Even before Towson’s football season ended in a loss to Duquesne in the first round of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs Nov. 24, Tom Flacco felt a familiar itch.
In previous stops at Western Michigan and Rutgers, the quarterback entertained the notion of approaching the football coaching staff about playing baseball before ultimately avoiding the discussion.
But Tigers offensive coordinator Jared Ambrose — who left after the season to assume the same position at Delaware — offered to help Flacco play baseball if he agreed to transfer to Towson, and in October, Flacco ran the idea by coach Rob Ambrose.
“When I was in high school, I played three sports,” Flacco recalled of his days playing football, basketball and baseball at Eastern High School in New Jersey. “So I’m definitely used to playing sport after sport after sport. … I always had the desire to play.”
Fantasy has become fact for Flacco, who has exchanged football pads and run-pass options for a glove and at-bats. The redshirt junior has made 19 starts, primarily as a right fielder for the Tigers, and is batting .209 with nine runs, five RBIs and two doubles while successfully stealing four bases in four attempts.
Towson head coach Matt Tyner said Flacco’s presence on the team has nothing to do with his connection to former Ravens quarterback and eldest brother Joe Flacco or his status as the school’s starting quarterback.
“He’s deserved his shot,” Tyner said. “The kid comes out, and he elevates the play around him by his work ethic. It’s because he operates at a different speed. There’s a sense of urgency with him.”
Flacco, 24, is not a neophyte to baseball. In 2014, he was selected in the 32nd round (the 952nd overall pick) of the Major League Baseball draft by his hometown Philadelphia Phillies.
But Flacco had not played competitively in five years, and 18 innings from doubleheaders tested his conditioning. Tyner had one open spot on his roster and fully disclosed to Flacco that he was pursuing a left-handed pitcher as a transfer. But when the pitcher opted in December to go to San Jose State, the position was Flacco’s.
“I hung up the phone, and I told my wife, ‘We just picked up the quarterback from the football team,’ ” Tyner said. “She asked, ‘Is that a good thing?’ I said, ‘I honestly don’t know. I can tell you one thing: he sure is fun to watch on the football field.’ ”
Flacco validated Tyner’s decision by opening the season as the team’s starting right fielder and batting .400 (10-for-25) out of the gate.
“Looking back now, it’s funny because I was really comfortable in the box,” Flacco said. “Playing baseball, your batting average is something that sticks with you throughout the whole season. So when you start out like that, I was very happy and excited.”
But Flacco missed six games because of a pulled hamstring resulting from a heavily bruised knee while diving for a ball in the opening three-game series at Davidson in February. Tyner soon realized Flacco’s aversion for sitting out games.
“It was at West Virginia, and I looked at his knee and was like, ‘Dude, are you for real?’ ” Tyner remembered. “He said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘Your knee is the size of a grapefruit. No wonder you pulled your hamstring.’ … But Tom being Tom — and I would learn this later — you can’t keep him off the football field, and he was going to do his best not to get taken off the baseball field.”
Since returning from the injury, Flacco has gone 4-for-42 at the plate, starting with a 2-for-28 slump. Flacco — who has been seeking counsel from older brother Michael, who spent four years in the minor leagues — said he has been pressing at the plate.
“I had a good start, and then I started focusing on the results,” he said. “I was like, ‘I need to get a hit.’ In the beginning of the season, I wasn’t worrying about getting a hit. I was like, ‘I need to go in there and get a good at-bat.’ So I need to get back to that in baseball.”
Flacco has been splitting time in the outfield with a few freshmen, but Tyner said he is confident that Flacco will regain his productivity.
“It’s been a struggle for him for having missed those two weeks,” Tyner said. “For him to come back and try to pick up right where he left off, I anticipated a little bit of a drop. He hit the ball hard a couple times right at people. So it’s a learning experience for him, but he comes to practice every day ready to work.”
Senior infielder Zach Piazza, a Limestone College transfer who is also 24 years old, said Flacco has easily mixed with his new teammates.
“He shows it by how he plays on the field,” Piazza said. “He’s not really a talker that tries to say, ‘I’m here. Don’t treat me any different.’ He just goes out there every day and plays hard, and that tells more than what he says.”
Flacco’s involvement in baseball has cut into his time at spring practices with the football team. But Ambrose said the quarterback has missed only four of 14 practices, and he said he would not stand in Flacco’s way to pursue baseball.
“I’m glad he’s not a specialized guy,” Ambrose said. “He’s just special.”
Flacco could have used the hamstring injury as an excuse to refrain from participating in the football practices, but he did go under center a few times — even if Ambrose whistled dead a few reps when he noticed Flacco about to take off with the football.
“I’m working out with the football guys so that they don’t forget who I am,” Flacco joked.
Both Ambrose and Flacco said they are not concerned about the quarterback absorbing a fastball to the ribs or ankles.
“You can’t be worried about that,” Flacco said. “I wouldn’t have played if I was worried about that.”
Tyner said what he most appreciates about Flacco is his fiery attitude. He recounted a time when a teammate congratulated Flacco for getting a hit, but Flacco retorted that he was thrown out at third base.
“Even though it’s Tom’s first year, he doesn’t act like that player,” Tyner said. “He is a salty veteran when it comes to the field of competition.”
Flacco’s foray this spring might raise questions about whether he intends to chase his dream in baseball or football after he exhausts his eligibility this fall. But he said he is not dwelling on his future.
“I’m not thinking about anything like that,” he said. “I’m just thinking about the moment and trying to get better right now in baseball.”