ST. LOUIS • A debate that began long before he was part of the Cardinals organization was joined this past week by Jack Flaherty, who echoed the assertion of Adam Wainwright and others that pitchers are the best athletes on the field – and he’s got the six or seven or 6-foot-7 reasons to prove it.
This past weekend, during the team’s Winter Warm-Up, Flaherty and Dexter Fowler had ongoing discussion via text about a five-on-five pickup game between position players and pitchers. They drafted teams. Flaherty said his team had the better athletes. Fowler claimed to have the better jump shots.
Flaherty had the height.
Fowler had Jedd Gyorko.
“I know four,” Flaherty said, looking at his phone. “Me, (John) Gant is a sleeper, (Mike) Mayers can actually (play), he’s actually pretty good, and Miles (Mikolas) is just big. I don’t know who the fifth one would be. There’s a bunch of options there. If you keep going you bring in Waino (at) 6-7, (Michael) Wacha’s 6-6. So you have the height advantage, too, which does matter. He’s talking about how he wants jumpshots. He wants to see this. He wants to see that. I don’t whether or not Waino or Wacha have a good jump shot. But they’re 6-6, 6-7.”
The pickup game – which won’t happen, because it’s not allowed by the standard player contract – tipped off with an interview Flaherty had on KMOX/1120 AM. He has been participating in workouts in California with position players, and before host Chris Hrabe could complete the question about the best athletes on the field, Flaherty started his answer. It sounded a lot like Wainwright’s answer years ago and, inevitably, another pitcher’s answer years before that. For as long as he’s been with the Cardinals, Wainwright has made this argument.
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Wainwright has been known to suggest that he could beat a position player one-on-one in basketball, kick a field goal, score on a penalty kick, and even win a race in the pool. (Though he never really did specify what stroke, or if there would be turns.) He speaks from some experience. He was an excellent field-goal kicker in high school, and Flaherty and others have excelled at other sports as well.
Former Cardinals reliever Maness was widely regarded as one of the finest athletes in the clubhouse and “good at everything” — including ping pong. His athleticism was so highly regarded in the clubhouse that a teammate was once able to spread the word he had been recruited to play basketball by Duke or North Carolina, and teammates bought it.
John Gant now has a similar rep.
“Sneaky good,” a teammate said.
“I mean this has been a running thing that has been going on,” Flaherty said. “We always joke. Whenever somebody drives someone in, (Wainwright) is always the first one shouting that we’re the best athletes on the field. So, you know.”
As evidence, Flaherty mentioned the “Touch the Ceiling Club.”
In the team’s training room at Busch Stadium, the ceiling is 11 feet high, or thereabouts, Flaherty said. Players attempt to jump from a standstill and join the club by, yep, touching the ceiling. Flaherty listed the pitchers who have joined the club: Gant, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Mikolas, Wacha, and himself. Luke Weaver, who was traded to Arizona in the package for first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, “was really close.” Flaherty couldn’t think of the position player in the club, though he said there might be one.
Fowler said such length can be countered with agility.
The team he selected from the position players:
Jedd Gyorko, G, 5-foot-10
Kolten Wong, G, 5-foot-9
Paul DeJong, SF, 6-foot-0
Drew Robinson, G, 6-foot-0
Dexter Fowler, PF, 6-foot-5
“I don’t know Drew that well; I just played against him,” said Flaherty, scanning his phone and referencing the outfielder/infielder the Cardinals recently acquired from Texas. “He’s a pretty good athlete. Jedd’s good, especially. He’s a good shooter. Paul, I don’t understand. I love him. I didn’t understand him. I couldn’t see it. Maybe I’m wrong. … Paul is going to see this and get mad, but whatever. … I know Dex is a great athlete. And then Wong – not matter what he does, he’s a little – you know what you’re going to get. He’s good defensively out there.”
Gyorko was an accomplished basketball player before going pro in baseball. Flaherty was unaware that DeJong had a background as a solid basketball player in high school.
“Everybody was good in high school,” Flaherty said.
Post-Dispatch sports columnist Benjamin Hochman, who paced the hardcourt as an NBA beat writer not too long ago, asked Flaherty if maybe Fowler was choosing a team for the modern game, a perimeter game, a Curry-fueled, long-range, 3-point game. Flaherty shrugged. He could eagerly build a picket fence out of 6-5 Mikolas, 6-4 Ponce de Leon, or 6-3 Gant at the 3-point line. His potential starting five has the wingspan that you’d expect from a group of pitchers, and the average height of the five Flaherty could pick is 4 ½ inches more than the average height of Fowler’s Five.
One of the only things Flaherty called “a wild card” was Jordan Hicks and what it might be like receiving a pass from him. The potential shooting proficiency of the position players wasn’t a threat he figures to his ceiling scrapers.
“I don’t know that we’re going to be super-worried about that,” Flaherty said. “I’ll give our guys the easy baskets.”