Draft evolves from covert operation to big-time event
Posted: Thursday June 7, 2007 10:35PM; Updated: Thursday June 7, 2007 10:35PM
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Darryl Strawberry was in history class at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles in June of 1980 when his principal burst through the classroom door, pulled him away from his desk and gave him the news. He had just been selected by the New York Mets with the first overall pick in the Major League Baseball draft.
"I was like 'New York? Where's New York?'" Strawberry, who had never been much farther East than Southern California, said with a laugh Thursday. "I went down to the office, got on the phone, talked to a couple of people. Some cameras were there. It was great."
Josh Vitters, a strapping young third baseman who plays for Cypress High School in Cypress, Calif., was sitting in suit and tie next to his parents on a dais Thursday when MLB commissioner Bud Selig called his name from the stage -- on national television, no less -- as the third overall pick in the draft. "I'm missing school right now," a grinning Vitters said as he scrolled through a full text-message inbox on his cellphone, moments after the Cubs selected him, "which makes it even better."
And that, in a nutshell 27 years in the making, is how baseball's draft has evolved, from near obscurity, bordering once in a while on cloak-and-daggerism, to the first televised draft in the history of the game. Thursday's draft was a show complete with ESPN's Peter Gammons, the commissioner, a room sprinkled with Hall of Fame players and a curious, sometimes slightly raucous crowd of maybe 300 of what we can only assume were the most die-hard of baseball fans.
Thursday's draft, held at the Milk House arena at Disney World, was not anything like the NFL Draft. It was not the NBA Draft. It wasn't meant to be. In fact, there's no way that it could be. Most of the players that will be picked over the next couple of days -- close to 1,500 of them in a mind-numbing 50 rounds -- are largely unknown to all but the nuttiest of baseball fans. So the screaming rafter-hanging crowds in those other drafts, cheering or moaning about well-known picks ... that's just not going to happen in baseball's draft, at least not yet.
"We didn't want to make it like the NFL -- not that we could," said Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations. Still, Solomon sees huge things ahead for the baseball draft. "If we get the kind of traction I think we can, I have no doubts it will happen."
Solomon pulled together this draft over the last year or so, settling on its Orlando-area venue just a couple of months ago. Aside from the on-the-fly planning, part of the reason it landed here and not at a more high-profile spot in a more-populated city: Solomon was a college football teammate of Reggie Williams, the former Bengals linebacker who now runs Disney's Wide World of Sports complex. "I knew he wouldn't fleece me," Solomon said.
Nobody was expecting much out of Thursday's draft in terms of TV ratings, or even in overall media impact. This is, in the minds of baseball's brass, nothing more than a foot in the door. Just 10 years ago -- even more recently than that -- the draft was completely off the media radar. Teams would announce their first-round picks, after the fact, and then sometimes wait days to fill-in the blanks on the rest of their choices.
The Internet changed things. MLB.com says that the draft now rivals Opening Day as its highest traffic day of the year. And baseball is hoping that more coverage of college baseball through MLB's yet-to-be-launched television channel and other outlets like ESPNU, the cable channel concentrating on college sports, will help spur interest in amateur players, thus increasing the draft's profile.
Though the atmosphere Thursday was low-key in comparison to the other professional drafts, compared to baseball's first try in 1965, there was no comparison. Back then, players were recommended to teams by a single scout -- there was no one to cross-check the players at the time -- and the whole thing was consummated without fanfare in a hotel ballroom.
"It was a little chaotic," said Art Stewart, who has been part of every draft ever held. He is in his 38th season with the Royals as senior adviser to general manager Dayton Moore. "Now, this is the age of information. The Internet. You have Baseball America. And fantasy leagues. When they took off, things really got big."
The draft has changed in more ways than its visibility. In '65, No. 1 pick Rick Monday signed with the Kansas City Athletics for $104,000. In '80, Strawberry got $200,000. As recently as 1990, Chipper Jones signed with the Braves as the first overall pick and earned a relatively meager $200,000.
In 1991, the Yankees gave lefty Brien Taylor a staggering $1.55 million. Two years ago, shortstop Justin Upton signed with the Devil Rays for a record $6.1 million.
"Needless to say," Stewart said, "we've come a long way."
Baseball's draft won't ever come close to being as popular as the NFL's or the NBA's. But baseball is in a period of unprecedented popularity, with both attendance and revenues at an all-time high. Seeing the June draft evolve into a yearly staple of a programming-hungry TV network -- perhaps MLB's own, scheduled to launch in 2009 -- is the surest-bet on a day built around promise.