Returning to baseball after nearly a decade has turned out to be an even bigger homecoming for former Westside star Sanders Commings.
After nine years spent focusing on football with Georgia and the Kansas City Chiefs, Commings will officially return to baseball as a member of the Braves organization after signing a minor-league contract with the franchise last week.
“Although, quite a few clubs were aggressive, the chance for him to go home and be part of an organization with a rich history such as the Braves was something he could not pass up,” said Jerry Hairston Jr., the former major-leaguer who helped Commings transition back into baseball. “The Braves are getting a talented young man and even better person.”
Braves general manager John Coppolella told reporters at the Braves’ spring training site in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., that the organization was excited to sign a player it had pursued a decade ago when Commings played outfield at Westside before signing a football scholarship to play cornerback at Georgia. Commings was a 37th round draft pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2008.
“We feel this is a tremendous athlete and an even better person,” Coppolella said. “Our mantra has always been to leave no stone unturned. What’s the downside here?”
It’s all upside for Commings, who will turn 27 on March 8. The Braves will evaluate Commings over the next few weeks before determining which position he might play and what classification he will be assigned to. He might stay at the club’s spring training complex after the regular season starts to continue reacquainting himself with the game he last played in 2008.
“He wanted to play baseball no matter who it would be for,” said his father, Sanders Commings Sr. “Braves called his agent the other night and asked what would it take for Sanders to become a Brave. Evidently it was to his liking and here we are. It’s a plus he would be able to come to Atlanta. Not only is it close to his family, Atlanta’s a great place to live one day if he makes it all the way up.”
Growing up in Augusta, Commings naturally was a fan of the Braves.
“We took him to Braves games and he liked the Braves a lot,” said his father. “I remember a ball was hit into the bullpen and John Smoltz tossed the ball up to him. I guess we has 7 or 8 then.”
Commings Sr. encouraged his son to give baseball another try after his NFL career with the Chiefs was cut short by a broken collar bone and broken ankle in successive seasons.
“He had so many injuries in football I thought this was not what the good Lord was leading him to do; maybe He wanted him to do something else,” his father said. “I didn’t want him to be living the rest of his life with concussions or freaky injuries. He hadn’t been in full contact for maybe three years. I said, ‘Your body is healing, why not give baseball another try and give up football?’ I kept persisting every day and finally he started listening and gave it a try.”
The Braves’ Class A affiliate is in Rome, Ga., and its Advanced-A club is in Kissimmee, Fla. The next two levels are in Jackson, Miss. (AA) and Gwinnett County (AAA).
“Wherever he is, I told him I’ll be there to support him and help him through his journey,” said his father.
If Commings starts in Rome, the South Atlantic League affiliate plays in the same division as the Augusta Greenjackets. Rome visits Augusta May 25-28, June 6-8 and August 7-9. It also plays 22 games in nearby Columbia and Greenville, S.C.
“If he ends up in Rome, that would be exciting to see him come here,” said Gerald Barnes, Commings’ coach at Westside. “I’d like to watch him on TV (with Atlanta) sometime, too.”
Commings’ father and high school coach are confident that he will be able to make it in baseball despite being away from the game for so long. At his age, he’ll be more developed and mature than most rookies starting out in the minors and he’s learned what it takes to succeed after his experience playing cornerback in the SEC and NFL.
“He always had to go the hard route and never got a pass at anything, so he’s always had to prove himself and work his way up,” said his father. “And he’s always been able to do it. So this is nothing new that he’s about to do. He’s a hard worker and he’s no quitter.”
Barnes believes his former centerfielder “has got a shot.”
“Those guys coming out of high school, he’s way past that physically and mentally,” Barnes said. “Maturity has a lot to do with it to. I think he’d have an advantage there. It’s hard to make it just straight out, but being mature and strong increases his chances.
“It depends on how much he has to make up as far as the layoff. I know the work ethic he has is tremendous and I know he’s going to work hard to get there. He knows what it takes to be a professional athlete and that’s going to be another advantage to him.”
Commings is not just a two-sport novelty act like Tim Tebow, especially with the Braves, who have a history of success with defensive backs playing the outfield. Former Braves Deion Sanders and Brian Jordan shared the defensive backfield as starters for the Atlanta Falcons in 1990-91.
Sanders, an NFL Hall of Fame cornerback, joined the worst-to-first Braves in 1991 and played four of his most productive seasons in Atlanta while famously splitting time in both sports.
Jordan played in the Cardinals minor-league system while he spent three seasons as safety with the Falcons before signing a baseball-exclusive deal with St. Louis. Jordan played three seasons (1999-2001) with the Braves, making his only All-Star appearance his first year. He currently works as a pre-game analyst for Braves television broadcasts.
John Schuerholz, the Braves’ vice chairman, was also general manager in Kansas City when Bo Jackson was a two-sport professional star with the Royals and NFL’s Raiders.
Like Sanders and Jordan, Commings was a standout collegiate defensive back with NFL experience who shares the traits of speed and athleticism.
“I sure hope so,” Commings Sr. said when asked if his son can join the limited ranks of players to play in both the NFL and MLB.
As long as he’s in the Braves organization, we’ll get to keep a close eye on his quest.