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FSU's Winston hopes to be two-sport star

TAMPA — As Frank Sinatra's New York, New York played from the Steinbrenner Field loudspeakers Tuesday afternoon, Jameis Winston stayed in the visitor's dugout for his encore.

Fans yelled his name and squeezed their arms through a rail to offer baseballs, footballs, hats and Sports Illustrated covers for Winston to sign.

It mattered little that Winston, Florida State's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, had gone 0-for-2 as a fifth-inning defensive replacement in an 8-3 exhibition loss to the Yankees. In the same stadium where Hall of Fame big-leaguers have trained, Winston was by far the biggest star. The loudest ovation of the day, from the pro-FSU crowd of 7,708, came when Winston broke his bat on a foul ball in the sixth inning.

"We laughed," FSU outfielder DJ Stewart said. "We joke around with him all the time: 'Jameis, you can do whatever and everyone will cheer for you.' "

Winston, a 20-year-old sophomore, says he was the one star-struck. Winston, who was born in Bessemer, Ala., and raised in neighboring Hueytown, said he grew up a Yankees fan idolizing captain Derek Jeter, playing shortstop and wearing No. 2. While most of the Yankee regulars didn't start — Brett Gardner was the top name — Winston met "Mr. Jeter," along with Mark Teixeira and the retired Jorge Posada beforehand.

"It's surreal," Winston said. "It's probably better than winning the national championship.

"Psych!"

It has been just 50 days since Winston's dramatic touchdown drive in Pasadena led FSU to a 34-31 win over Auburn. He had little time to celebrate, transitioning immediately into his baseball role as closer and outfielder. Winston has a passion for both sports and wants to play both "as long as I can," realizing times have changed since Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders became pioneers in being two-sport professionals.

"I always had the mentality, 'You can do anything you put your mind to,' " said Winston, who was drafted in the 15th round by the Rangers in 2012. "So I just kept that dream going and I'm going to keep doing it for the rest of my life."

And Seminoles baseball coach Mike Martin, who also coached Sanders — the Hall of Fame cornerback — believes Winston is "certainly capable" of doing it.

"Deion was one of a kind," Martin said. "But Jaboo is one of a kind."

Winston may be "Famous Jameis" to many, but he's "just one of us," left-hander Brandon Leibrandt said. Martin calls Winston "Jaboo" (Jay-Boo), a childhood nickname, saying he never acts like he's the "main attraction." No Seminole player has garnered as much attention in Martin's 35 seasons, not even Giants MVP catcher Buster Posey. While Winston loves big crowds — "it's my fuel" — he deflects praise to teammates, who rib him often.

"He's a superstar on the baseball field, a superstar on the football field," Stewart said. "But you'll never know it the way he acts. He acts like a normal guy."

When it comes to talent and athleticism, Winston is far from the norm.

"A rare breed," junior right-hander Luke Weaver said.

"A freak of nature," Leibrandt said.

While Winston admittedly needs to work on his hitting — the switch-hitter grounded out to second and struck out looking in his two at-bats Tuesday — Martin believes he can develop into a pro pitcher. The hard-throwing right-hander went 1-2 with a 3.00 ERA with 21 strikeouts in 27 innings as a freshman. "He's got a big-league arm," Stewart said. "He's got big-league stuff."

In an era in which specialization is the norm, and coaches tug over the top athletes, FSU football coach Jimbo Fisher says his relationship and cooperation with Martin are critical in Winston's balancing act. Fisher, who accepted a baseball scholarship at Clemson before playing football at Samford, said he loves two-sport players, believing there's a cross-benefit of playing baseball and football.

Like Fisher, Winston says baseball teaches him about failure, how to bounce back, a key trait in a quarterback. Fisher says Winston doesn't miss any spring football practices, and on their days off on Sundays, he'll notice him hitting for two hours in the batting cage. "It's not like where he plays one and forgets the other," Fisher said.

While Winston has the work ethic, time-management skills and body makeup to withstand the demands of both sports, Fisher said what separates his quarterback is his intelligence, helping him process information quickly. "He wants to be the best," Fisher said.

Winston said the best part about being "famous" is meeting great people, which keeps him humble. Much like the fans he signs autographs for, he's often speechless in those encounters. He has chatted with Sanders and Jackson and has now shaken hands with childhood favorites Ken Griffey and Jeter.

Winston smiled: "I feel like my life is complete."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com.

FSU's Winston hopes to be two-sport star 02/25/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 26, 2014 10:14am]
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