Phenom under Fire
J.D. Drew's $7 million deal has antagonized players in the Cardinals system and beyond
Let the record show that J.D. Drew finally began his career with a major league organization at 6:09 p.m. CDT on July 4 in Wichita, Kans., about a year later than the rest of the baseball world thought he should have. His debut featured its own mocking soundtrack. Before his first at bat for the Double A Arkansas Travelers against the Wichita Wranglers, the public address system blared Pink Floyd's Money. For his next at bat the background music was the Beatles' Money (That's What I Want). His third at bat was greeted by the strains of Dire Straits' Money for Nothing, and his final turn was accompanied by the Steve Miller Band's Take the Money and Run. It didn't take a major leaguer to detect a theme developing.
A day earlier the Cardinals had signed the 22-year-old centerfielder to the largest contract ever for a ballplayer signed by the team that drafted him, providing a guaranteed $7 million (including a $3 million signing bonus) over four seasons, with incentives that could make the deal worth $8.5 million. That ended Drew's 13 months of high-profile haggling with, first, the Phillies, who selected him No. 2 in the 1997 draft, and then the Cardinals, who made him the fifth pick this year. Along the way Drew, whose agent, Scott Boras, had initially demanded $11 million from the Phillies, cemented his status as baseball's new poster boy for greed.
Whenever Drew is asked about his prolonged holdout, he responds with well-rehearsed piety, insisting that his career path is all part of God's plan. "I've stuck to my principles all along," Drew says. "Scott told me what I was worth on the open market, and I was willing to wait till I got it."
The deal has made Drew a pariah. While his Arkansas teammates have publicly accepted him, one of them, second baseman Stubby Clapp, allows that Drew's contract squabbling was "a black mark on the game." Drew's signing is bound to create a ripple effect throughout the game, raising the pay scale for all unsigned '98 first-round draft picks. It's especially vexing for the Phillies as they try to sign Pat Burrell, the player they chose with the No. 1 pick in this year's draft.
Of the 25 Cardinals on the big league roster, only seven have more guaranteed money in their current contracts than Drew does. To avoid further ruffling the feathers of the St. Louis players, Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty refused to grant Drew contractual assurances that he would be called up to the majors on a specific timetable. But having spent that much on a draft choice, the Cardinals will now have to up the ante if they hope to re-sign potential free agents Brian Jordan, Todd Stottlemyre, Royce Clayton and Delino DeShields.
Jordan has called Drew's deal "outrageous." Mark McGwire proposed a $250,000 salary cap on future draft picks after saying, "You've got to have your head examined if you're going to turn down $6 million out of college," referring to the Phillies' offer that Drew refused. Reaction from other baseball precincts ranges from similarly ornery to scary, especially in Philadelphia, where righthander Curt Schilling has said, "They better issue him a helmet with double ear flaps."
Drew understands that he can best deflect the criticism by proving his worth, and the lefthanded-hitting slugger did crack two home runs in his second game for Arkansas. Through Sunday he was 9 for 31 (.290) with three homers and seven RBIs in eight games, while eliciting comparisons to Mickey Mantle. With his powerful swing, his grace in centerfield and his strong throwing arm, Drew does not shy away from such comparisons and even plans to wear Mantle's number 7 when he reaches the big leagues. "Hopefully I'll turn out to be like him," he says. "Who wouldn't want to do that? I set very high goals for myself."
If Drew makes the majors full time next season as the Cardinals expect, he may be considered a bargain by the time his contract ends in 2001. Although he might have collected more money in the long ran by beginning his career last summer and perhaps becoming eligible for arbitration more quickly, Drew isn't looking backward. "I'm at peace with my decisions, and if I had to do it all over, I wouldn't change anything," he says. "Some people have formed negative opinions of me, but someday hopefully they'll judge me on my passion for baseball and how I play the game."
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