Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 7, 2016

From First To Last To The Hall

In 1986 the Seattle Mariners finished 67-95, good for last place in the American League West, some 25 games behind the division-winning California Angels. The season was the Mariners’ tenth since joining the league as part of the AL’s 1977 expansion, and it was the tenth time that Seattle lost more games than it won. Six of those ten campaigns saw the team lose at least 95 games. So the dismal result of the ’86 season was hardly surprising to Mariners fans, who would have to wait another five years for their team to post its first winning record, and four more beyond that before the old Kingdome finally saw playoff baseball.

About the only upside of finishing dead last, not just in their division but also in the entire American League, was that Seattle was guaranteed one of the first two picks in the following year’s draft. As it happened the NL’s Pittsburgh Pirates were three games worse than the Mariners, but under the rules then in place the first pick alternated between leagues each year. Since the Pirates had chosen first in 1986 when the 1987 first-year player draft began on June 2nd the twenty-five other general managers on the nationwide conference call waited anxiously for Seattle’s Dick Balderson to announce his choice of the draft’s top pick.

There was no commensurate anticipation and likely far fewer team representatives still on the line when the following year’s draft reached its 62nd round. No other professional sport has a draft quite like the Great Game’s. The NFL and NHL drafts each have seven rounds; the NBA’s only two. In contrast under baseball’s most recent collective bargaining agreement the draft is now limited, if one can call it that, to forty rounds. But in the 1980’s it went on essentially for as long as any teams were interested in selecting players.

The 1988 draft lasted 75 rounds, with only the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays selecting from the 68th round on. Those two franchises along with five others took young prospects in the 62nd round, though in truth the term scarcely applies to players tabbed so late in the process. Teams would often use the draft’s late rounds to make courtesy picks, rewarding loyal supporters or key executives by selecting a son or a friend so that the young man could always say he’d been drafted; but with neither the expectation nor intent that the draftee would sign even a minor league contract much less ever play in the majors.

In 1987 the Mariners used their first pick to select Ken Griffey Jr., the son of the three-time All-Star outfielder who had won back-to-back championships with Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine in 1975 and 1976. Junior, who would carry the nickname throughout his career, had been named the country’s high school player of the year at Cincinnati’s Archbishop Moeller High School, but neither that accolade nor his pride of place in the draft guaranteed big league success. Roughly half of the overall top picks in the draft have gone on to be All-Stars; but that just means that an equal number of presumed sure things turned out to be journeymen or in a few cases not major league caliber at all.

But as fans everywhere know, Griffey Jr. turned out to be more than just an All-Star. Over twenty-two seasons, all but forty-one games of which were spent with the Mariners and Reds, he hammered 630 home runs, leading the AL in homers four times. Sixth on the career home run list, he finished just shy of 2,800 hits while driving in more than 1,800 runs. A complete player, Griffey Jr. also stole 184 bases and won ten Gold Glove Awards as well as the 1997 American League MVP trophy.

One year after Griffey’s selection the Los Angeles Dodgers were one of the handful of teams still making selections as the draft moved into its 62nd round. A total of 1,389 players had already been drafted when L.A.’s turn came. Robin Ventura and Tino Martinez were 1st round picks that year. Four-time All-Star Jim Edmonds was chosen in the 7th; while knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who would help the Red Sox win a pair of titles, went one round later. Proving that occasional gems could be found in the draft’s later rounds, Kenny Lofton, who batted .299, led the AL in stolen bases five times and won four Gold Gloves during an itinerant career with eleven different teams, was the 428th overall pick, selected in the 17th round by the Astros.

Long after all those future stars had learned the organization with which they would begin their professional career, the Dodgers made a courtesy pick in round sixty-two. The son of a friend of manager Tommy Lasorda was the 1,390th player chosen, 19-year old Mike Piazza. But what no one in the Dodgers front office knew was that the teenager didn’t understand that his selection was just for show.

Fans across the Great Game are glad that he didn’t. Through sixteen seasons with five teams, but principally the Dodgers and Mets, Piazza built a career as arguably the finest offensive catcher of all time. He hit 427 home runs, 396 of which came while playing catcher, the most ever for that position. He passed the 2,000 hit plateau with room to spare, recorded more than 1,300 RBIs and scored more than 1,000 runs. An immediate success, Piazza was the 1993 National League Rookie of the Year. He was ultimately named to 12 All-Star teams while amassing a .308 career batting average.

Now from the very top of the draft and from its deepest depths, Griffey Jr. and Piazza are joined as this year’s inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame. For all the expected greatness that his draft position suggested from the start, Junior is the first overall number one draft pick to be voted into Cooperstown. Befitting the inauspicious beginning to his big league journey, Mike Piazza is by far the lowest draft selection to ever receive the call to the Hall. Both set records as players. In setting records by their election to the Hall of Fame, both remind us of the glorious unpredictability that is at the heart of all our games.

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Responses

  1. Nice!


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