It’s been nine years since Sanders Commings Jr. – in the words of his former Westside coach Gerald Barnes – “had a day” on the baseball field.
Against Bleckley County in the second round of the Class AA playoffs in May 2008, Commings blasted three home runs, went 6-for-6 from the plate, walked twice, scored five runs and drove in five more during a doubleheader.
A week later, Westside was eliminated by Lovett in the state quarterfinals. Commings went on to star as cornerback in football at Georgia and was drafted in the fifth round by the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs.
Nine years since he played in his last official baseball game at Westside, Commings wants to have more than just another day in the sport he calls “my first love.” Approaching his 27th birthday on March 8, Commings has his sights set on a career in Major League Baseball.
“I am ready for it and I think I’ll be signed around the beginning of March and get to spring training,” Commings said this week. “Once I get around scouts and pro teams, I think my skill set speaks for itself. That’s what will ultimately give me a chance.”
Commings found support for his quest from Jerry Hairston Jr., a third generation major-leaguer who spent 15 years in the bigs playing every position except pitcher and catcher. Commings ran into Hairston last November during a pickup basketball game in Scottsdale, Ariz., where Commings has been rehabbing and training for the last year.
When he said he wanted to play baseball again, Hairston was a skeptic.
“I didn’t think anything of it to be honest with you,” Hairston said. “But we exchanged numbers and I brought him to my house to swing in my batting cage. After a session I’ll be able to tell him, ‘Hey bud, it’s not gonna happen.’ I don’t want to hurt his dreams and never want to tell a guy he can’t do something or pursue a dream. But I wanted to tell him it’s going to be a long shot and if you want to pursue it, go do your thing but I don’t want to waste your time.”
After watching three or four swings, Hairston’s opinion changed.
“I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’” Hairston said. “This guy’s got it. I have to help him.”
Said Commings: “He took a look at my swing and he became a believer. That inspired me to go even harder.”
They’ve been working together five days a week, with Hairston and his cousin representing Commings.
“Took me about a month to get to where I left off and now I think I’m even further advanced than I was in high school,” Commings said. “I’m even better now. Faster now. A more complete player. In high school I had most of the tools but I feel like they’re more polished now.”
Hairston compares Commings to other crossover athletes like Carl Crawford, who found success in baseball despite prowess in other sports.
“He’s not a football player trying to be a baseball player – he was always a baseball player,” Hairston said. “He can flat-out fly. We already knew he was a great athlete because he was defensive back in the NFL and excelled at Georgia. But how would that translate to baseball? He has the tools, no question about it. Speed, pop.
“It’s so important that he played defensive back because he already knows how to move his hips and knows how to turn his head to go back and get those balls because he was doing that as a football player. It’s a lot easier transition for a cornerback or safety to come in and play the outfield than a running back or linebacker.”
Commings, who was drafted in the 37th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2008, never gave up on his baseball dream even after going to Georgia on a football scholarship. He wanted to play both sports at UGA, but circumstances prevented him from ever playing more than a few intrasquad games with the Bulldogs baseball team before he had to fulfill his obligations with spring football. He was so emotionally torn, he couldn’t even watch baseball games when he first got to Athens.
“It was hard to find the time to do both and get my degree,” he said. “First year I red-shirted in football but was on football scholarship and had to prove myself on the field. My second year we had a coaching change with a new defensive coordinator and I had to go prove myself once again in spring. I finally earned my starting spot and proved myself as an every down player and that’s when I decided to go out with the baseball team. I still couldn’t miss anything spring football related so I had to put baseball on the back burner.”
His NFL career never took off because of injuries. He fractured his collarbone in his first training camp and played only two games as a rookie. His second training camp, he broke his ankle requiring surgery and was placed on injured reserve and reached an injury settlement with the Chiefs at the start of the 2015 season.
Rather than try to earn an NFL roster spot in 2016, he took the year off to get healthy.
“After everything that’s happened to me in football, I felt like God was just pushing me to go play baseball,” he said.
His body hasn’t undergone the stress of a full football season since his senior year at Georgia in 2012, so Commings feel healthier than ever.
“Because of injuries I was forced to not do much except rehab, so I haven’t really taken a physical beating,” he said. “I’ll be 27 on March 8 and I feel like I’m 18 again.”
Hairston believes Commings can catch up quicker than most baseball rookies once he signs with someone. He’s already worked out for several teams and will have a showcase day on his birthday if he hasn’t already signed a free-agent contract.
“If he swings the bat, he’ll be on a fast track because he’s already got that mass strength,” Hairston said. “He’s not and 18-year-old kid where you have to project their strength at 24 or 25. He’s already strong enough to play in the big leagues and the higher levels. He’s played big-time football so you know he’s not going to have stage fright. You don’t have to worry about rushing him.”
Had he taken the baseball path nine years ago instead of football, Hairston believes “he would be in the big leagues right now – he has everything you would want with his speed and ability to play three outfield positions. You don’t just find that.”
Commings has no second thoughts about taking the football route to college.
“I think I’m right where I’m supposed to be,” he said. “I got my college degree, which no one can ever take away from me. I don’t have any regrets for anything in the past. I think playing football has given me a little bit of a mental edge to take onto the baseball field.”
Hairston is confident some team will give Commings a chance and let him prove himself in high-A or Double-A this season. The way Commings is able to take instruction and implement adjustments immediately, Hairston said “blows my mind” and has impressed the scouts who’ve already seen him.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe in him,” Hairston said. “He’s a great kid from a great family. You want a kid like this in your system. You want high character guys in your organization and he’s that.”