David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TAMPA, Fla. - With the Heisman Trophy winner, Jameis Winston, playing leftfield Tuesday for Florida State, it brought to mind another two-sport Seminole star, one who left an impression on the Yankees during his fleeting, comet-like career in the Bronx.
The Yankees picked Deion Sanders in the 30th round of the 1988 draft, and despite an electrifying -- if not erratic -- nine-year run in the majors, he wound up in Canton rather than Cooperstown as a Hall of Fame defensive back.
Winston, like Sanders, says he has a passion for both sports, and would love to follow his path. But there's a reason Sanders was nicknamed Prime Time -- and Brian Cashman was an early witness.
"I remember Sanders signing the S on his name with a dollar sign," Cashman said after Tuesday's exhibition game at Steinbrenner Field. "I'll never forget the dollar sign. I started to think about signing Cashman with a dollar sign -- it made more sense for me. But I figured he had that market cornered. And he actually had the money."
Winston, who led Florida State to the national title as a redshirt freshman, is going to get a few bucks, as well, when he decides to turn pro. The 20-year-old quarterback won't be eligible for the NFL draft until 2015, but he's already been tested on a number of fronts.
In November, Winston faced rape allegations in Tallahassee -- no charges were filed -- and the public scrutiny has only intensified since. He seems to be handling the spotlight well, not unlike the player Winston chose as a Yankee role model growing up. "Derek Jeter, by far," Winston said. "Because he's such a leader to the organization. He's the face of the organization. I used to be a shortstop back in my day and my favorite number was 2. Derek Jeter has just been a huge influence on my life."
Winston wears No. 44 now as a tribute to fellow Alabama native Hank Aaron, but Tuesday was all about realizing a dream introduction to Jeter. The Yankees sent out a skeleton crew and that meant the highlight of the FSU visit for Winston took place off the field, outside the visitors clubhouse, where he got to be face to face with the Yankees' captain.
"I was kind of star-struck," Winston said. "I just kept telling him it was an honor to meet him. I guess it felt like when I talk to little kids -- how they feel. Sometimes they're speechless and that's how I was with Jeter."
Winston added that after meeting Jeter, as well as Ken Griffey Jr. on another occasion, "It feels like my life is complete."
Florida State football coach Jimbo Fisher, who threw the ceremonial first pitch, would like to think otherwise. Another year of Winston could mean back-to-back titles, and given his value to the Seminoles, it's almost surprising that he continues to play baseball.
But Fisher actually encourages Winston to pursue his baseball goals, and in this age of increased specialization for athletes, it was refreshing to hear Winston promote a similar multisport program for kids.
"When I was younger, they tried to get me to play just baseball," Winston said, smiling. "But now, since this year, things have changed. For me, I would push kids to play as many sports as you can because as a kid, you've got to have fun. And if you get so focused on one sport, you might get tired of it."
Winston needed extra time to recover from a torn tendon in his left index finger -- suffered in the title game -- so he feels a bit rusty at the plate. And FSU didn't have him pitch Tuesday in order to rest him for a big weekend series against archrival Miami.
But Winston didn't have to do much to please the gold-and-garnet wearing FSU fans, which made up the majority of the crowd. Even when he broke his bat, they gave him a standing ovation.
"He definitely could do no wrong on a baseball field," Cashman said. "That's what happens when you come off a Heisman Trophy and national championship year. Play in New York long enough and that changes."
Cashman smiled at that last part. Winston would love to get that chance.