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Mitch Mustain's journey takes him back to baseball

The former Arkansas and USC quarterback is in the minor leagues, trying to make it as a pitcher in a sport he didn't play in college.

July 31, 2012|By Gary Klein
  • Chicago White Sox prospect Mitch Mustain pitches at the team's shared minor league training complex at Camelback Ranch in Phoenix, Ariz., in June. The former USC quarterback is hoping to make it as a professional baseball player.
Chicago White Sox prospect Mitch Mustain pitches at the team's shared… (Joshua Lott / For The Times )

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Mitch Mustain stands alone on the pitcher's mound and paws the dirt with his cleats.

It has been eight long years since he gripped a baseball in a competitive setting. Nearly six since the former football star embarked on one of the most high-profile and enigmatic athletic odysseys in college sports history. Almost two since his last shot at being a sports hero.

In Arkansas, Mustain became one of the most decorated high school quarterbacks ever to throw a pass; his two impressive seasons of high school baseball were a mere footnote.

As a senior in 2005, he led Springdale High's undefeated football team to a state title. Gatorade, USA Today and Parade magazine named him the national player of the year. A future in college and pro football seemed assured.

Yet he played only one polarizing season at his home state university before transferring in 2007 across the country to USC — where his football career stalled.

Most of his playing time as a Trojan came as the holder for kicks. But his record-setting past, and seemingly unlimited potential, made him the sport's most recognizable backup, an object of curiosity who rarely left the bench.

A year after he graduated from USC with a degree in international relations, he finds himself in the Arizona desert on barren back fields. The 24-year-old Mustain, wearing a No. 21 gray and black Chicago White Sox jersey, is training and practicing baseball fundamentals. He plays catch, fields bunts and tinkers with pitching mechanics he last used as a 16-year-old.

He is attempting a crossover to a sport he did not play in college, a feat few have achieved at the pro level.

"He's going to find it's not as easy as it looks sometimes," says Larry Owens, one of his coaches. "But that's part of it. That's part of the development process."

Mustain understands. The chaotic nature of football makes a quarterback's every throw slightly different from the one before. In baseball, a pitcher's delivery must be consistent, pitch after pitch.

"It seems like it would be easier," Mustain says, comparing pitching a baseball with passing a football, "but it's not."

For Mustain, nothing has come easy, at least not for a while.

::

Last winter, Mustain ran errands at a friend's car dealership and trained at a Springdale gym managed by J.T. Baker, a part-time White Sox scout. Baker remembered Mustain's fastball from high school, before a broken arm suffered during his junior football season put any baseball aspirations on hold. Baker arranged for a tryout in front of his boss.

Wearing USC sweats and tennis shoes and carrying a mitt, Mustain showed up at a University of Arkansas bullpen, not far from the football stadium where he was cheered six years before.

Baker took a radar gun and stood behind the catcher, not knowing what to expect. Mustain's first pitch registered 89 mph, and the scouts silently nodded at each other.

The next one hit 90.

"That's when he went and got his video camera," Baker says of his boss.

The video and accompanying report made its way to Chicago, where White Sox executives approved signing Mustain.

He arrived in March at Camelback Ranch, the Glendale spring-training facility the White Sox share with the Dodgers. After baseball season opened in April, he was among a few dozen prospects kept behind for what's called extended spring training.

For seven hours a day, six days a week until mid-June, the players lift weights, practice and play games against hopefuls from other teams — often in 100-degree heat — as they wait for assignment to low-rung minor league clubs.

"The hardest part," Mustain says, citing baseball's slow pace, "is dealing with the tempo."

The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Mustain had signed a contract to play this spring for the Georgia Force of the Arena Football League. The unexpected baseball audition led him to put his football career on hold.

"This is a growth opportunity for me," he says.

The White Sox did not give Mustain a signing bonus. He earns about $1,150 a month before taxes, nearly $200 less than his stipend at USC and millions less than an NFL quarterback.

::

Mustain had one chance at glory, one real opportunity to display his talent in a game while at USC.

It came four years after his star-crossed freshman season at Arkansas in 2006, which ended with Mustain unbeaten in eight starts but benched for the final five games because of a feud among coaches, one of whom had been his high school coach. Mustain became a lightning rod for Razorbacks fans angered by the tumult and other controversies that engulfed the program.

"It was dark," Mustain says. "It wasn't fun."

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