Former NBA star Tracy McGrady finds new life on mound, pitches 1st inning vs. Ducks

Sugar Land starting pitcher and former NBA All-Star Sugar Land starting pitcher and former NBA All-Star Tracy McGrady pitches in a game, Saturday, June 21, 2014. Photo Credit: George A. Faells

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On Friday night, Tracy McGrady rented a car and made the four hour drive from Pennsylvania to Long Island. That’s life in minor league baseball.

On that exact night, one year earlier, he was on the San Antonio Spurs’ bench during his final game in the NBA, watching LeBron James and the Miami Heat win the championship. When he left that game, his travel arrangements certainly didn’t include a rental car.

Not many people outside of Michael Jordan have been on the rosters of both a team in the NBA Finals and a minor league baseball team in the same year. But once McGrady retired after a 16-year career in which he averaged 19.6 points per game and made seven All-Star teams, he set out to fulfill another dream.

“I played in the NBA for 16 years,” he said Saturday. “And in the back of my mind for 16 years, I wanted to play baseball in some form or fashion.”

He’s now a starting pitcher with the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League, an unaffiliated league with a talent level comparable to AA baseball. Normally, McGrady travels with the team. But with an early afternoon start in Central Islip Saturday, he was allowed to leave early on Friday in order to rest. So, McGrady made the drive with fellow pitcher Sean Gallagher.

“He looked at me at one point in the car and was like, ‘You’ve been quiet the whole time,’” Gallagher said. “I was like, “Well, I mean, I’m riding in a car with Tracy McGrady!’”

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Wearing a royal blue Skeeters’ jersey with the same number one he wore during the prime of his basketball career, the 35-year-old McGrady took the mound Saturday at Bethpage Ballpark before a crowd of 4,617 fans.

His leg kick was low, his delivery slow, and his outing brief. McGrady tossed just one inning, a scoreless first, allowing no hits and one walk as the Skeeters fell to the Ducks, 3-1. He got former Major Leaguer, Lew Ford, to hit a broken-bat flare to short for what became an inning-ending double play.

“He wasn’t throwing slow,” Ford said. “You don’t get to face a future NBA Hall of Famer too often, so that’s something I’ll always remember.”

The biggest issue for McGrady, who played baseball in high school and grew up a Doc Gooden fan, has been his command. That showed in his brief outing Saturday as he threw only five of 15 pitches for strikes.

“It’s been a real challenging transition,” said McGrady, who has been making short appearances to build his arm strength. “I’m in this to fulfill my dream and become the best pitcher as possible...There were some things that I really had to fine tune. I had to really understand the game and get some mechanics down. It’s been challenging process but I don’t think it’s anything that I can’t handle.”

Understandably, McGrady’s baseball stats aren’t nearly as impressive as his basketball stats once were back in the days when he totaled 62 points in a game or when he scored 13 points in the final 35 seconds of a comeback win.

In his first three starts, he threw a combined 5.2 innings and went 0-2 with a 7.94 ERA and no strikeouts. His best and longest outing came in his second start when he went 2.2 scoreless innings, allowing one hit and four walks.

“One thing he has going for him is that he’s deceiving,” said Skeeters catcher Travis Scott, who added that McGrady’s fastball reaches 88 mph and he also has good command of his slider. “He doesn’t throw 90 mph but with that lankiness and extra length he kind of translates it into 90 mph.

McGrady made the jump straight from high school to the NBA after being selected by the Toronto in the 1997 draft. He blossomed into a superstar after joining Orlando, where he averaged 32.1 points per game in 2003 to win the first of back-to-back scoring titles. He was then traded to Houston, where he teamed with Yao Ming.

But his skills began to diminish following knee surgery, and he finished his career with forgettable stints with the Knicks, Detroit and Atlanta. He joined the Spurs for their playoff run in 2013 in hopes of capturing a championship ring but played sparingly and announced his retirement two months later.

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McGrady joked that baseball is a “failure sport.” He said that baseball players hit .300 and land in the Hall of Fame yet a basketball player could never get away with shooting 30 percent from the floor.

“This game is so hard,” he said. “You could be the most talented guy. We have some on our team that are first-round draft picks but they’re here now. This is a really tough game to succeed in.”

Skeeters manager Gary Gaetti said that McGrady does not receive special treatment and has fit in well in the clubhouse. He has even had his personal chef cook for the team.

“He has gone from the top level to his profession to the Atlantic League and he has handled it fine,” said Gaetti, who added that he is considering shifting McGrady to the bullpen rather than have him make short starts. ”To be able to do what he’s doing at his age and experience level in baseball is pretty remarkable.”

Gone are his basketball skills, an explosive first step and seemingly limitless vertical jump. Gone is the spotlight, there was relatively little fanfare for Saturday’s game. Gone are the big paydays, players in the Atlantic League make a maximum of $3,000 a month yet McGrady’s estimated career earnings in the NBA were just under $163 million.

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“I’m doing this more for the experience and just the love, man,” McGrady said. “I just love this game and I wanted to give it a shot while I was still able to.”

Even if that means making a four-hour drive in a rental car.

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