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During a family conference in the Van Poppel living room on April 25, Todd surprised his father. He said it was nice to be considered for the No. 1 pick, but that neither status nor money outweighed his desire to enroll at Texas and compete in the Olympics. Hank assumed the role of devil's advocate. "What if you're the first draft choice, turn down $200,000, then go to Texas and blow your arm out the first year?" he asked his son.
"That's life," answered Todd.
Hank gave Gustafson the news a few days later, but when reporters approached him on the subject, Hank balked, wary of closing off Todd's options prematurely. Todd was not nearly so protective of his plans. "It's going to take something extraordinary to get me to sign," he told a reporter. "One of my goals is to play in the Olympics, and I want to play in the College World Series. Those things are really what I want."
While weighing a decision that would shape his life, Todd seemed more worried about whether his complexion would clear up before his prom date with Kara Smith. "I'm really proud of Todd," says Hank. "He hasn't let any of this change him."
But Hank was feeling the pressure. On a Saturday morning in early May, an article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram caught his eye. Longhorn ace Kirk Dressendorfer, another likely first-round pick in the upcoming draft, had been ineffective recently because of tendinitis. The story raised questions about the manner in which Gustafson had used Dressendorfer. Some in baseball have contended for years that Gustafson overuses his top pitchers to improve his impressive winning percentage, which after 23 seasons in Austin stands at .822 (1,200-259). Gustafson also has his defenders. "I like the guys out of Texas," says one scouting director. "They come out mentally tough. If they hold up, they're ready to play the game."
In any case, it didn't take Hank long to get Gustafson on the phone to talk about the newspaper story. "Gustafson's answer was that nobody ever made Dressendorfer pitch," says Hank. "He said he always asks his pitchers if they're O.K. to pitch. He asked Dressendorfer, and he said he could pitch. But that's weak. It shouldn't be the kids' decision."
Just a week earlier, Todd had gotten a scare of his own in a game against Sam Houston High, a crosstown rival. After two scoreless innings, a Sam Houston batter launched a rocket up the middle. Todd tried to knock it down with his bare hand, badly bruising his middle finger. While Hank steamed in his familiar spot behind the dugout, Todd stayed in the game for three more innings, giving up seven runs and his first two home runs of the season, before finally coming out. Todd was scared when he left the game. He could not bend the finger, which was rapidly swelling. "I thought I might have fractured it," he says.
X-rays proved negative, but the incident was a frightening chapter in Todd's education. "I should have come out of that game right away," he said later. "I thought my hand was O.K., and I wanted to win. But I'm a kid, and nothing like that ever happened to me before."
On May 6, only 30 days before the draft, the Van Poppels granted a house call to Murff, who had been requesting a visit for months. Once in the door, Murff rolled out all his Ryan stories before getting down to business with Hank, Jan and Todd. But nobody had an answer when Murff asked the magic question: How much is he going to cost?
"You know I can't answer that, Red," said Hank.