06/04/2002 10:46 am ET
Baseball draft symbolizes the game
By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com
There's nothing quite like the First-Year Player Draft.
In the NBA, the draft is over in a blink of an eye. Two rounds and out. Players get drafted, and boom, can make an impact almost immediately. The NFL's draft is a little longer, but those selected in the first couple of rounds more often than not get a chance to play immediately.
So it's only fitting that in the sport where it generally takes the longest to go from draft pick to Major League roster -- only 19 players have gone straight to the Majors -- that baseball's selection process is a two-day saga, a marathon not made-for-TV.
Beginning today at 1 p.m. ET, all 30 Major League teams will connect on a mass conference call. Think of it as a First-Year Player Draft party line. Two days and 50 rounds later, nearly 1,500 young baseball players will have their names called. High school teenagers, college seniors, pitchers, position players, all are waiting to hear when they were selected and where they might be headed.
"I try not to think about (where I'll go in the draft)," said Scott Kazmir, a high school pitcher from Houston who is expected to go in the top five of this year's draft. "You don't want to set up expectations that if they don't happen you're disappointed. I'll be happy if I go in the first (round)."
Getting drafted early is no guarantee for success in baseball. The history of the draft is littered with top picks gone bad, bonus babies who never panned out. For every Ken Griffey Jr. or Alex Rodriguez that's gone No. 1 overall, there's been a Brien Taylor or Al Chambers. According to Baseball America, since the draft began in 1965, more than 35 percent of first-round selections never played a game in the Major Leagues. The number jumps to nearly 60 percent for those selected in round two. By round five, only 12 percent ever see the Majors.
But getting drafted late doesn't mean no shot at success. That's part of what makes the baseball draft great. Sure, teams take pride in their first-round picks, giving them a large signing bonus and every opportunity to succeed. But the ability to sniff out a Major League-caliber player late in the draft? That's something on which clubs thump their chest about.
"That's a credit to our scouting department," said San Diego Padres general manager Kevin Towers about late-round successes. "They outscouted 29 clubs. These were not consensus picks, but they saw something in these players."
Look around Major League rosters today and a pretty good late-round All-Star team could be formed. From Mike Piazza (62nd round) to Mark Buehrle (38), from Kenny Rogers (39) to Jorge Posada (24), sometimes having to wait a long time provides players with inspiration to achieve.
"It's definitely a motivating factor," said Junior Spivey, a 36th-round selection. "For me, any time you're drafted past Round 20 it's going to motivate you. It's basically a do-or-die situation. It makes you work that much harder; it makes you more committed. I didn't get big money. There was less room for error for me because I had nothing to fall back on."
"When I found out they had drafted me, I thought 'great, nice pick,'" said Marcus Giles, taken in round 53. "I knew that I had better numbers than those guys drafted in the first couple rounds. I just wasn't as tall or big as they were."
Of course, there hasn't always been a draft to allocate players. Before 1965, teams would embark on bidding wars to sign the best prospects available. The draft was formed to try to curtail those bonuses and help the less successful franchises to compete, allowing them first crack at the best amateur talent. Rick Monday was the first pick of the first-ever draft, taken by the Kansas City A's.
Since 1965, 10 former draftees have made it to the Hall of Fame. Johnny Bench (Reds 1965) was the first selectee reaching Cooperstown with his 1989 induction. Tom Seaver (Mets, 1966) was next in 1992, followed by Reggie Jackson (A's, 1966) in '93, Mike Schmidt (Phillies, 1971) in '95, George Brett (Royals, 1971), Nolan Ryan (Mets, 1965) and Robin Yount (Brewers, 1973) in '99, Carlton Fisk (Red Sox, 1967) in 2000 and Dave Winfield (Padres, 1973) and Kirby Puckett (Twins, 1982) in 2001.
Ozzie Smith (Padres, 1977) becomes No. 11 this summer. Smith was a fourth-round choice, Ryan a 10th-rounder. All the rest were taken in the first two rounds.
Seeing who the next Hall of Famers may be has become a major reason people now pay attention to the draft. But it hasn't always been that way. Originally known as the Amateur Draft and switched to the First-Year Player Draft in 1998, this was the most secretive draft in professional sports, with only first-round picks being released soon after the draft. The rest of the draft wasn't sent out for public consumption for weeks.
Since 1998, however, MLB.com has been posting the draft results, and the First-Year Player Draft has become a huge internet event, with MLB.com setting traffic records on draft day every year it's covered the selections. MLB Radio provides exclusive, live, pick-by-pick coverage of the draft.
Today, it's not just prospect geeks and hard-core baseball fans who get into the draft. Casual fans want to check out who their favorite team selected. Relatives and friends want to see if their nephew or buddy got picked. Checking out the next generation -- sons or younger brothers of current and former Major Leaguers -- has become a national pastime.
And for many team executives, it's the best time of the year.
"When people ask me what part of being a GM is the best, I answer the first week of June, sitting there with the scouting director pulling magnets off the board," Towers said. "That first week of June, listening to our national cross-checker and scouting director speak with such enthusiasm [about players they've scouted]. Being a one-time scouting director, it's still to me, the most fun part of my job."
So join Kevin Towers. Sit back and enjoy. It's a long ride over the next two days. And for the kids taken over the 50 rounds, it's just beginning.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.