Twenty-two years ago today, on June 2, 1995, the Montreal Expos selected a 6'3", lefty-hitting catcher with a big bat out of Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, California, in the 18th round of the MLB draft.
General manager Kevin Malone said he "took a flier." The kid was probably headed to football instead.
The flier failed. Brady would choose football at Michigan instead of the Expos and go on to a football career that is the stuff Canton is made of. But his potential baseball career remains one of sport's all-time "what ifs."
Could he have succeeded in the majors?
Bleacher Report reached out to some of those who scouted Brady as a ballplayer and knew him from his high school days, and the response to that question was emphatic.
"I think he could have been one of the greatest catchers ever," says Malone, who holds the remarkable distinction of drafting Brady five years before Bill Belichick. "I know that's quite a statement, but the projections were based on the fact we had a left-hand-hitting catcher, with arm strength and who was athletic. ... But his first love was football."
I think he could have been one of the greatest catchers ever. —Former Expos GM Kevin Malone on Tom Brady
Malone left baseball in 2001 after serving as GM of the Expos and Dodgers. But his memories of Brady the baseball player remain vivid.
Brady's negative football scouting report is an NFL all-time-great miss. His baseball scouting report was much more encouraging.
"He was a very athletic young man. A big kid who had a great face, a major league face. Yes, we looked at the face," Malone says. "He had an athletic, strong body, but there was room for development. As a scout, one of the first things you look at is just the body—the type of body, the athleticism and what kind of face does he have. I know that sounds a little strange."
It's a face that's become quite familiar over 17 NFL seasons and five Super Bowl titles.
Malone said Brady's framework as a teenaged baseball player allowed plenty of room for major league upside.
"We know we could help guys learn how to receive and call a game, and we felt he had pretty good instincts—although he could play," adds Malone, who runs the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking and works full time to help rescue children caught in the sex trade. "We knew it would be a long shot in signing him. We took a flier on him and drafted him low."
Malone wasn't the only one to see the potential.
Dean Ayoob was a senior at Serra when Brady was a freshman. He first knew Tom as Maureen Brady's little brother. She is the oldest of the four Brady kids and was a terrific softball player. Tom is the youngest and is the only boy. All three sisters were accomplished athletes, raising expectations and awareness when Brady showed up on the Serra campus on the heels of a successful Little League career.
"I don't know if I can speak to [the talent], but the work ethic and the commitment to crafting his game I definitely think would have led him to have a pretty successful baseball career," says Ayoob, now Serra's athletic director. "I don't know where he would have topped out.
"If you look at how he takes care of his body and prepares for the game of football, being a catcher, I would imagine he would have done the same thing there. Catching is such a mental game of knowing the hitters and knowing what pitches to throw in what situations. I can totally see him approaching that the same way he approaches game-planning for NFL defense."
John Kirby was Brady's wide receiver of choice during their senior year, as he caught 42 passes from the future Patriots star, according to MaxPreps' Mitch Stephens.
"Surprisingly, he was getting more attention for baseball," Kirby told B/R's Sanjay Kirpalani in 2015. "We all thought he was going to be a pro baseball player. He was a really good catcher."
Serra boasts a spectacular sports history. Barry Bonds, Gregg Jefferies and Lynn Swann all walked its halls before Brady. Given the talent level, Serra freshmen almost always played on freshmen teams.
Brady was "just another guy" when he arrived at Serra, playing backup QB on a freshman team that went 0-8 before he played on the freshman baseball team. Ayoob said Brady was "more geared toward baseball" at that time because he had more experience playing that sport and did not have the physical tools yet for football.
Brady's heart settled on football early in his high school career, though. Still, big league scouts continued to monitor his progress. By his senior year, Brady and his family were firmly set on his playing for Michigan as a QB. Still, the Expos lobbied hard for Brady to sign and were willing to offer a significant signing bonus in line with what a third-round pick may have gotten.
In two seasons of varsity baseball, Brady hit .311 with eight homers, 11 doubles and 44 RBI in 61 games, earning all-league catcher status as a senior.
"Whenever he would take an infield before a game, that's when they really took notice," Brady's high school baseball coach, Pete Jensen, a Seattle Mariners scout at the time, told the Globe & Mail's Rachel Brady in 2012. "Scouts would see him throw from behind the plate and say, 'Wow,' because he really had an outstanding arm."
Among Brady's notable baseball exploits were a home run that rattled off the team bus and woke up the bus driver, and at least one Seattle Kingdome home run hit using a wooden bat during a predraft workout for the Mariners.
It's been said Brady's high school receivers could hear the ball coming when they made their cuts. "Translate that to trying to throw out baserunners at second base, and that's a pretty strong arm that he's throwing guys out with," Ayoob says, adding Brady had "just a lot of power."
Ayoob recalls giving Brady a mini-pep talk after a football loss, urging the eventual five-time Super Bowl-winning QB to "keep his head up." Now, Ayoob admits, it's hard to see Brady as anything but an NFL star when his name is raised in conversation.
"I go to the guy you see on TV winning Super Bowls. Then I think back to some goofy yearbook pictures of him as a younger kid. I remember those times and those memories from back in high school for sure."
Malone fondly recalls when the Expos took the extraordinary step of putting Brady through a workout at Candlestick Park in 1995. It was a typical cold, windy, foggy night in San Francisco. Not even the mighty Brady was going yard in those conditions. He took batting practice and threw a bit.
He carried himself like a professional. He had that 'it' factor. —Malone on Brady
"It was an impressive workout for the young man," Malone says. "He had a pretty good swing, and he had power. He was not overwhelmed by the stadium or by hanging around major league players. He had poise. You wouldn't know—except for looking at his young face—that this guy was not part of our major league Montreal Expos team. He carried himself like a professional. He had that 'it' factor."
Montreal had the best record in the majors when a players' strike ended the 1994 season in August and forced the cancellation of the World Series. That was the beginning of the end for the Expos in Montreal. Financial woes forced multiple stars—including Pedro Martinez and Larry Walker—out the door. The team languished in the standings, and MLB bought the franchise in 2002 after a stadium deal fell apart. The Expos eventually migrated to Washington and became the Nationals after the 2004 season.
Malone agrees that Brady's presence—and the lack of a player strike in 1994—might have altered major league baseball history and kept pro baseball in Montreal.
"I think it was destiny for us to win it that year, but we didn't get a chance to finish what we started," Malone says. "The 'what if,' along with Tom Brady being there as potential catcher in our organization, is disappointing, but it was wasn't meant to be. I'm happy for him. He's had a great career. He's done amazing things.
"But it would've been fun to see, you know, how he would've progressed and developed and produced in the major league level."
Fast forward 20 years from that 1995 baseball draft. Brady takes a handful of swings off could-have-been-potential Expos teammate and current Hall of Fame pitcher Martinez before the Red Sox's 2015 home opener. A video clip of the encounter shows Brady making contact twice before crushing Martinez's final pitch:
"I'm out," Martinez exclaimed.
Later that day, Brady bounced the ceremonial first pitch on the left-side batter's box.
Perhaps football was the right choice after all.