The night after the Browns selected him with the first pick in the 2018 NFL draft, Baker Mayfield walked onto a baseball field. The Indians were hosting the Mariners, and Mayfield and fellow first-round pick Denzel Ward were to throw out the first pitches.
Ward hadn't touched a baseball since T-ball, and it showed as his throw detoured into the dirt. Mayfield, on the other hand, had played both sports in high school. But his baseball background betrayed him: His throw soared well above the strike zone and landed him on the butt end of some media barbs.
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And Tulsa KJRH-TV anchor Lisa Jones joked on that night's broadcast, "Baker Mayfield may be great at football, but it's a different story on the baseball field."
The high pitch was actually a low point for Mayfield's baseball career. Stats and former teammates say he was a legitimate high school baseball star who could have played in college and, potentially, the pros.
"Absolutely, he could have played in college," says Daniel Castano, who played with Mayfield at Lake Travis High School and is now a pitcher in the Marlins organization. "He could have played pro ball as well. I don't know if he could have been the No. 1 overall pick—it's pretty hard to beat that. But he believes in himself, and he can do anything."
"No one believed he could be the first pick in football," says Connor Mayes, another Lake Travis teammate who is now a pitcher for the Royals' rookie ball affiliate. "I'm sure if he wanted to play baseball and put all of it there, he would have made it. If baseball had been his sport, he would have figured out a way to play pro ball."
Mayfield's first love was baseball. And, ironically, if not for baseball, he may have never become a star in football. When Mayfield first tried out on the gridiron, in fifth grade, he desperately wanted to be a wide receiver. But, according to a 2015 Tulsa World story, a coach who had seen him play baseball installed him at quarterback instead, and the legend of Baker Mayfield was born.
Mayfield juggled the competing demands of those two sports all the way through high school. In his 2011-12 junior year, he threw for 3,788 yards and 45 touchdowns, leading Lake Travis to a fifth straight Class 4A Division I Texas state title. He then danced over to the diamond, where he joined a varsity baseball team in dire need of hitters. He played first base and batted cleanup, racking up 44 hits and 29 RBI with a .364 average. "He was an unbelievable hitter," Mayes says.
He also helped the baseball team earn its first appearance in the state playoffs. And he nearly delivered the team a championship. In the seventh inning of the state semifinals that season, Lake Travis was locked in a 7-7 tie with Cleburne High School at the 11,000-plus-seat Dell Diamond stadium. In front of a raucous crowd, Mayfield cracked a hit to deep right that would have been a walk-off winner. Instead, it inched just right of the foul pole. Lake Travis lost in extra innings. "To this day," Castano says, "we're all convinced it was fair."
Mayfield regularly made jaw-dropping plays in the infield as well and even wound up a first-team All-State selection after the season. But those aren't the memories his former teammates hold most dear these days. Castano was part of a close group of friends who went over to Mayfield's house nearly every day of their summer vacations. When they arrived, Mayfield would be ready with lineups and start times for two-on-two or three-on-three baseball tournaments. They hit tennis balls with plastic bats until they ran out of balls or daylight. And when it was dark, they'd play tag. Mayfield took it so seriously that they sometimes joked he'd one day go out in a full ghillie suit.
Lake Travis struggled to a 17-17 season in his senior year, but Mayfield did everything he could to keep the team together. Two weeks into the season, Castano was frustrated after an error resulted in a 1-0 loss. He told them he couldn't win games all by himself. Later, Mayfield pulled him aside and told him he couldn't talk to his teammates like that. "We were both young and really learning how to lead," he says. "Looking back, I realize how mature he was already."
And Mayfield was always the first to celebrate a teammate's success. Mayes keeps a photo on his phone of the day he threw a perfect game during his junior season. In the picture, a beaming Mayfield is sprinting ecstatically toward the mound.
"That's my favorite picture of all time," Mayes says. "I always knew Baker was for me, but that picture really just shows it. It's something I'll hold on to forever. He pushed me toward that moment."
Of course, Mayfield still had his share of fun. In the age of Vine videos, he regularly recorded in the locker room. In one memorable (but since erased) performance, he mimed playing the piano on a training table while belting out Maroon 5's "Sunday Morning."
"The media blows up everything he does," Castano says. "But if you know Baker, he's very genuine and very humble and a great friend and great fun. Everyone from those teams, everyone who knows him, really admires him."
Castano and Mayfield remained close in college, especially after Mayfield's move to Oklahoma put them both in the same conference. In April 2016, after Mayfield's breakout sophomore season with the Sooners, Castano's Baylor Bears came to Norman. On the team's first day in town, Mayfield treated Castano to a steak dinner. But the biggest surprise came when he showed up at the stadium the next day to watch his former teammate pitch.
Mayfield may have been covered head to toe in Oklahoma gear, but he was openly rooting for the visiting team.
At one point, between innings, he even leaned into the dugout and told Castano to keep up the good work. One of Castano's teammates turned toward him, bewildered, and asked the only sensible question: "Wasn't that Baker Mayfield…the football player?"