PORT ANGELES — The Port Angeles Lefties’ roster is full of former multi-sport athletes, players as used to trotting out for the opening tip with a basketball team or tossing touchdowns on the gridiron as they are at hitting to the opposite field or painting the inside corner of the strike zone with a fastball.
This is welcomed and encouraged with the Lefties, who possess a co-owner in Matt Acker who played baseball and football at Central Washington University, and a manager in Darren Westergard who, in an era of youth sport specialization, encourages youth athletes to play as many sports as they can.
“I wish they all played football, basketball and baseball,” Westergard said of his players.
“[Former Atlanta Braves pitcher] John Smoltz’s [Baseball] Hall of Fame speech said it all.”
In his Hall of Fame acceptance remarks in 2015, Smoltz argued against youth athletes playing baseball year-round, concerned for the damage it can do to the arms of still-maturing youth pitchers, and implored youth athletes and their parents to recognize the opportunity and benefits they can receive by playing multiple sports.
“Some of these guys are great athletes and it would be fun to watch them play football or basketball,” Westergard said of his team.
Port Angeles even boasts two players who pursued both baseball and football at the NCAA Division I-level.
Port Angeles catcher Ronnie Rust (Skagit Valley) and outfielder Matthew Christian (Campbell University) gave it the old college try at the University of Oregon and Murray State, respectively.
Rust’s is a hard-luck case as shoulder injuries and surgeries cut his football career short and conspired to keep him off the baseball diamond in earnest since he was second-team all-state in Oregon’s largest classification as a sophomore at Central Catholic High School in Portland at age 16.
A scholarship offer to play both football and baseball at Oregon State was pulled his senior year when he underwent two surgeries to fix a torn labrum in as many years.
Rust then was offered the chance at a preferred walk-on spot at the University of Oregon but suffered two more labrum tears that forced him to hang up his football cleats and move on to play baseball for Skagit Valley, where Westergard is assistant coach.
Then he promptly tore his hamstring 18 at-bats into the 2018 season and was forced to sit out again.
Rust is focused on re-acclimating to baseball this summer and it’s going well, with Rust working his way back and hitting nearly .300 with a home run and eight RBIs in 12 games.
As a catcher, Rust said he can carry some of what helped drive him as a safety and running back in football over to the baseball diamond.
“With me catching, a lot of the toughness aspect [transfers],” Rust said. “Being behind the plate, being a bulldog and always giving 110 percent. Something that Darren and I have really talked about a lot is there are some aspects of the game where I really push it to the limit and that’s when some of my injuries have happened. So I’ve been really learning how to pace myself.”
“When I played football, my whole entire life I was playing 110 percent all the time. That’s a great way to play, but it doesn’t really provide a long-term career. It was tough [to give up football], but being able to play tough, deal with adversity and the ups and downs of the game [of baseball] have helped a lot.”
Christian, an Alabama native blessed with a powerful swing, a strong arm and a syrupy southern drawl, started at quarterback in front of South Carolina’s highly touted junior signal-caller Jake Bentley at Opelika High School when Bentley moved to town before Christian’s senior year.
Bentley was good enough to leave high school and enroll at South Carolina early, starting for the Gamecocks as a freshman in 2016.
Christian said the two are friends and have been known to play video games against each other online.
Christian spent his freshman season as a redshirt quarterback with Murray State (Kentucky), bulking up in the weight room while also practicing and traveling with the football team.
He didn’t end up getting the chance to play with the Racers’ baseball squad, so Christian followed his diamond dreams back to Alabama and put in two solid years at Lurleen B. Wallace Community College that earned him a scholarship at NCAA D-I Campbell University in North Carolina.
His work in the weight room at Murray State has paid off for his junior college and now with the Lefties where he’s hitting right around .300 with three home runs and a team-high 16 RBIs in 24 games.
“I definitely got a lot stronger and I think it’s helped me baseball-wise a lot,” Christian said. “I think I hit a couple of home runs in high school, but these last few years I’ve hit a good amount of home runs and it seems like there’s a little more juice in there [his muscles]. I probably went in 190-195 (pounds) and walked out 205-210. There was a cafeteria where you could eat all the time, too.”
Christian said he carries the analytical aspect of football over to baseball.
“I played quarterback, so I’m used to analyzing everything, and that goes with my everyday life now,” Christian said. “I had to know what everybody else had to do on the football field. On the baseball field, I try to look at the smaller things, where to align, what’s the next play. And just being more even-keeled. As a QB I could never get too rowdy like a linebacker. I couldn’t go and jack somebody up. Just stay level.
“I think that helps me the most, just keeping calm and not getting too low. You are going to fail a lot in this sport, so you have to be prepared to deal with those failures and move forward.”
Sports reporter Michael Carman can be contacted at 360-417-3525 or [email protected]