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No one jumps when the phone rings at Todd Van Poppel's house. It rings almost constantly, and not just because Todd is a typical high school senior. It rings because Todd just may be the next Nolan Ryan. People say that all the time, and people call at any time.
If the Van Poppel phone rings at 6:30 a.m., as it often has in the past three months, Todd and his parents, Hank and Jan, know immediately who is on the other end of the line. Only Atlanta Braves scout Red Murff calls before breakfast. After breakfast, it's anybody's guess. Could be Braves general manager Bobby Cox or University of Texas recruiting coordinator Deron Gustafson. Could be Detroit Tiger scout Dee Phillips or any of the other four-score-and-who-knows-how-many-more scouts who have come to Arlington, Texas, to see if the reports on Todd are true.
The Van Poppels don't expect to get much rest before June 4, when major league baseball begins its free-agent amateur draft. Jan thinks now might be a good time to visit her parents in Ohio. Hank is considering another alternative. "I think we may get an answering machine," he says, a smile crossing his tired face.
That might be a good idea. A taped answer could help the major leagues get the message: "Hi, this is Todd. We could come to the phone, hut there's no point talking about a six-figure signing bonus and a quick promotion to the bigs. I really appreciate your interest—especially yours, Mr. Cox-but I have decided to follow my heart and accept a scholarship to Texas. Please call again—in three years."
Barring an unexpected change of direction, the next Nolan Ryan is going to do something the original Ryan did not: He will delay his pro career as a baseball pitcher to spend at least three years working toward a college degree. As a result, he is passing up the chance to be the No. 1 pick in the draft.
The odds on a player's being the first chosen in baseball's draft are infinitesimal: Major league teams select from among all college juniors and seniors, all junior college players and all high school seniors. No high school pitcher has been picked No. 1 since the Texas Rangers fell head over heels for Houston Westchester High lefthander David Clyde in 1973.
But as late as the evening of May 14, Todd appeared to be the leading choice of the Braves, who hold this year's first pick. That was the evening that the radar guns—which pop up like mushrooms in the stands wherever Todd pitches—clocked Todd, who's a righthander, at 95 mph deep into a 133-pitch effort for the Martin High Warriors. It was also the night he told reporters after the game that the Braves, or anyone else, would be wasting a pick if they drafted him.
Todd's announcement came as a shock to those tuned in to speculation that Atlanta wants Todd badly enough to give him a record signing bonus, which would mean more than the $350,000 LSU pitcher Ben McDonald got from the Baltimore Orioles after they made him the first pick in last year's draft. Murff, who had been seriously scouting Todd for almost a year, was stunned.
Two days later Hank confirmed to Murff that the newspaper stories were true, but Murff pressed for more information. He suspected that either the Van Poppels were looking for leverage or had secretly cut a deal with a team that would draft below the Braves—the Texas Rangers, who play their home games only 10 miles from the Van Poppels' house, were rumored to be likely culprits. Murff was still trying to understand the decision a few days later, but time had diluted his suspicions. "I don't feel they're playing games," Murff said. "They are sincere about their feelings toward college. I don't think this is a part of negotiations. If it is, it's a great ploy."
Todd says he does not want to mislead anyone. "Right now I feel what is best for me is to go to college," he says. "I'll listen to the pros, but I'll let them know up front I'm going to college. That's the way it's going to be."