Fifty Years of the Major League Draft

Anticipation reaches its apex. Spans of eighteen to twenty years are devoted to an adoration of the sport, as childhood aspirations emerge into a prospective career. The toils, sweats, and effort culminate with this day. A phone call waits from a franchise, seeking a savior and a cornerstone to turn around their fortunes. One decision on this day changes the course of events. The intuition of scouting departments, general managers, and experts are scrutinized and forever examined. A half-century since its inception, the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, also known as the Rule 4 draft, continues to provide drama, hopes, and frustration, as the journey to develop the game’s next immortal is an ongoing and sometimes futile pursuit.

The concept of a player draft originated in the National Football League in 1935 by Philadelphia Eagles owner Bert Bell, who sought to correct a systematic flaw in team development. The Eagles spent much of their early existence in the bottom of the standings with minimal hope to compete. Sensing a trend of large market teams dominating the league annals, Bell proposed a draft composed of the top college graduates, selected in inverse order of the standings. Providing weaker teams with the first pick in the draft ensured competitive balance, becoming the template eventually followed by every sport

Prior to expansion, Major League Baseball teams would bid for the services of the premier amateur players, eventually tying their contracts to the reserve clause. Financial resources and flexibility would ultimately determine the eventual destination for each prospect. The system, or lack thereof, would prove fortuitous for the New York Yankees, who would agree to deals with Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Phil Rizzuto. Advantages in both financial and market resources would enable the Yankees to develop into the most celebrated franchises in sports. By the mid 1960s, the landscape of the game began to change. Salaries and bonuses to amateur athletes began to increase in value and eventually exclude small market clubs. A $205,000 signing bonus given to University of Wisconsin outfielder Rick Reichardt by the Los Angeles Angels began to raise awareness for a change in player acquisions. An influx of baby boomers along with efforts to create balance and parity resulted in the first amateur draft in 1965, just as the once formidable Yankees dynasty began to decline in influence.

The inaugural first year player draft began with Monday — Rick Monday, that is. The Oakland A’s chose Monday with the first pick in the history of the draft out of Arizona State. A productive eighteen-year career might be best remembered for the Montreal Expos lone playoff appearance in 1981. Tied at one in the top of the 9th inning in Game 4 of the NLCS, Monday hit a solo home run for the Dodgers against Expos pitcher Steve Rogers. The Expos would eventually lose the series in five games and never reach the postseason again. Game 4 would forever be known as “Blue Monday” and posthumously the beginning of the Expos misfortune in Montreal.

The second year of the draft would teach a humbling lesson in scouting and remind us of the fleeting nature of baseball. The New York Mets, after years of second division finishes, chose catcher Steve Chilcott with the first pick in the draft ahead of Monday’s teammate at Arizona State, Reggie Jackson. Chilcott spent seven seasons in the minor leagues, injuring his shoulder and failing to live up to his advanced billing. Chilcott would become the first player selected at the top of the draft to never reach the major leagues. Chilcott lived in baseball infamy alone for the better part of twenty-five years until pitcher Brien Taylor joined him. The New York Yankees, after a dismal 67-95 campaign in 1990, chose Taylor with the first pick in the 1991 draft. Taylor, a client of Scott Boras, held out of negotiations until agreeing to a $1.55 million contract. A torn labrum caused by a bar fight permanently damaged his shoulder and Taylor proceeded to lose eight miles per hour off his fastball and shatter his dreams of big league stardom.

Without a viable plan for his post-playing career, Taylor would have significant difficulty avoiding the legal system, eventually spending 36 months in prison for cocaine possession. Similar developments would be in the future of Matt Bush. A San Diego native, Bush was selected by his hometown Padres in 2004, primarily because of his signability in comparison to Boras clients Jered Weaver and Stephen Drew. The decision would prove costly when Bush failed to reach Triple-A as both a shortstop and a pitcher. Injuries, poor performance, and immaturity would ultimately decide his professional fate. A hit-and-run accident, among other legal complications, incarcerated Bush through October of 2015, leaving his future in serious doubt.

Despite a number of colossal failures, many teams have found success in the draft after careful planning and risk taking. Entering the 1990s, the Atlanta Braves had fallen to the bottom of the National League standings on the verge of dealing star outfield Dale Murphy. General Manager Bobby Cox initially hedged his bets on Arlington, Texas, high schooler Todd Van Poppel to compliment burgeoning flamethrowers John Smoltz, Steve Avery, and Tom Glavine. To the dismay of the Braves organization, Van Poppel said he would refuse to sign with the club unless he received a signing bonus in excess $1 million. The Braves ultimately passed on Van Poppel, choosing to select Jacksonville, Florida, product Chipper Jones with the first overall pick in the 1990 draft. While Van Poppel completed eleven pedestrian seasons in the big leagues, Jones became the most celebrated switch-hitter since Mickey Mantle, hitting over four hundred home runs and winning eleven division titles, with Cooperstown a likely finality.

Entering the 1992 draft, Kalamazoo, Michigan, native Derek Jeter was expected to be the consensus number-one overall pick. As a scout for the Houston Astros, Former Detroit Tigers pitcher Hal Newhowser believed that Jeter would be the missing piece to a club that developed or acquired the likes of Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Ken Caminiti and Luis Gonzalez over the past decade. Other Astros executives did not share Newhowser’s sentiments and chose Cal State Fullerton third baseman Phil Nevin. The decision prompted Newhowser to resign from his position with the Astros and never return to baseball. Four other teams would also pass on Jeter, including the Cincinnati Reds, who cited the presence of All-Star shortstop Barry Larkin as the reason they proceeded to select outfielder Chad Mottola. The Yankees, off the heels of taking Brien Taylor with their first pick a year earlier, chose Jeter on the recommendation of Dick Groch, who famously said, “The only place he’s going is Cooperstown.” Jeter would prove Groch correct, collecting over 3,000 hits and winning five world championships, while Nevin made just a single All-Star team in 2001.

The names and faces that adorn the records of the amateur draft develop into the foundation of Major League Baseball for years after their selection. Due to the arduous nature of a player’s development to be prepared to play at the game’s highest level, interest in the draft pales in comparison to the counterparts in the NFL and NBA, where picks are more likely to have an immediate impact as rookies. While players such as Dave Winfield, Jim Abbott, Pete Incaviglia, Mike Leake, and David Clyde reached the majors without any time in the minor leagues, they are the exception to the rule. As a result, many top prospects cultivate their abilities in complete anonymity. Attention paid to college baseball is minimal compared to other sports for similar reasons. Strides have been made to improve visibility in recent years with the first round televised beginning in 2007 on ESPN2 and by 2009 on MLB Network as the proceedings take place in their studios. Later rounds are broadcast on MLB.com, providing complete coverage of each pick, while improving the visibility of an event once confined to private phone conversations to the players.

During its fifty-year existence, the MLB draft has transformed the lives of countless young individuals seeking to achieve their dreams. The success of the event, along with a growing international talent, has lead to talks about expanding or creating a separate draft to account for the expanding player pool. The 1,200-player collection of talent affords the opportunity for others such as Mike Trout (25th overall), Albert Pujols (13th round), Don Mattingly (19th round), and Mike Piazza (62th round) to showcase their abilities and eventually disprove initial assessments by scouts and use the experience as motivation for future achievement. For Dansby Swanson, Daz Cameron, and other potential top selections, the amateur draft is a day filled with promise and hope, as a culmination of achievement takes center stage where fortunes are pinned on the franchises seeking to discover the next standout prospect.

Any selection becomes a gamble for the executives planning to construct their future roster. One misstep can not only cost the employment of an entire development team, but also set back an organization for decades to come. Conversely, one correct call could result in championship aspirations being realized and future success seeming both rewarding and unlimited. It has been said that one incident can change a lifetime. The Rule 4 draft personifies the principle. None of us will know the end result of the day until years into the future, when others attempt to follow in their footsteps. Consequently this leaves the players, executives, and other baseball personnel being optimistic that prosperity begins with the decisions made in the draft room, ultimately leading to better days ahead.

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