It's an inevitable rite of spring: Baseball scribes from across the nation congregate in the Florida and Arizona sun and trade gossip about the players they cover. Andruw Jones sure put on weight.... Delmon Young isn't nearly as nice as his brother Dmitri.... What's that dead cat atop Josh Beckett's head?...Can you believe Scott Erickson married Lisa Guerrero? In Kissimmee, Fla., where the Atlanta Braves train at a complex called Disney's Wide World of Sports, much of the spring chatter has centered on J.D. Drew, the team's new rightfielder and number 5 hitter. Around the time Drew was pulling on his Braves uniform for the first time, Atlanta's beat writers were getting the lowdown on the reputation Drew developed during his six seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals: a player with the passion of a lamppost; a guy with Mantle-esque talents and Randall Simon-esque desire; a man who'd sit out a week with the slightest toothache or muscle pull. In short, a guy who's softer than a roll of Charmin.
Sitting near his locker on a recent afternoon, Drew hears the suggestion that perhaps that reputation has less to do with his real character than with his devotion to Christianity—that if he were just another injury-prone outfielder, one who didn't sprinkle every third sentence with the word Jesus, few would speak ill of him. A thoughtful 28-year-old with brilliant blue eyes and a small shrub of dirty blond hair on his chin, Drew ponders the idea for a moment.
Then something miraculous occurs. The Red Sea parts, the bush burns, water turns to wine and J.D. Drew, one of baseball's most laconic players, gets mad. Not just mad. Enraged. His nostrils flare and his forehead furrows. "You know what," he says. "That sort of talk has come up before, and it really burns me. It's garbage. Yes, I love Jesus. But if you're a true believer, you're gonna be devoted to the ability God has given you. It's your obligation. Anything less than 100 percent is a repudiation of God's gifts. And I can promise you one thing—I give 100 percent."
It's a rare glimpse of Drew's passionate side—the side the Braves will need to see more of. In the midst of a dramatic makeover, the 12-time defending division champions (three in the National League West and nine in the NL East) are more vulnerable than ever. Greg Maddux is gone to the Cubs, replaced in the rotation by (egads) John Thomson, a righthander with an ERA of 4.93 over his six major league seasons. Javy Lopez is off to Baltimore, his spot behind the plate taken by (oy) Johnny Estrada, and his .231 with eight home runs and 41 RBIs in 115 big league games. Most glaringly, Gary Sheffield has left for the Bronx, taking his .330 average, 39 home runs and 132 RBIs from 2003 with him. In his place in right-field? Drew.
In December, Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz acquired his newest outfielder (along with utilityman Eli Marrero) from St. Louis in exchange for reliever Ray King, righthanded starter Jason Marquis and top pitching prospect Adam Wainwright. Schuerholz was convinced that Drew, born in Valdosta, Ga., and raised 12 miles northwest in tiny Hahira, Ga., could return to his roots and emerge not just as a fan favorite but as a superstar. Following five seasons of injuries and unfulfilled potential, Drew, in the final year of his contract, would presumably play with vigor, passion and, most important, a healthy dose of pride. "It's funny when you hear about J.D.'s religious convictions as a negative," says Schuerholz. "We're always reading about people who do wrong, be it drugs, crime, whatever. Then when someone comes along with convictions and character, he gets ripped. I think that's unfair. We're talking about a player who came up with great fanfare, has incredible tools, but whose career has been up and down. If anyone will be motivated and intense, I expect it'll be J.D. Drew."
Indeed, Drew has much to prove. Seven years ago he left Florida State as perhaps the best college player of the '90s and was selected second, by Philadelphia, in the June 1997 amateur draft. But after he and his agent, Scott Boras, demanded an $11 million contract, the Phillies backed off, and Drew's name became synonymous with greed in sports. After playing parts of two seasons with the independent St. Paul Saints, Drew reentered the draft in '98, was picked fifth by the Cardinals and quickly signed for $8.5 million over four years. Since then his career has been about trying—and generally failing—to live up to the advance billing.
Drew has never played more than 135 games in any of his five full major league seasons. His injury history is an encyclopedia of medical misfortune: Strained right quadriceps in 1999. Sprained left ankle in 2000. Broken right pinkie and lower back sprain in 2001. Right knee tendinitis in 2002. A lengthy recovery in 2003 from off-season knee surgery on his right patella tendon. Save for '01, when he batted .323 with 27 homers and 73 RBIs in 109 games, Drew has never hit better than .300 or had more than 20 homers or 70 RBIs. In 100 games last year he hit .289 with 15 homers and 42 RBIs. "For him it's just about staying healthy," says Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. "We saw signs from him that made you say, 'This kid is unbelievable.' But teammates ultimately respect guys who go to the post the most. When something keeps happening that prevents you from going out there, they're not very forgiving."
Drew is keenly aware of this perception. He calls his career "disappointing" and "unfulfilling," and, despite the hype that accompanied his joining the Braves, he did everything possible to steer clear of the spotlight. "I've contributed nothing here," he says. "This is Chipper Jones's team and John Smoltz's team, the guys who've kept it all going." On a recent afternoon Drew was asked to pose alongside his new outfield mates, Chipper and Andruw Jones, in one of those macho, we-rule-the-world publicity shots. Drew obliged, looking about as comfortable as Bud Selig at an OutKast gig. "That's not J.D.," says his younger brother, Tim, a nonroster pitcher with the Braves. "He's about humility and playing this game for the Lord."
This winter Drew was working out at his home in Hahira, a town of 1,626 some 213 miles south of Atlanta, when the phone rang. His wife, Sheigh, picked it up, and a strange look crossed her face. It was Cardinals G.M. Walt Jocketty. She handed the phone to her husband. "I've got good news and bad news," he told Drew. "The good news is, you're moving closer to home. The bad news is, we're trading you."
For a guy who's as Georgian as a basket of peaches (just listen to the twang), Drew was, surprisingly, heartbroken. His goal had been to win a World Series with the Cardinals, and instead he was being shipped out—a potential star who never reached his potential. He had been working on his hitting and rehabbing his right knee, expecting to finally have a breakout season with St. Louis in 2004. Instead he was gone.