by Steve Mims
After graduating from Sheldon High School in 1983, Chris Miller was set to play quarterback at the University of Oregon.
But before Miller made it to Autzen Stadium, the Toronto Blue Jays tried to buy him out of college when general manager Pat Gillick drafted Miller in the 17th round of the Major League Baseball draft.
Gillick, a Hall of Fame executive, had success signing another multi-sport star in Eugene six years earlier when he inked Danny Ainge after drafting him in the 15th round. Ainge reached the majors in 1979 while still playing college basketball at BYU and spent three seasons with the Blue Jays before being switching sports to play for the Boston Celtics.
Gillick made Miller a hefty offer to use his right arm as a shortstop instead of a quarterback.
“Toronto thought I would probably play football, but they offered me $100,000 to not attend UO,” Miller recently recalled. “At that point, I was thinking I would play football in my hometown for UO and play for my good friend, Rich Brooks, so that was the deal.”
Baseball came calling for Miller again two years later when the Seattle Mariners drafted him in the fifth round of the 1985 draft. As he was preparing for his junior season with the Ducks, Miller agreed to a deal with the Mariners for a $40,000 signing bonus as Seattle agreed to pay for his final two years of college since he had to relinquish his scholarship to remain eligible after signing a pro contract.
“They wanted me to play a couple years in the minors and then compare it to my last two years of football and then make a decision,” Miller said.
Unfortunately, Miller broke his hand just days before he was to report to Bellingham to play in the Northwest League, and was unable to play baseball during the summer of 1985.
After earning all-Pac-12 honors as a junior quarterback for the Ducks, Miller went up to Bellingham the following summer and batted .556 during the opening week of the NWL season before he was promoted to Salinas just as Bellingham was set to visit the Eugene Emeralds.
“Ems general manager Bob Beban told me he was going to have Chris Miller Night and give me a set of golf clubs,” Miller said. “But just before we went down there, I got shipped to a long-season affiliate. I was bummed that I missed out on some free golf clubs.”
Miller recalled his first at-bat in Salinas came against John Candelaria, a former All-Star who was on a rehab assignment with the Palm Springs Angels.
“I stand in the batters box for the first time, no batting practice and there is the Candy Man on the mound,” Miller said. “He struck me out on some high heat. I faced guys like Mike Norris, Steve McCatty, and Steve Howe that summer when they were on rehab assignments.”
Miller batted around .200 for Salinas before returning for his senior season at Oregon where he earned first-team, all-conference honors again. After throwing for 6,681 yards and 42 touchdowns in three years as a starter for the Ducks, Miller was drafted in the first round by the Atlanta Falcons and let the Mariners know his baseball career was over.
“I think if I had been able to play pro baseball for two summers, I might have made it to Double A or Triple A and that might have been more enticing,” Miller said. “I am grateful Seattle gave me the opportunity. I met a lot of good dudes in baseball.”
Miller was one of the greatest all-around high school athletes in Oregon history at Sheldon as he starred in football, basketball and baseball.
He thought his future might be in basketball before he injured his knee in football during his senior season and was forced to miss most of that year on the court. He returned to play baseball in the spring and was playing American Legion for the Challengers when he was drafted by Toronto.
“I was coached in legion by Gene Manley and Garry Selby and they both told me they thought I had the ability and skill to play in the majors,” Miller said. “I also played travel basketball in the summer and then when I missed those two summers of baseball and football was going well at Oregon, I switched my focus to football.”
Miller, who recently resigned as head football coach at West Linn, moved from California to Eugene with his family when he was 7 years old and quickly connected with Ike Olsson, whose family lived a few houses away.
The two have been friends for nearly 50 years and will reunite on June 3 when Miller plans to be at the Hamlin Sports Complex for the inaugural home game of the Springfield Drifters, a new West Coast League team that is owned by Olsson and Kelly Richardson. The Drifters open the season on May 31 at Bellingham before opening up their new stadium on July 3 against Cowlitz.
“Ike is an incredible human being, very philanthropic,” Miller said. “He and I have been partners in crime since we were 7 so it is cool to see this venture he is beginning with Kelly. It has been awesome to watch him give back in a major way and be the impactful person that he is.”