Gary Pettis watched in the distance from the VIP friends-and-family section at 49ers training camp Monday, wearing a light-orange golf shirt, a new 49ers cap and an approving smile.
Imagine his pride as his son, Dante, lined up in the right slot, quickly grabbed a slant pass and never broke stride into the open field for a 60-yard touchdown.
Now imagine Gary Pettis 30 years ago showing similar traits, racing back to the center-field wall and making a home-run-saving catch en route to one of his five Gold Gloves.
“For the longest time, I never thought it could translate over, his hands, from baseball to football,” Dante Pettis said. “I started thinking about it, and it’s just hand-eye coordination. It’s really like being able to watch the ball into your hand or your glove or whatever.”
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Jimmy Garoppolo will be targeting Pettis’ hands for years to come, and after connecting well thus far in training camp, exhibition games are afoot, with the 49ers hosting the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday.
Monday’s schedule worked perfectly for Gary Pettis, 60. He is an Oakland native and the Houston Astros third-base coach, and the defending world champs are in the Bay Area for a two-game set against the Giants. First pitch Monday: 7:15 p.m. First practice reps for his son: 10:15 a.m.
One storyline to emerge in 49ers camp is how Dante Pettis runs, with legs spraying wide — and fast — to create separation from defenders.
“He has a unique ability, I call it wiggle,” Garoppolo said. “His body moves a certain way and he explodes out of the break and separates a foot from a guy. That’s all you need. As a quarterback, you love to see that.”
“I’ve always noticed it,” Pettis’ dad said. “I see the way his legs kick out. They come up really high in the back before they go back down to strike the ground. But at the same time he’s gaining so much distance with the long stride.”
A multisport background shaped that unique stride, be it in baseball, basketball, soccer, track or football. Helping him train — but not in an overbearing way — was a father who played in the majors for 11 years. He made 2,940 putouts and only 44 errors in his tenure with the California Angels (1982-87), Detroit Tigers (1988-89; ’92), Texas Rangers (1990-91) and San Diego Padres (1992).
“We did some catching drills but he was never like overly, ‘You have to do this. You have to do that,’” Dante Pettis said. “He’d be like, ‘Dante, come on, we’re going to train.’ If I didn’t really want to, he’d say, ‘Alright. That’s on you, if you choose not to.’”
To which his father recalls: “I always told him if you’re not training, you’re letting someone else get ahead of you, because someone else is.”
Only 43 players got drafted ahead of Dante Pettis this year. Right after the national anthem at the Astros’ July 27 home game against the A’s, Gary Pettis raced back into the clubhouse, heard the television announce that the 49ers had traded up in the draft, and he knew his son would be their choice, recalling: “I just heard the syllable that started ‘D…’ I was jumping up and down, yelling.”
Gary Pettis marvels his son becoming “way better” at each of his stops, from JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano, to the University of Washington, to now the 49ers, where his dad was able to catch a June practice while in town for an Astros-A’s series.
Father and son laugh how their pro careers have become “full circle,” at least in terms of Dante wandering into a clubhouse and asking his dad for a favor.
“Once I got here, it was a little weird, because I’m actually in the pros now and don’t have to ask somebody else to do something,” Dante said. “When he came here, he was asking me, ‘Dante, can you get blah-blah-blah or can I get a hat?’ It was just funny how the roles kind of switched right there.”
Whenever he was in college and the Astros played in Seattle, Dante headed over to the Mariners stadium and had his dad hit him flyballs, including some to the wall so he could make leaping catches like his dad did.
“So I’d hit him flyballs and he’d try to rob home runs, and I’d try to hit balls near the wall that he could practice catching,” Gary Pettis said. “He just loved catching balls. Maybe it helps him in football.”
It will help the 49ers, and Kyle Shanahan will find a way to utilize Pettis among all three of last year’s starting wide receivers (Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin and Trent Taylor). Pettis, of course, could also become the NFL’s next great punt returner, having produced a NCAA-record nine returns for touchdowns at Washington.
“My biggest thrill was when he was at Washington and, after a game, we had gone out to dinner,” Gary Pettis said. “We’re standing there, and here I am a former major-league player, five-time Gold Glove winner, and little kids run right past me and up to him to ask for his autograph. I’m standing there, ‘What?! That’s pretty cool.’”