Photo courtesy of California athletics
Billy Beane and Brandon McIlwain faced an identical choice, separated by more than three decades.
They both had to decide between the Major League Baseball Draft or becoming a two-sport athlete in college. Their opposite decisions showcase that the old adage is true: the grass isn’t always greener.
The Billy Beane Story
Immortalized by Moneyball, Billy Beane made one decision in his life about money. Beane was an absurd high school athlete. He starred for Mt. Carmel High School in San Diego in basketball, football, and baseball.
Stanford University was so impressed with his abilities that it offered Beane a joint baseball-football scholarship. The Cardinal wanted Beane to be the quarterback in line to start after John Elway graduated.
On the other hand, his baseball talent fascinated pro scouts, who considered him a true five-tool prospect. The New York Mets considered drafting him first overall in 1980, but like many other teams, they thought he would most likely attend Stanford. With the 23rd overall pick, the Mets took a flier on Billy Beane, regardless if he would sign or not.
They flew him out to New York, showed him around the clubhouse, and promised Beane that he would be their future center fielder. They informed Beane that his signing bonus would be $125,000 dollars — equivalent to a little less than $400,000 in 2021.
Beane made a decision that he later regretted. He signed the contract and decided to start his career as a pro baseball player. He performed below expectations in the minor leagues, but was pushed through the system because the Mets still thought he had high potential.
After four seasons in their system, Beane made his big-league debut on Sept. 13, 1984. Beane was excellent defensively, but he just couldn’t hit. Over the next six years, he played for four different teams — the Mets, Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers and Oakland Athletics — spending more time in the minors than majors.
Finally, after not making the Oakland A’s big league club in 1990, Beane decided to approach the A’s general manager, Sandy Alderson, about retiring from playing and becoming a scout for the organization. Alderson agreed.
Beane quickly rose the ranks in the A’s front office, and he replaced Alderson as the next A’s GM in 1997. Beane kept this position until 2016 and was a much better GM than player. Throughout the making of Moneyball, Beane was public about his regret that he didn’t choose to be a two-sport athlete at Stanford. That athletic journey may have ended poorly too.
The Brandon McIlwain Story
Brandon McIlwain made the decision that Beane could not. McIlwain played two sports at Council Rock North High School in Newtown, Penn. He played quarterback and defensive back in football, especially standing out as a quarterback.
He threw for 1,720 yards and 18 touchdowns his senior year while rushing for 1,545 yards and 31 touchdowns. McIlwain performed well at the Elite 11 Quarterback competition and brought in many offers.
As a baseball prospect, McIlwain flashed athleticism. He covered much ground in the outfield and ran the bases well. Many scouts loved his elite arm from the outfield.
In the batter’s box, McIlwain oozed natural power. Scouts acknowledged his rawness, but his elite tools and his limited focus on baseball made many MLB teams covet McIlwain. He was ranked as the 16th-best prospect in the 2016 draft by Baseball America. He was widely considered a first-round pick.
On New Year’s Eve as a junior in high school, McIlwain signed with Steve Spurrier at South Carolina; however, as McIlwain continued to boom as a football and baseball prospect, the Gamecocks were not faring too well.
After a 2-4 start to the 2015 season, Spurrier resigned. McIlwain remained committed to South Carolina and tried to keep the 2016 class of commitments together. The Gamecocks finished out the season with a 3-9 record and named former Florida bust, Will Muschamp as the new head coach.
McIlwain remained committed to South Carolina, with the door seemingly open for him to start at quarterback. Connor Mitch, a former four-star recruit, played terribly in his first year at South Carolina. Lorenzo Nunez, another four-star recruit, excelled as a runner, but had room to improve as a passer.
The other returning quarterback from 2015 was Perry Orth, a former grocery store clerk. McIlwain stayed true to his word, and enrolled early at South Carolina to play football and baseball, shirking the MLB Draft.
Right away, McIlwain had a busy spring. He played baseball and competed in the spring workouts for the football team.
McIlwain struggled on the diamond in 2016. He only totaled seven plate appearances in the first month of the season, going 0-for-7. He reappeared two months later against The Citadel, a game where he went 1-for-3, bringing his 2016 batting average to .100.
On the gridiron, McIlwain had a promising spring, but in April, things took a turn for the worse. Jake Bentley, son of the running backs coach Bobby Bentley, reclassified as a senior, so that he could take his talents to Columbia in 2016. Bentley was a highly-recruited quarterback prospect, who thought he could come in and compete right away.
The fall of 2016 started off well for McIlwain. He and Orth were clearly at the top of the quarterback depth chart and split reps for the first two games. After performing better than Orth, McIlwain was named the starter against East Carolina in the home opener. The Gamecocks won, 20-15.
In Week 4, McIlwain started once again against Kentucky, but the Gamecocks lacked a spark on offense. McIlwain ran the ball 13 times for 11 yards and only completed 50% of his passes in a 17-10 loss.
McIlwain started again the following week vs. Texas A&M. On a key play early in the game, he threw to tight end Hayden Hurst on a slant route. A&M’s Armani Watts tipped the ball up and made a ridiculously athletic interception.
McIlwain was later pulled from the game and replaced by Orth. Orth did not fair much better, as the Gamecocks lost to Texas A&M, 24-13. McIlwain never took another snap for the Gamecocks.
Following an Orth-led loss to Georgia, Bentley earned the starting job during the Gamecocks’ bye week. The team had a drastic turnaround, going 4-2 to close out the season with Bentley behind center.
McIlwain’s mother, Lena, was vocal via Facebook about her son’s lack of a fair opportunity.
“Brandon never played with Deebo (Samuel) (and) (Bryan) Edwards on the field at the same time,” she wrote. “That’s a game changer.”
Both of these future NFL receivers came back healthy following the bye week and contributed to Bentley’s success. Fair or unfair, Bentley had a firm grasp on the starting job.
McIlwain turned his focus to the diamond, opting out of spring football practice to fully devote himself to baseball. However, before his first at-bat of the season, McIlwain left the university and announced his decision to transfer.
A few months passed before McIlwain decided to switch coasts. He committed to the University of California to continue his two-sport dream. Unfortunately, immediate eligibility waivers were much less common in 2017. McIlwain was forced to sit out for football and baseball during the 2017-18 academic year.
In the fall of 2018, McIlwain and Chase Garbers, a four-star quarterback, competed for the starting role. This competition bled into the season, as the two continued to split time, with Garbers starting and McIlwain coming off the bench. Neither could seemingly find a rhythm.
It’s hard for quarterbacks to perform when constantly looking over their shoulders, knowing that they could be replaced after one bad series or even one bad throw. McIlwain finished the season with a 62.6% completion percentage, but he only had two passing touchdowns compared to eight interceptions.
In 2019, McIlwain had his best collegiate season in baseball, logging a .729 OPS in 63 at-bats. The Miami Marlins, impressed by his play and still enthralled with his potential, drafted McIlwain in the 26th round of the MLB draft.
Cal head coach Justin Wilcox had already stated his intention to utilize McIlwain as a running back in 2019, thus ending his quarterback dreams. Still, McIlwain passed up his Marlins opportunity to stay in college.
During the summer, McIlwain announced his decision to forego his redshirt junior season of football, but instead, he would fully focus on baseball, hoping the raise his MLB draft stock.
Once again, McIlwain’s plans did not come to fruition.
He batted poorly in 2020 with a .200 batting average and an OPS of just .606. This 2020 college baseball season was cut short when COVID-19 hit. The virus had other effects on McIlwain’s athletic career.
Major League Baseball decided to cut the 2020 MLB Draft to just five rounds, partially due to minor league baseball getting nixed in 2020. McIlwain was not drafted in those shortened five rounds. Teams were allowed to sign undrafted free agents for a maximum signing bonus of just $20,000. The Mets approached McIlwain for such a deal, and he accepted.
With Minor League Baseball back on in 2021, McIlwain will look to climb the ranks inside the Mets’ organization.
Moral of the Story
McIlwain’s story is not over, so it may not end as an athletic tragedy of unfulfilled potential. McIlwain may still reach his baseball potential and make it to “The Show”. As of now, his political science degree has to be the most expensive, free degree in history.
In the process of earning his degree and trying to live out his football dreams, McIlwain missed out on guaranteed millions from a signing bonus that he would have earned in the 2016 MLB draft out of high school.
McIlwain’s story showcases that the old adage is true: the grass isn’t always greener. Beane will forever wonder what would have happened if he went to Stanford. Heisman Trophy? NFL career?
Maybe, but maybe his story would have played out like McIlwain’s, and he would have ended up in baseball without the guaranteed money or the Mets’ full investment on his big-league future. McIlwain might have hated his life in the minor leagues and wondered what would happen if he played football at South Carolina.
Sometimes life is lose-lose. Things don’t work out in our favor no matter what we choose. All we can do is look for the silver linings in the results of our choices and make the best of our circumstances.