Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Card #125: Danny Ainge

Who Can It Be Now?
Daniel Ray Ainge was born on March 17, 1959, in Eugene, Oregon. Ainge attended North Eugene High School, where he was named as a High School All-American in football, baseball, and basketball. Yeah, that is impressive.

After he graduated from high school in 1977, he was drafted in the 15th Round by the Toronto Blue Jays. With Ainge's other sports interests, the Blue Jays signed him to a deal which would allow him to play basketball at Brigham Young University in Provo. One part of that deal was that the Blue Jays would pay Ainge's tuition at BYU because his signing of a professional sports contract precluded him from receiving aid from the school. 

Another part of that deal, apparently, was that Ainge would be moved quickly up to the major leagues. After all, how many 19-year-old players get assigned immediately get assigned to Triple-A after signing? Ainge did. In fact, he only spent one full season in Triple-A Syracuse (1978) in which he flailed away at a .229/.263/.290 slash line. 

No matter. With the power that Ainge had with being at BYU for basketball -- and his evident abilities there -- the Blue Jays called Ainge up from Triple-A in May of 1979.  In his first 28 games as a Blue Jay, it looked like he was Roy Hobbs as the Natural before the movie was made.  He hit .311/.343/.398 with 1 HR and 10 RBI for a horrible Toronto team. From that high water mark, however, the last 59 games went badly -- .200/.231/.229 for an OPS of .461. In comparison, the 1979 Boston Red Sox had a slugging percentage of .456 as a team. In other words, Ainge was overmatched.

Still, the Blue Jays kept at it. Ainge would report to the team after his basketball season at BYU ended, and then he'd suit up for the Jays.  For example, in 1980, the Cougars went 24-4 in the regular season before losing to Clemson in the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament on March 8. Ainge then reported to spring training and played for the Blue Jays right out of spring training. Because he did not play all that well, though, the Jays sent him back to Triple-A after May 22 in 1980.  When he returned to the team in August, he played centerfield. 

Then, in September, Ainge signed a three-year contract extension with the Blue Jays worth $500,000. A clause in that contract precluded Ainge from playing any basketball -- whether professionally, in a local rec league, or maybe even in his own house -- other than finishing his senior year at BYU.

In 1981, Ainge's basketball season was extended through late March when the Cougars made it all the way to the Elite Eight. Ainge made that trip happen with a coast-to-coast single-player fast-break to beat Notre Dame 51-50 at the buzzer. When that run was over, Ainge stepped immediately into the starting third-baseman's job with the Blue Jays amid cries from Blue Jays teammates that Ainge received preferential treatment. My response to those cries is this: it took you that long to figure out that Ainge was getting preferential treatment? Really?

When baseball went on strike in 1981, Ainge had another opportunity arrive. Even though Ainge told teams coming into the NBA Draft that he was not going to play professional basketball, the Boston Celtics still drafted Ainge with the 8th pick in the Second Round of the 1981 Draft. Considering that Ainge was the National College Basketball Player of the Year in an era when nearly everyone went to college before turning pro, it was likely that Ainge would have been drafted higher without his caution to teams.

But, suddenly, Ainge was intrigued by the opportunity to play pro basketball. I'm sure it had nothing to do with the fact that the Celtics were an excellent team with Larry Bird and Kevin McHale or with the fact that Ainge looked even more lost at the plate in 1981 than ever before -- .187/.258/.228 in 275 plate appearances is send-out-a-search-party lost, I think. 

Ainge decided to quit baseball. He announced his retirement on November 18, 1981, in an effort to assist the courts in the lawsuit between the Blue Jays and the Celtics. The initial court rulings favored the Blue Jays, in that those rulings stated that Ainge could be precluded from playing basketball for the duration of his Toronto contract. (Legal aside: Boys and girls, a contract is formed when parties exchange "consideration." Consideration can be money, or it can be a promise to do -- or, in Ainge's case, not to do something. That money the Jays gave him in 1980 not to play basketball is entirely enforceable and fair.)

The Jays and Celtics settled the dispute after that initial court ruling held that the legally binding contract had not been rescinded. There ended the nascent baseball career -- and started the still-ongoing basketball career (though now in the front office) -- of Danny Ainge.

Mustache Check: No facial hair for this Morman. Considering he was 22 years old at the time, he might not even have been able to grow a mustache if he tried.

Nanu Nanu
With his retirement from baseball, this card was the only Topps card on which Ainge appeared as a baseball player. He did make appearances in the 1992-93, 1993-94, and 1994-95 Topps basketball sets, though.

Family Ties
Danny's son Austin Ainge played basketball at BYU in the early 2000s. In what is not-at-all nepotism, Austin serves as the Director of Player Personnel for the Boston Celtics.

Danny's nephew Erik Ainge played football for the Tennessee Volunteers from 2004 through 2007. He spent two years as a backup with the Jets and was suspended once for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy before being cut when he entered drug rehab for using recreational drugs.

Trivial Pursuit
To date, Danny Ainge is still the only athlete in American sports history to be named as a high school All-American in three sports. 

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
I never liked Danny Ainge. I really should have liked him for his beating Digger Phelps's Notre Dame Fighting Irish basketball team -- a team which, by the way, stoked my dislike for Notre Dame far more than football ever did. I was a Marquette basketball fan back then, and Notre Dame always seemed to beat the then-Warriors back in the day when Doc Rivers was a Marquette player.

In my 10-year-old head, I really felt that Ainge was a bad guy for leaving baseball behind and breaking a contract in order to play basketball. More pointedly, I was a Milwaukee Bucks fan back then and never liked either the Celtics or the Philadelphia 76ers, so anything that gave the Celtics a leg-up seemed entirely unfair to me. It didn't help that Ainge was one of those "scrappy" or "gritty, gutty" basketball players (think Steve Wojciechowski, who sadly is Marquette's basketball coach) who gets on the nerves of every fan who is not a fan of the team on which they play.

Obviously, there's no need to go into what Ainge has done since he left baseball. A quick recap: he was an All-Star once and teams on which he played won two NBA titles. He finished his degree at BYU in 1992. After he retired from basketball, he was a television commentator for TNT for a year before coaching with the Phoenix Suns, leading them to the playoffs three times. 

He returned to TNT for a while before being named the President of Basketball Operations for the Celtics on May 9, 2003. Under his leadership, the Celtics made it to the NBA Finals twice -- in 2008 and 2010 -- and won their 17th NBA Title in 2008.

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