In light of Steve McNair’s tragic death over the weekend, I dug up a story I wrote in the Seattle Times on Feb. 7, 2000, a few days after the Tennessee Titans lost Super Bowl XXXIV to the St. Louis Rams in Atlanta, 23-16.
Kind of spooky to think how things would have been different had he signed with the Mariners. Here’s the story:
Sports fans in Seattle might not realize how close they came to having Super Bowl quarterback Steve McNair play in this city.
Not for the Seahawks. For the Mariners.
The story begins in Jackson, Miss., in 1991, when Dan Jennings, a Mariner scout assigned to the Southeast, received a call from a bird-dog scout tipping him off to a potential prospect in the tiny town of Mount Olive, Miss.
Jennings had some time to kill between games that day in Jackson and Hattiesburg, so he stopped off in Mendenhall, Miss., to see McNair play a game for Mount Olive High School.
“I walk out there and he’s taking infield,” recalled Jennings, now the scouting director for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. “There’s no other scouts around. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my, the baseball gods have smiled upon me.’ His athleticism just jumped out at you.”
McNair was a shortstop, raw as could be, but with a cannon arm, power bat and blazing speed. Jennings came back to see him two weeks later and coaxed him to a pre-draft workout, where he was moved to outfield and clearly was the top prospect among the attendees.
“You saw that with some work he could be something special,” Jennings said.
On Jennings’ recommendation, the Mariners selected McNair in the 35th round, and the scout traveled back to Mount Olive to try to coax him to sign. The Mariners offered a $10,000 signing bonus. Despite Jennings’ coaxing of McNair’s mother, grandmother and brother, Fred, McNair decided to accept a scholarship to Alcorn State, where Fred had been the star quarterback.
“It got very, very close,” Jennings said. “I think in his mind, he certainly entertained it. Had he not been promised the starting job at Alcorn by the new coach, and had his brother not played there, I think we could have certainly done it.”
Mariner scouting director Roger Jongewaard recalled that McNair graded out to a 50 as a high-schooler, which corresponds to major-league average. But the Mariners believed that McNair could have developed into a Dave Winfield-type player, or even a top-flight pitcher.
“It’s easy to take the high road and say, ‘Yeah, he would have made it,”‘ Jennings said. “Baseball is a much tougher sport to project, especially high-school kids. But the things I look for, he certainly had them. And when you couple that with his makeup, character and determination, I believe he had a good shot.”
Jennings ran across McNair four years later at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., following his All-America career at Alcorn State, and before his NFL career with the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans.
“I told him, ‘I can’t tell you whether you would or wouldn’t have played in the major leagues, but after watching you here, you made the right decision,”‘ Jennings said.
Photo credit: Associated Press. That’s McNair throwing out the first pitch at Camden Yards on April 18, 2008, before an Orioles-Yankees game.
Postscript: Dan Jennings is now VP of Player Personnel and Assistant GM for the Florida Marlins, whose president of baseball operations, Larry Beinfest, worked in the Mariners’ scouting department in 1991. And Roger Jongewaard is now a pro scout for the Marlins.