the guys, even when I’m scouting, that you’re drawn to.”

As he trailed his son around the country to summer basketball tournaments, Minaya said, he also could not help but notice the growing similarities in the development structures of baseball and basketball. Both prioritize youth: A 17-year-old pitcher who can throw 90 miles per hour or more, for example, is more highly valued than an 18- or 19-year-old who can do the same, Minaya said, just as an N.B.A. team might see far more upside in a one-and-done freshman than it would in a seasoned college senior.

What vexes Minaya is the increasing specialization of high school athletes, leading talented teenagers to limit their choice to one sport early in the process.

“I’ve been drawn into it because my son has drawn me into this,” Minaya said. “And he’s a perfect example: He can play baseball and basketball, and he said to me, ‘Dad, I want to play basketball.’”

The second son of a Dominican father and a mother who is part Irish, part African-American and part Native American, Justin Minaya grew up hanging out at the batting cage at Mets games, or sitting in his father’s box seat and dreaming of becoming the next Jose Reyes — except that he wanted to play center field.

“Every chance I could go, I would ask my mom if we could drive up to the game,” Justin said.

A left-handed pitcher and center fielder, Justin played organized baseball through middle school. But by sixth grade, as Justin started to grow taller, basketball had replaced baseball, his first love. Now, Justin devotes his summers to basketball — A.A.U. mostly, as well as events with the Dominican Republic’s under-17 national team — over organized baseball.

That does not mean his father has given up hope that he will win him back one day; Minaya still tries to convince Justin of the value of making time to throw and take batting practice.

“There are a lot of Justins out there,” Minaya said. “For me, he stands out because I’m a baseball guy. He’s a baseball player. He’s a left-handed pitcher. I always say: ‘You’re a lefty. You throw strikes. You got a chance.’”

Justin is being recruited by basketball midmajors like Iona, Fairfield and North Carolina-Wilmington, although he has also heard from bigger programs like Indiana. He acknowledged that he had probably sacrificed some recruiting looks by staying at his local high school, but dismissed the trade-off by saying, “I have more fun here.”

The good news for Old Tappan’s baseball coach, Tim Byron — and for Minaya, who knows the value of left-handed pitching — is that Justin is considering playing baseball for Old Tappan in the spring. It would be his first time on the roster.

“Oh, I think it would be great,” said Byron, who has known Justin and his older brother, Teddy, for years. “I think it would be great for him, too. And I think it would be nice for Omar, too, just to have the kid play. Teddy played his senior year with us.

“Whether he does it or not, I think it would be pretty nice, a good feeling, a good way out. But it all really depends on how the basketball goes.”

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