On draft day, every pick can change the world. That's the nature of hope and sports. Every recruit is a future star. Every draft pick might go to the Hall of Fame. In the NFL draft -- the biggest talent-grab of them all -- you have these fun interviews with general managers and coaches after every pick. Every one sounds the same:
Reporter: So were you surprised that Bob Hossenfefer was still available for you at 23?
Coach: Surprised? Shocked is the word, Chris. It's a miracle, that's all. We didn't think there was any way he was going to be there at No. 23. Frankly, he was No. 1 on our board. In fact, I'll be honest with you, he's so good that in our draft room he has his own board ... we put all the other guys on a different board. I don't even know where we keep that other board. And who cares? We had a draft meeting yesterday that lasted 19 hours and Bob was the only player we even talked about.
Reporter: What can he do for your team?
Coach: Chris, the real question is, "What can't he do?" I have to tell you, the 22 teams that picked ahead of us, well, I mean no offense, but they're clearly morons.
In years past, baseball had the one draft that was low on hype. There's a good reason for this: The baseball draft is different for all the obvious reasons. Every player drafted is three-four-five levels below the big leagues. And so, almost every player drafted will have to spend three-four-five years in the minor leagues.
And, in the minor leagues, anything can happen. The players could get hurt. They could get fat. They could get frustrated. They could get discouraged. They could get sick of baseball. They could lose themselves in the nightlife*. They could find it impossible to throw their fastball for strikes. They could find it impossible to hit even mediocre sliders. And so on.
*Minor league ballplayers do have a knack of finding nightlife ... even in those small towns you suspect would not have any.
Because of all this, the baseball draft has long been a non-event. For many years, baseball teams would not even tell us who they drafted -- it was like a secret society or something. But, lately, it has changed. Baseball people cannot help but notice that the NFL draft is now one of the biggest events in sports. And baseball people, frankly, are jealous of the way fans are utterly smitten by the NFL.
So, this year, for the first time, they tried to make the First Year Player Draft a television spectacular. They broadcast it in prime time. Commissioner Bud Selig came out to the lectern every few minutes to make a dramatic reading of a name he clearly had never seen before. Then, some baseball analysts talked for a few minutes about that name, and how great that name would become, how that name had 60-power or three-plus pitches -- scout talk -- and everyone came to the inevitable conclusion that the name would really help the team in the future. Yes, it's a familiar formula.
Only ... the whole production didn't work at all, at least for me. To be fair, this isn't anyone's fault -- not even Bud Selig's. The baseball draft simply doesn't make any sense as an event because:
1. The vast majority of players drafted will never get close to the big leagues. Take the 1994 draft ... 15 years ago. There were 287 players taken in the first 10 rounds, and 190 of them -- two thirds -- did not get a single at-bat or throw a single pitch in the big leagues.*
*And many of the 97 who DID make it only made it for a brief and beautiful moment -- Stephen Larkin and Ron Wright got three at-bats, Eddie Priest pitched in two games, Jason Ryan and Todd Belitz and Tony Mounce and Alberto Castillo won once, Jamie Bluma never won a game and so on.
Remember, that's just the FIRST 10 rounds. After that, there were another 1,420 player selected -- and only 97 of them (6.8 percent) had a single at-bat in the big leagues. And many of those 97 players don't even count because they didn't sign that year -- they went back into the draft later and made it with a whole different team.
2. Even the players who DO make it will not make it for years. If the NFL Draft is, as the cliché goes, like getting presents on Christmas morning, well, the baseball draft is like getting a savings bond from your grandmother that will mature when you turn 18.
Example: One of the best players taken in the 1994 draft was Paul Konerko. He was a high school catcher from Scottsdale, Ariz. He was big, strong, had huge power potential -- the whole package. Obviously that draft was not on television, but imagine if it was. Imagine being a 14-year-old Dodgers fan in 1994, and you're watching the draft on television, and analysts are telling you all about this brilliant young catcher who crushes long home runs. You have visions of Johnny Bench in your mind.
So what really happened? Three years later, Konerko made his first appearance for the Dodgers ... only he was a first baseman by then. The next year -- you are now an 18-year-old Dodgers fan, just out of high school -- Konerko hits .215 the first three months of the season and the Dodgers trade him away to Cincinnati. Oh well, another bust.
Then, Cincinnati trades him to Chicago. You barely even notice this. Years pass. Now you're 22, just out of college, got your first job, and maybe you have stopped being a big baseball fan. Maybe you're watching the All-Star Game for kicks. And the announcer points out that the player at first base -- making his first All-Star Game appearance -- is, yep, Paul Konerko.
And, remember, Konerko is one of the true success stories of the draft. Even when things work out, the baseball draft is like hope on delay.
Anyway, most of the times things don't work out. I found it funny to hear the analysts going on and on about how this player might be this or that. It made me think of a guy named Earl Cunningham. There's absolutely no doubt that Earl Cunningham was the best high school baseball player I ever saw. I'm not the only person who feels that way either. Cunningham played baseball for Lancaster High in South Carolina, and there had to be 30 or 40 scouts watching him every single game he played. He rarely disappointed. Every game, it seemed, he would hit these mammoth home runs, over the wall, across the street, into the strip mall. It was ludicrous. He was a folk hero.
When the draft came around, everyone expected Cunningham to go with the second overall pick -- behind LSU pitcher Ben McDonald, who in baseball circles was being hyped more or less like Stephen Strasburg was hyped this year. I was a young reporter covering Lancaster High -- I was sort of his personal reporter then -- and I started hearing about ANOTHER high school folk hero in Texas, a guy named Paul Coleman, who, supposedly, was hitting home runs that made Cunningham's blasts look like infield pop-ups. I remember scout after scout telling me that it was amazing to have TWO high school players with that sort of power in the same draft. They both had a chance to lead baseball in home runs ... and soon.
Well, since you probably never heard of Earl Cunningham or Paul Coleman, you can guess they never made it. Coleman was the sixth overall pick, by St. Louis, and he dealt with injury problems -- blown knee, bad elbow -- and he hit a grand total of 13 minor league home runs before disappearing. He re-emerged in an independent league a few years later, and then in one of the odder turns got big in radio-control car racing.
Earl Cunningham, meanwhile, never made the adjustment and never made it out of A Ball. He still had the prodigious power, yes, but he'd strike out almost half the time. One year, his strikeout-to-walk ratio was 54-3. Some scouts say he ate himself out of the game. Some say he could not hit a real curveball. One scout told me that Cunningham simply didn't make it because, well, most players don't make it. "He was the best prospect I ever saw," the scout said. "But you can only see so much." That seems the most honest answer.
And that might be the biggest reason all this new hype for the baseball draft is probably doomed. The baseball draft is more about disappointment than triumph, more about failure than success. If the averages hold up, maybe five of the players taken in the first round will have reasonable big league careers, play in 1,200 games or so. Maybe one or two pitchers will win 100 games in the show. A couple might become big stars. Maybe.
In other words: It's risky to hype ANY baseball draft pick, much less do a big show about the whole thing. It reminded me that a few years ago, the Kansas City Royals took a fast and promising outfielder named Chris Lubanski with the fifth overall pick in the draft. And after he signed, he took a little batting practice at Kauffman Stadium, and our dear friend Art Stewart -- one of the great baseball men ever -- walked around gushing: "You will remember this day for the rest of your life."
It's six years later, and Lubanski has not yet had a single big league at-bat. He's hitting .308 in Omaha, and maybe he will get a chance. Maybe not. Either way, Art Stewart was right: I haven't forgotten that day.