Football or Baseball, the Choice Is Up to USC's Rodney Peete

Times Staff Writer

Mention the name Rodney Peete, and you think touchdowns, not home runs. But playing third base for USC isn't just a springtime hobby for the Trojan quarterback. Though his .339 batting average won't help him in football, it could land him a job as a professional baseball player.

"I don't think people realize Rodney is a legitimate major league prospect," USC baseball Coach Mike Gillespie said. "People lose track of that fact, because of football. We expect to see him get drafted this year (in the June baseball draft), yet because he has a year left in football, he'll get drafted low. But next year, he could be faced with two very attractive options."

A year from now Peete could be a high draft pick in professional football and baseball--a choice he says he would love to have, though it will be a difficult decision.

"I hope I am in the position to make a choice next year," Peete said. "I'm glad I don't have to make a decision this year, because it would drive me crazy.

"When I play football and I walk down the tunnel, step on the Coliseum floor and see all the people in the stands, I say this is it--I want to play football, because there is nothing like that feeling.

"Then, when I hit a home run or get a couple of good hits, I say the same thing, this is it--I want to play baseball, because there is nothing like that feeling either.

"But I know this--I won't be another Bo Jackson. I will choose. I don't think I could (be a) quarterback and play baseball, too. There is too much outside study and mental work at a quarterback position on the pro level."

Peete has been putting this decision off for years. In high school, at Sahuaro High in Tucson, Ariz., and later at South High in Shawnee Mission, Kan., for his senior year, Peete played both sports, plus basketball. When it came time for college, he was willing to give up basketball, but not the other two.

"Even before I would talk to a recruiter, I stated up front I wanted to play both baseball and football and that I wanted to play quarterback," Peete said.

"Most of the schools recruited me for football, and they would say, in a round-about way, that they had never had anyone play both sports. But I could tell they weren't going to go for it, so that would eliminate them."

Peete said some Pacific 10 Conference coaches were more open to him playing both sports--among them former USC coach Ted Tollner, who recruited Peete, and present USC Coach Larry Smith, who also recruited Peete for Arizona. Smith agreed then, as now, that Peete could play baseball, even though it meant not having him at spring football practice.

"From a selfish standpoint, I want him at practice every day, but he is an exceptional athlete and an accomplished starter," Smith said.

"The biggest thing is that his family is behind him and academically he is able to keep up with the load. If he were not a starter in baseball, I would ask him to be at spring practice. But, if he is participating and competing in baseball, he can pick up in the fall.

"Rodney will have to work hard to get himself into football shape, but he'll be ready. With Rodney, when baseball is over, it's over."

And when football is over, Peete says all his attention turns to baseball.

"Coach (Smith) asked me to come out to spring practice if I had a day off, but this year I didn't have a day off so I never made it," Peete said. "But there is no pressure from him. The guys tease me a little--like when I go in the locker room, they will say, 'This locker room is for football players, not baseball players.' But I stay in touch with everybody, so it's fine."

Peete joined the baseball team in January, immediately following the Rose Bowl game, and had a two-week practice period before the season began. The rest of the team had been playing together since September.

His former position at shortstop had been given to Bret Barberie, a star community college transfer, and Gillespie asked Peete to play third base. Peete had always played second base or shortstop.

"Coach thought it would be best for the team if I moved to third, plus I was growing too big to be a shortstop," Peete said. "Playing third is different, it's all reaction, and there's no time to move to get your feet set. But I'm used to those quick shots coming at me on the football field. I think baseball helps me with football, because it helps my eye-hand coordination and keeps me sharp."

Peete did not have a chance to settle in at third. On the first pitch of his first at-bat of the season, he broke a bone in his hand and didn't start again until March 12.

But when he returned, it was more of an explosion. In his first 8 games, Peete hit 5 home runs, 3 doubles and got 13 RBIs. It wasn't a fluke. Currently, he's hitting .339 with 32 RBIs and 8 home runs. He has a 15-game hitting streak and has hit in 22 straight conference games. His play at third base, though a little rocky at first, improved quickly.

"We were all astounded at what Rodney did when he returned, and he has continued to do well," Gillespie said. "Where he could have used some time to prepare for the season was at his new position at third base because it would have given him a chance to get a new look at hitters. But Rodney is an exceptional athlete."

Peete comes from a family of good athletes. His father, Willie, is an assistant coach for the Green Bay Packers. His older brother, also named Willie, played for the New York Jets, and second cousin, Calvin Peete, is a professional golfer. Maybe that's why all this success doesn't surprise Rodney.

"I expected success," Peete said. "I was confident I would succeed--I dreamed it and thought about it, so it's no shock.

"It's nice to be recognized, but nothing has changed. My friends still treat me the same as they did when I wasn't playing, and I treat them the same.

"But, (in 1985), when I got hurt at the Aloha Bowl, it showed me it could all end tomorrow. One play and you could get hurt. Basically it kind of put everything in perspective as far as the importance of academics.

"As a freshman, it's tough to learn how to budget your time with so much going on. It's easy to just hang out and get behind in studies, and flunk out of school. Ten of the guys who were recruited with me have all flunked out. I didn't want that to happen to me."

Peete hopes to graduate at the end of next year with a degree in communications. Five years from now he says he'd like to be playing quarterback or baseball for a Los Angeles team. And, next fall, he says he wouldn't mind at all winning the fifth Heisman Trophy for USC.

But for now, there is only one thing on his mind, and that's playing baseball.

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