Thirty years after Cardinals drafted ‘the great Shabazz’ he has found calling, helping others pursue their dreams

By Rob Rains

As he was sitting in the stands watching a high school baseball game this March in Little Rock, Cardinals scout Dirk Kinney made a casual observation about the athleticism of outfielder Braylon Bishop, expected to be selected in this year’s amateur draft.

A fan sitting a row in front of Kinney heard the comment, turned around and replied,”Yeah, but he’s no Shabazz.”

It’s the kind of comment Kinney has heard for more than a dozen years now, first as a college coach in the state and for the last decade as an area scout for the Cardinals.

Thirty years after Basil Shabazz was an All-American in four sports at Pine Bluff High School. his shadow still lingers over prep athletes in the state.

“It’s crazy,” Kinney says. “He’s a legend. He was that big of a freak of an athlete.”

Mike Roberts, who spent more than 40 years scouting for the Cardinals, considers Shabazz the second-best athlete he ever saw. The only one better in his eyes was Bo Jackson.

Roberts bet high that Shabazz could develop that raw athletic talent and become a star outfielder for the Cardinals. The team used its third-round pick in the 1991 draft on Shabazz, despite his baseball inexperience. They gave him a $150,000 signing bonus and shipped him off to rookie ball in Johnson City, Tenn., to begin his journey to the majors.

That journey never took Shabazz there. It went a different direction, with many detours along the way, but finally has led Shabazz to a place where he wants to be, doing exactly what he wants to do, even though 30 years ago he had a far different dream about his future.

“I was given a chance, and that’s all you want in life is a chance,” Shabazz says. “It may not turn out the way you want it to, but it’s the way God planned it. That’s the beauty of it to me.”

“More than just a myth”

Torii Hunter grew up wanting to be Basil Shabazz. Two years younger than Shabazz, Hunter saw first-hand what Shabazz was able to achieve on the football field, on the basketball court, competing in track events and playing baseball.

“Any young kid who saw him play growing up always wanted to be like Shabazz,” Hunter said. “Basil was like a local rock star, really all across the state. Everywhere we went together people knew him. Even after I got drafted, I would compare guys I saw to Shabazz and I would say, ‘No, Shabazz is still the best athlete I’ve ever seen.’”

Hunter said he first began to realize how gifted Shabazz was athletically when he was in the fifth grade and Shabazz was a seventh-grader. It was about the same time everybody in Pine Bluff began to realize it too.

“Everybody wanted to go see him play basketball because he could dunk the ball,” Hunter said. “The gym would be crowded with people outside trying to come see this 12 or 13-year-old kid who was dunking on everybody.”

As Shabazz and Hunter reached high school, they and their other friends realized that sports might be their way to escape from the tough economic environment that existed in Pine Bluff.

“He and I kind of grew up in poverty and we were like, ‘We need to get a scholarship and go to college; we’ve got to try to help our families,’” Hunter said. “We had those kinds of dreams. It helped me to have more vision, more of a purpose, to save my family. That was his (dream) as well. It kind of pushed us to another level.

“We talked about those things. We were tired of the poverty. We were tired of the struggle. It pushed us a lot more than normal.”

To Shabazz, the sport didn’t matter. He just wanted to play.

“Growing up we would play baseball sometimes all day, sometimes for two or three hours and then we would play football for two to three hours, then go play basketball,” Shabazz said.

By the time he was a sophomore in high school, Shabazz’s athletic feats were well known. Sports – all of them – came easy for him. The first time he participated in the high jump, he set a state record with a jump of 6 feet, 9 inches. He still holds the record for the fastest time in the state in the 200-meter dash, 20.8 seconds. He set a state record in the long jump of 24 feet, 3 inches.

“When you’re young like that you don’t really know what you’re watching,” said Marvin Hence, who was a year younger than Shabazz, one year older than Hunter. “He made me quit 10th grade football. I was going to wait until he left. In practice, he didn’t care who he hit.”

Shabazz got more attention for what he did in football because it was the most popular sport in Arkansas and got the most media attention, his skills on display under the stadium lights on fall Friday nights.

The attention grew even greater when Shabazz was a senior and led Pine Bluff to the state championship game. Going up against an undefeated Texarkana team in the title game, Shabazz rushed for 157 yards and three touchdowns – in the first half. He added two more touchdowns in the second half in the Zebras’ 33-13 win.

An entire page in the 1991 yearbook from Pine Bluff High School was devoted to what Shabazz did on the football field. The headline read, “Fear of the No. 19.”

It was then that he earned the nickname “The Great Shabazz.” It was what he did then which people still talk about to this day.

“He is what every Arkansas high school athlete is measured by,” said Carlos James, another childhood friend who is the longtime baseball coach at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff. “Who’s going to be the next great all-around athlete? We’ve had some guys get close.

“It’s unreal to think about, especially for me growing up with him. Anything he challenged himself with, he did it. … It’s more than just a myth.”

One of the stories which James likes to tell, and which Shabazz confirmed, came when the two were playing American Legion baseball. James was leading the team with 12 home runs and Shabazz at the time had two.

“He said, ‘I’m going to catch you,’ and two weeks later he had 14 and I still had 12,” James said. “He just did what he wanted to do, whatever he put his mind to, he just did.”

Said Shabazz, “It was about competing. I knew I wasn’t going to hold the lead but at the same time, how can I make the guy beside me much better? I hit first, he hit fourth. If I got on, he was trying to drive me in. It all worked out.

“I never told him that (about not holding the lead). But if I say I’m going to get more home runs than you, that’s only going to push you too.”

Shabazz did not play for his high school baseball team until he was a senior because the sport’s schedule had too many conflicts with the track team’s schedule. He talked his way onto the team for his final year, however, and became the starting center fielder. Hunter was in right field.

“Watching him play, I wanted to be like him,” Hunter said. “I wanted to try to play at his caliber. It made me better as a 15-year-old. We ran down everything. If he stole a base, I wanted to steal. If he hit a homer, I wanted to hit a homer. He pushed me to be a better player.”

The more success Shabazz had, in whatever sport he was playing, the more the legend grew. Now, looking back on it, knowing 30 years later people are still talking about what he accomplished all of those years ago, and comparing current athletes to him, makes Shabazz “kind of smirk.”

“I’m humbled now,” Shabazz said. “You felt the excitement by the cheers but you never really see yourself unless you are watching film. The crowd lets you know. That’s what motivated me, to hear the sound of people yelling and cheering.

“Everything came so easy, that’s what was different for me and so many other athletes. … If there was anything that I would feel bad about it was having the talent that I had, and everything was so easy. When it comes easy you don’t push as hard.

“The things that I did in high school were more than what a lot of people do at the professional level.”

As that illustrious part of his life was ending, however, Shabazz had to make a decision about the next chapter of his life. Most people thought it would come on a college football field, and then one day in the NFL.

Shabazz decided to go a different direction.

 “A potential five-tool player”

At the time, Roberts was responsible for scouting Arkansas for the Cardinals and as the attention on Shabazz grew, Roberts began to make more trips from his home near Kansas City to watch him in action. He saw Shabazz play football, and he watched him excel on the basketball court.

“The athleticism just came out of his pores,” Roberts says now. “I saw him play baseball before I saw him in the other sports. I wasn’t there to see him specifically; I think I was there primarily to see the opposing pitcher. I saw him and I thought, ‘Who is this guy?’”

Roberts, and others in baseball, soon found out. As it got closer to the draft on June 3, 1991, Roberts had the belief that Shabazz wanted to pursue a career in baseball. Reports at the time indicated that despite all of his offers to play major college football, Shabazz would have had a hard time qualifying academically. That, and the promise of a six-figure signing bonus that could help his mother and family, were important factors in his decision to play baseball.

“It was hard for him growing up,” James said. “He spent most of his time at our house with my family. He saw it (baseball) as a way to put some food on the table and give his mom some security. He chose that route because of it.

“I think deep down he really wanted to be a football guy but the pressure of the money was just too much. He’s a family guy. He’s loyal to a fault.”

The Cardinals weren’t the only team who thought Shabazz could have a future in baseball. He thought there was a chance the Padres would take him. He knew the Rangers were a possibility. So too were the Blue Jays.

Shabazz was not the top name on the Cardinals draft board. They used their first pick on a high school third baseman from California, Dmitri Young. Their next two picks were pitchers, Allen Watson and Brian Barber.

By the time the draft reached the third round, Roberts thought the time was right. With the 77th overall pick, the Cardinals took Shabazz.

“What we were betting on was that the athletic part was going to take over and once he started playing baseball every day it was going to be different,” Roberts said. “We were taking an athlete and hoping he would develop into a high-level baseball player.

“It wasn’t necessarily that you were looking at a football player trying to play baseball. He stood out as a baseball player too. He looked just as natural in a baseball uniform as he did in a football uniform.”

Chris Maloney was the manager of the Johnson City Cardinals that year, and welcomed a lot of the 1991 draft class onto his roster, including Young and Shabazz.

“The Cardinals drafted a lot of athletes,” said Young, now a high school baseball coach in southern California. “He (Shabazz) was the best out of all of them. He was an all-American in four sports. Who does that?”

Young and his other teammates soon learned all about Shabazz’s background. They saw film of what he had accomplished on the football field. They watched him hit long home runs and beat out routine groundballs to shortstop for a base hit, then steal second and third. Hanging around a basketball court, Shabazz put on shows with his dunking ability.

“He could do all the crazy dunks,” Young said. “I could put it in, but he was over there doing all the Michael Jordan stuff – behind the back, windmills. He just had that kind of athleticism.”

The skill that Maloney saw on display the most was how fast Shabazz could run.

“He had an explosive gear that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in baseball again until I saw Billy Hamilton,” Maloney said. “The first time you saw him you just went, ‘Wow, what an athlete.’

“One time he was on first base with two outs, and on a 3-2 pitch he took off. The guy hit a line drive to the shortstop, and it skipped off the heel of his glove, bounced straight up in the air and landed maybe 20 to 25 feet behind second base, just at the edge of the grass. I was coaching third, and I just kept waving him on and he scored.”

As is the case with many players coming out of high school into the professional ranks, especially those who did not face a lot of high-level competition as an amateur, Shabazz had many nights when he didn’t get a hit. The Cardinals brought him back to the same level for another year in 1992, when Steve Turco succeeded Maloney as manager. He already had watched Shabazz play in the instructional league camp.

“He could run, he could throw and in batting practice you saw his raw power,” Turco said. “He stole 43 bases (in 56 games, which led the league) and missed like 10 days of the season with an injury. I thought if he could learn to hit, this guy was a potential five-tool player.

“He was a kid, if he ever figured it out, you’re talking about a potential superstar with the tools that he had. You just thought he would be able to put it together. When you watched him run you saw a running back on the baseball field. He ran with his knees up like a running back, and he would just as soon knock a catcher over than slide around him. That’s the kind of mentality he had. I loved the energy he had when he played the way he was capable of playing. It was fun to watch.”

Shabazz was named to the Appalachian League All-Star team but for probably the first time in his life, he found himself shearing an athletic field with people who possessed more pure baseball skill than he did. He had always been able to use his raw ability to compete, and succeed. Hitting a baseball, however, isn’t the same as out-running a defensive back.

Shabazz’s confidence did not wane, however, and he gradually was promoted through the system, reaching a full-season low A club in 1993, then high A St. Petersburg in 1994. Halfway through that season, another promotion took him to Double A Arkansas. At the end of the 1993 season, Shabazz was ranked by Baseball America as the fourth-best prospect in the Cardinals organization; Young was ranked second.

“Sometimes when guys are so talented, it’s not quite as easy,” Turco said. “Talent will carry you so far. … It’s difficult to say why it doesn’t happen to certain guys. I don’t think he was used to not succeeding.”

Mike Ramsey was Shabazz’s manager in 1993 at Springfield and the following year at St. Petersburg.

“Everybody has a different journey,” Ramsey said. “It’s not easy; a great athlete can bring a lot to the table, but squaring up a baseball coming in at 95 miles an hour is not something that’s easy to do.”

Even as he was promoted, however, all of Shabazz’s managers still believed he had yet to achieve his ultimate potential. He was simply not hitting enough to take advantage of his greatest baseball asset, his speed.

“When you look at guys you can dream on, you didn’t have to dream too much (with him),” Turco said. “He had all the raw tools … But people don’t realize sometimes how tough the game is.”

Maloney was reunited with Shabazz in Little Rock, three years after that rookie season. He saw improvement, but still saw nightly struggles at the plate. What Maloney, Turco and others in the organization struggled with was their own disappointment that they could not help Shabazz reach that next level.

“George Kissell used to always say that every player is a lock and you have to find the key,” Maloney said. “He was a guy I couldn’t unlock. That is frustrating.”

Turco agreed. At the time both he and Maloney were young managers in the system.

“Maybe I could have done more for him if I had him when I was older,” Turco said. “I enjoyed watching him because he had so much God-given ability, oh my gosh.”

Shabazz was reunited with Young at the Double A level as well, and Young knew his friend had not had the success he had hoped for so far in his career. He just wondered if maybe the story would have been different if he had decided to play football instead.

“You hear about some athletes having to choose one sport or another, and I personally feel he chose the wrong sport,” Young said. “He had a football player’s mentality when he was playing baseball. I would be like, ‘Hey man, this guy’s throwing inside because he wants to get you out. He’s not trying to hit you. Don’t go out there and beat him up.’

“I think he was a potential Eric Davis if he’d been able to put the nuts and bolts together. That’s basically who he was.”

Shabazz posted a meager .175 average in 45 games at the Double A level in 1994, which turned out to be the final year in the Cardinals’ system.

In the early morning hours of Oct. 11, Shabazz and Hunter were visiting friends at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. Shabazz was back in his car, waiting for Hunter, and was asleep when a police officer knocked on his window.

The officer saw a handgun beneath the seat. He also found a small amount of marijuana and rolling papers. Both Shabazz and Hunter were arrested on misdemeanor charges for possession. Shabazz also was charged with felony possession of a firearm on campus.

“I was like, ‘I didn’t do anything,’” Shabazz said. “That killed my career.”

Six weeks later, the 22-year-old Shabazz was given his release by the Cardinals. It didn’t matter that four months later, all of the charges were dropped.

It wasn’t the future Shabazz had envisioned when he signed with the Cardinals, nor was it what Roberts thought could happen either – just 285 games and a little more than 1,000 at-bats, less than 200 of them at the Double A level.

If Shabazz had not been released and remained in the organization, would he finally have found the key to hit enough that would have allowed him to reach the majors? Maybe. No one will ever know what might have happened.

“I thought he was going to be an All-Star, I really thought that,” Roberts said. “I’m surprised he didn’t have a better career. He had skills and tools that if he just developed in a normal way, he should have played in the big leagues. It was just a matter of whether he was going to catch up with the offensive side of the game. It just never clicked for him.

“He was such an exceptional athlete. When you look back on it, does that tell us if we were wrong, or does it tell us about how hard it is to play the game? I kind of feel that it tells us about hard it is to play the game.”

Shabazz’s baseball journey wasn’t quite over, however. Thinking that there might be a need for players willing to cross picket lines if the major-league players went on strike at the start of the 1995 season, the Brewers signed Shabazz to a minor-league contract.

They asked him to cross the lines and become a replacement player and Shabazz said no. He lasted for part of the season at Double A El Paso and then was released again, this time for good.

On one of the early days in their friendship, Young had posed a question to Shabazz.

“Why are you playing baseball instead of football?” Young remembers asking Shabazz. “Had he taken that route we wouldn’t be talking because you would be doing a conversation about his Hall of Fame career in football.”

Shabazz told his friend he loved baseball. It was a hard lesson learning that baseball didn’t love him back.

“Baseball was my thing,” Shabazz said. “My granddad was a big Cubs fan. Baseball was what I wanted to do.”

With that door closed, however, it was time to go back to playing football.

“The story did not end. His life did not end”

Shabazz enrolled at his hometown school, the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, in the fall of 1995 and earned good enough grades that he became eligible to play football the following season, in 1996, five years removed from his last game.

As luck would have it, the Golden Lions’ fourth game that year was against Central State (Ohio) University in the annual Gateway Classic – at the Trans World Dome in St. Louis, about six blocks down Broadway from the stadium where Shabazz had hoped to be playing baseball.

Not surprisingly, Shabazz used that stage to display his athletic skills, returning a punt 70 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter en route to being named the game’s most valuable player.

That, however, was one of only a few highlights for Shabazz during that season and by his sophomore year, he had become a defensive back – which he actually thought was his best position – in addition to returning kicks and punts.

In a game against Southern University on Sept. 13, 1997 in Baton Rouge, La., Shabazz returned the second half kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown – but in the fourth quarter, he got blocked during kick coverage and fell ackwardly to the ground, suffering a serious neck injury and temporarily losing the feelings in his limbs.

Shabazz had to be taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, where he spent the night for observation. Further medical evaluations found that Shabazz was suffering from a previous injury and if he continued to play football there was a serious risk that another bad hit could leave him paralyzed.

“After that I told myself I was done,” Shabazz said. “That was the moment when I realized I could be used much more and much longer if I stopped (playing). I had no problem doing it. I didn’t even think about it, I just said, ‘Hey, I’m done.’ I meant it.”

While he was in school Shabazz had met a young woman, Reca Barnes, who was there on a track scholarship.  Before he was hurt, she had moved back home to Texas.

Knowing he had to leave Pine Bluff, Shabazz purchased a bus ticket and headed to Dallas. He never looked back, and in fact did not return to Pine Bluff for years.

“I guess it was kind of like getting drafted or playing in the state championship game,” Shabazz said. “It was exciting. Either you were going to win or you were going to lose – but you’ve got to play the game. I left and never looked back, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think it was the best thing.”

Shabazz really didn’t have a plan for his life at that point, and without the possibility of a pro sports career to work as a motivating force, his friends admitted they were worried. Getting out of Pine Bluff, they agreed, was probably for the best, but they still were concerned for his well-being.

“Was I worried about him? Sometimes, because I knew that was what he loved,” Hunter said. “For it to be taken away so suddenly, I feel like that could be hurtful and depressing for anybody. That’s all we talked about – saving our families, we can do this, we can do that. We had so many plans, for it to be stopped in the tracks, I’m sure he was pretty distraught about that. I know I was. I can only imagine what he was going through.”

Young had not known Shabazz as long as either Hunter or James, but it was long enough for him to form an opinion about his friend.

“I wasn’t really worried, because he’s a survivor,” Young said. “It was just him being able to make that initial change and that’s what he did. He had hit his rock bottom. He had his difficult times.

“The story did not end. His life did not end.”

Shabazz and Reca got married and started a family that grew to three children. He worked a series of odd jobs, and found his satisfaction in being out of the spotlight, becoming almost a recluse. He enjoyed a feeling of stability that he had never really had in his life.

Being able to help others, he found, gave him great joy. One of the people he helped was his childhood friend, Hunter, who after becoming the first-round draft pick of the Twins in 1993, found himself struggling in the minor leagues and questioning his own future.

“I would talk to Basil all the time,” Hunter said. “He probably was only one of the few guys at the time I would trust. He would drop positive stuff back to me. I was struggling, listening to everybody, and he was one of the guys who just told me to trust what God had given me and go out and play the game. ‘You’ve been doing it for a long time, I’ve seen you. Why are you changing right now,’ he told me.

“He’s one of the guys who kept me sane and kept me going. I wanted to quit and he was one of the guys I called. I stayed, and three months later I was called up to the major leagues, all because I didn’t quit.”

Hunter went on to play 19 years in the majors, becoming a five-time All-Star and winning nine Gold Gloves.

“Most of the people who have success in sports and life have that ‘almost quit’ moment and somebody will come to you and give you a word of advice. Basil was one of those people for me,” Hunter said.

After living in Waco, Texas, the family moved to Dallas and Shabazz began coaching youth sports. One of his players was Hunter’s son, Torii Jr. Through the help of a couple of local businessmen, Shabazz became part of a non-profit organization coaching youth between the ages of 8 and 16 not only in baseball but in football and basketball as well.

Shabazz believes that even if it was a long, winding road, he finally made it to where God wanted him to be, doing what he was meant to do.

“The greatest teacher is experience,” Shabazz said. “When you experience things, you can share with others.”

Shabazz could be bitter. He could be mad that he never realized his dream of playing professional sports at the highest level. He says that never happened.

“When you are mad at the world, you are mad at life,” he said. “I have a life that I’ve lived so far. … I’m not mad. I’m doing something I like … What would I be upset about? What makes you great is how you help others.”

It just took Shabazz time to find out that was his passion, and finally enjoy the experience of what it feels like to be fulfilled.

“I knew God had a plan, I knew that what I knew would help me profit down the road as a father and as a man, not only to my kids but everyone I encounter,” he said. “I try to help the kids, and talk to them about becoming better people in the community, better kids at home. I enjoy it.

“I just show the kids what I saw. That’s what I give back. I think I can help them fulfill their dreams … I know what I’ve been through and how to help others.

Hunter and Hence have seen it first-hand.

“He’s helped hundreds, maybe thousands of kids over the years,” Hunter said, “not just playing sports but how to become better fathers, husbands and men. It’s amazing what he’s been doing. It’s more of a ministry that helps people go on to the next level of life.

“It’s more than just coaching. He’s ministering to these kids about life, about failure. How to accept it, how to make adjustments. That’s baseball, that’s life. These are the lessons he’s teaching these kids.

“I’m proud of him, the man that he’s become, the things that he’s accomplished outside of sports.”

Hence hadn’t seen Shabazz for more than 20 years until he went to Texas this spring to watch his son play in a tournament. Shabazz happened to be there with some of the kids he coaches.

“I know two sides of him,” Hence said. “I know that rough side and now I’ve seen this softer side. You could tell life has changed him, watching him do the things he’s doing. I never would have guessed that growing up with him. I didn’t know he was doing that. That let me know the past that he had was something else.”

Hunter isn’t alone in thinking that the time might be right for Shabazz, now 49, to return to the professional ranks as a coach or scout, but actually filling more of a mentorship role – a resource for young kids just getting into professional baseball, something he never had at that stage of his life.

James and Hence agreed, knowing that young professional players such as Hence’s son, Tink, drafted by the Cardinals last year, could learn a lot about baseball, and life, from Shabazz.

“Think about having a guy like that in your minor-league organization,” James said. “Those kids coming through there could identify with him. He’s walked that walk. He’s been there. He understands it.”

Added Hunter, “Honestly I would vouch for him. If the Cardinals were to bring him in they would not be disappointed.”

Young lost touch with Shabazz for years after he moved to Texas and Young’s career took him to the major leagues. They were reunited after Young’s oldest son went to Arkansas-Pine Bluff to play for James a few years ago.

“He may not have made it to the big leagues,” Young said, “but he has a big-league story.”

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains

 Photos courtesy of Marvin Hence; football photos from Pine Bluff High School yearbook, family photo courtesy of Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

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For the latest news and features in St. Louis Sports check out STLSportsPage.com. Rob Rains, Editor.