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1985: Best draft ever
05/30/2002  3:52 PM ET
In the days leading up to the annual First-Year Player Draft, it's only natural to reflect upon Major League Baseball's annual crapshoot.

One gem won't guarantee a world championship, but a mistake or two in the early rounds may preclude a team from contending for several seasons.

As 30 organizations prepare for the 2002 draft, there are no thoughts of how this class will compare with the previous 37 editions. That's for the future.

For the time being, all classes are measured against the 1985 crop, arguably the greatest draft ever.

For Allan Simpson, founder and editor of Baseball America, there's no second-place group.

First-Year Player Draft History

"Without question, that's the best draft. We knew it at the time it happened that it would be the best to that date, and it's stood the test of time."

Simpson is acknowledged as the nation's draft guru. He edited two books chronicling the draft and says he receives requests every week to produce a third. To him the seeds for 1985 were sown three years earlier.

"You could see talent in the prominent unsigned high school players in the 1982 draft," Simpson said. "They were immediate factors at the college level. You could project ahead to '85 and you knew at that time that it was going to be a great draft, one for the ages."

Another factor, according to Simpson, was the college-dominated 1981 draft. "I think this group of kids going into the '82 draft looked at that and said, 'You know it's not so bad if you don't sign out of high school and go to college.'"

Sure, 1965 -- the first-ever draft -- produced Hall of Famers Johnny Bench and Nolan Ryan, 1971 gave us George Brett and Mike Schmidt, and 1973 Robin Yount and Dave Winfield.

But 1985 has two sure-fire Cooperstown comets in Barry Bonds and Randy Johnson.

Bonds didn't just soar to prominence by eclipsing Mark McGwire's single-season home run record last season. He led the National League in longballs with 46 in 1993.

The man has nine Silver Slugger Awards, eight Gold Gloves plus four MVP and two player of the year awards.

Johnson, the 2001 World Series co-MVP, has won four Cy Young Awards and posted 300 or more strikeouts in five seasons.

But classes should not be measured by their valedictorians, but rather by their quality and depth.

Some groups lack star power, but are loaded with supporting cast members. Bobby Grich, Don Baylor, Vida Blue, Darrell Evans, Dusty Baker, Jon Matlack and Ted Simmons were part of the Class of '67.

Los Angeles probably scored the all-time draft class for one team in 1968. Among their 76 selections in the regular and secondary phases were 14 future big leaguers, including Steve Garvey, Bill Russell, Ron Cey, Bill Buckner, Bobby Valentine, Joe Ferguson, Sandy Vance, Doyle Alexander and Tom Paciorek.

The June 1969 gathering produced Dwight Evans, Buddy Bell, Bert Blyleven, Jeff Burroughs, Ken Griffey Sr., J.R. Richard and Bob Boone.

The Class of '81 spawned an outstanding group that included Mark Gubicza, David Cone, Frank Viola, Fred McGriff, Bob Tewksbury, Ron Darling, Paul O'Neill, John Franco, Lenny Dykstra and Tony Gwynn. But it will be hard to match the '85 alumni.

Among those drafted in 1985 were: Randy Johnson, Bobby Witt, Barry Larkin, Barry Bonds, Pete Incaviglia, Walt Weiss, Brian McRae, Joe Magrane, Gregg Jefferies, Rafael Palmeiro and Joey Cora.
Milwaukee opened the 1985 draft by picking B.J. Surhoff -- who signed for $150,000, a paltry sum by today's standards. Among those following Surhoff were Will Clark (2), Bobby Witt (3), Barry Larkin (4), Bonds (6), Pete Incaviglia (8), Walt Weiss (11), Brian McRae (17), Joe Magrane (18), Gregg Jefferies (20), Rafael Palmeiro (22) and Joey Cora (23).

Eight first-rounders reached the big leagues within one year, seven more by 1987.

"It's probably the fastest group to get to the big leagues," said Joe McIlvaine, then New York Mets vice president and now a Minnesota special assistant. "Whether that says something about the outstanding caliber of the players themselves, or the caliber of play in the Major Leagues, I don't know. But it's pretty amazing."

Simpson believes the Class of '85 received immense exposure with many members playing on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, "and everybody said that was the best amateur team ever assembled. The first four guys in the '85 draft were on that Olympic team.

"And remember Bonds didn't make the Olympic team, and neither did Incaviglia, Palmeiro or Johnson," Simpson added.

Clark lead the NL in RBIs in 1998 and was the MVP of the 1989 NLCS MVP. Entering 2002, Larkin -- the NL's MVP in 1995 -- ranks in Cincinnati's Top 10 in virtually every offensive category, including stolen bases and runs.

Weiss won Rookie of the Year honors in 1988 and played in three World Series; Oakland 1988-89 and Atlanta 1999. Magrane was the 1988 NL ERA champion at 2.18. Over the past five seasons Palmeiro ranks first among American Leaguers in home runs with 214.

Talk about longevity, five aforementioned players were still active in 2001 and four are still playing this season. And that's just the first round.

Johnson wasn't taken by Montreal until Round 2. Atlanta scooped up David Justice in Round 4. Chad Kreuter was Texas' fifth-round pick and Todd Pratt went to Boston in Round 6.

Justice, the NL's Rookie of the Year in 1990, was 1997 AL Comeback Player of the Year and the MVP of the 2000 ALCS.

Recent retirees Mark Gardner, Doug Henry and Al Martin went in the eighth round, and all played 10 or more years in the Majors. Brady Anderson, a 10th rounder, led Baltimore in homers with 50 in 1996 and is the Orioles' all-time stolen base leader (307).

"We had a lot of every day players and major contributors come out of the '85 draft. We had more guys with good Major League careers, and some Hall of Famers. Barry Bonds is still going strong."
-- Brian McRae
Later rounds produced the likes of Dennis Cook (18), Randy Velarde (19), John Smoltz (22) and Mark Grace (24).

Grace, a four-time Gold Glove honoree, reached the 2000-hit plateau in 1999, along with Bonds, Clark and Palmeiro. Larkin joined them in 2000 and Surhoff last season.

Like Grace, Smoltz was another jewel in the making. He captured the 1996 Cy Young after setting an Atlanta strikeout record with a league-leading 276. Smoltz won NLCS MVP honors in 1992 after a league-leading 215 strikeouts.

Among the players adding depth to this class are pitchers Bobby Thigpen, Jeff Brantley and Kevin Ritz. Thigpen retired as the Chicago White Sox career and single-season leader in saves. Ritz made a Colorado-record 35 starts in 1995 and raised the franchise standard in wins to 17 a season later.

Despite approaching middle age, 19 Class of '85 members were still playing at the Major League level last season. Fifteen are still active today.

If nothing else, the '85 draft was a ringing endorsement for college baseball. Seventeen of the 26 first-round picks were collegiate draftees and 15 of them played at the Major League level. Four of the nine high school selections also reached the big leagues.

Clark, Palmeiro, Brantley and Thigpen were Mississippi State teammates in 1985.

"Going to Oklahoma was the best decision of my life," Witt told Baseball America years ago. "It enabled me to bypass rookie ball and A-ball."

"It was definitely a big help," said Clark of his years in Starkville. "It taught me all the fundamentals of the game, and put me up against top competition."

At Arizona State, Barry Bonds played in the College World Series twice. He was the only Sun Devil starter not drafted in 1984 -- when 13 ASU players were chosen after his sophomore season. He was among a dozen Devils taken in 1985.

"All the guys I played baseball with in college were the best," Bonds said. "A lot of players I knew, there was no doubt they were gonna be in the Major Leagues -- it was just a matter of when. It's good to see everyone do well, but it's not anything I didn't expect to happen."

Gary Rausch covers the minors for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.