- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Heads will be scratched behind batting cages everywhere about the decision to walk away from being a No. 1 pick and from the immediate riches that come with it. But remember this about Todd: He was one of only five students to make an A in his senior economics class. "Todd is gifted in athletics, and he's very good in academics," says his economics teacher, John Danielson. "His real dilemma, no matter how talented he is, is that he's still an 18-year-old high school student."
The second of two sons, Todd grew up competing with his brother, Scott, three years older. Early on, both were put on the track for college by their parents. "We really feel that education is power," says Hank, a general manager for a foods company, who worked his way through college, finally earning his degree from Northwestern at the age of 28. "Of course, money is power too, but there is so much you can do with an education."
"When we were growing up, our parents taught us the value of a college degree," says Todd. "We planned from day one to have college degrees."
But no one planned on his becoming the top pitching prospect in the nation. At 6'5", 205 pounds, Todd is blessed with one of those arms that is spoken of in mythical terms. In his sophomore and junior seasons he had a combined 14-4 record with a 1.99 ERA, relying largely on his fastball to strike out 128 hitters in 102 innings. Scouts took notice, but it wasn't until last summer, when his gentle curveball turned into one with a sharp break and he added a changeup to his repertoire, that his talents started setting hearts aflutter. Murff's was one of them. It was Murff who was responsible for the New York Mets' drafting Ryan in the 10th round in 1965, the first year of the major league draft. However, not even Ryan impressed Murff as much as Todd has. "He looks like he's throwing batting practice, doesn't he?" said Murff as Todd, in his no-strain style, threw a two-hit shutout against Haltom High in May. "He's probably as good as anybody who's ever come along, including Nolan Ryan. He doesn't throw as hard as Nolan did in high school, but he's bigger and stronger. He's progressed further than Nolan at this age."
Murff scouted Roger Clemens both in high school and at the University of Texas. "Clemens never once made me think he could throw the way I think Van Poppel will throw in the future," Murff says.
Others have been equally impressed. During the spring-training lockout Rangers manager Bobby Valentine passed some time at Martin High's tiny baseball field. "Awesome," he said after watching Todd. "He could pitch in the big leagues right now." Says Tom Chandler, a Cleveland Indians scout, "When you're looking for a major league pitcher, you're looking for one just like him."
And when you're looking for a pitcher to give a college scholarship to, you're looking for one just like him. "I don't want to be known as a dumb jock, like a lot of guys are," Todd says. "Athletics won't carry you forever."
Todd knew that baseball would put a strain on his time in his last semester of high school, but he still chose analytical trigonometry and physics as his two electives. He will graduate with honors on June 2, two days before the draft, with a rank in the top fifth of his 680-member class.
Yvonne Lambert had read newspaper stories about Todd's baseball exploits, but she did not know what to expect from him as a student in her senior English class. She remembers that while teaching a unit on poetry, something in Wordsworth's The World Is Too Much with Us prompted Todd to give an impromptu discourse to the class. "He picked up on the idea that there is more to life than making money," Lambert says. "That nature is very important. With his love of sports, being out in nature, he appreciates its role in life. He understands that money is important, but that it should not be the end-all to life."
For the schoolboy baseball player who shows exceptional talent both on the diamond and in the classroom, what to do after high school graduation has become a difficult decision. Colleges like Texas, with inviting campuses and big-time baseball programs, are becoming an increasingly desirable alternative to life in the minors. Three first-round choices in last year's draft rejected pro offers in order to attend college. And all three turned their backs on big money: For the first time, the 23 first-round selections who did sign all received bonuses of more than $100,000.