TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – It’s been more than 20 years, but Mike Martin still remembers it clearly.
And, yet, he’s still not sure he believes it.
In February 1997, the Seminoles were opening their season against UNC-Asheville, and FSU junior slugger J.D. Drew stepped to the plate at the outset of what would be one of the best individual seasons in college baseball history.
What happened next has been the subject of embellishment over the last two decades, but, to Martin, the reality is even better than any legend.
“He hit a home run that literally scared him,” Martin said. “Because he could not believe how far it went. Next day they measured it at 565 (feet). It was a blast.”
And the ball might have gone even farther had it not landed in an oversized oak tree beyond the right-centerfield wall at Dick Howser Stadium.
The home run, one of 31 that the left-handed Drew hit on the way to the 1997 Golden Spikes Award, prompted FSU professor James Carr to do some research, and he determined that the ball was 90 feet in the air when it struck the oak tree.
Chip Baker, FSU’s director of baseball operations who was then the team’s third-base coach, remembers asking UNC-Asheville’s second baseman what the homer looked like from his perspective.
“I’m just glad he got under it,” he answered.
Twenty years later, the oak tree is gone but the story remains. So do countless other tales, many of which are likely to be told this weekend when Drew gathers with family, friends and former teammates for a number-retirement ceremony before FSU’s game against Clemson on Saturday.
Drew, who wore jersey No. 39, will join former FSU player, coach and stadium namesake Howser as the only Seminole baseball alums to receive the honor.
“This is going to be a fun night for J.D. and his family and certainly all Seminoles,” Martin said. “He did so much for this program the three years he was here. We’re just proud we’re able to retire his jersey because he’s certainly worthy of the recognition.”
One of four Seminoles to earn the Golden Spikes Award – college baseball’s version of the Heisman Trophy – Drew hit a startling .455 as a junior while becoming the first player in college baseball history to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same season.
He went on to enjoy a 13-year career in the Major Leagues, the highlights of which include a World Series championship with the Boston Red Sox in 2007 and an All-Star selection in 2008.
Drew was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2016.
“He’s the best college player – I’ve seen a bunch – he’s the best college player I’ve ever seen,” said Mike Martin Jr., who played with Drew during the 1995 season. “He was the most dominant, most consistent, and he did it from Day 1. … It’s a combination of power and speed that I don’t know that you’ll ever (see again).”
Martin Jr., a senior at FSU during Drew’s freshman year, has a few favorite Drew tales of his own.
Like the time Drew was taking batting practice and hit a ball off the top off the cage and out of the stadium.
Or all the times Drew called his shots – he called it “walking the dog” – by naming exactly where his home runs would land during practice.
“He’d hit one out to right field,” Martin Jr. said. “Then he’d hit one out to center, and he’d sit there and work his way back to left field. Like it was nothing. I’m serious.”
It’s the kind of thing that Martin Jr. won’t soon forget.
And come Saturday, when his No. 39 is commemorated above the wall in left-center field, no one else who sets foot inside Dick Howser Stadium will soon forget J.D. Drew either.
“J.D. Drew,” Martin said, “is a guy that will be remembered by Florida State University for the rest of the time our baseball program is in existence.”