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The Passion Of J.D. Drew Atlanta's new outfielder has spent his career fighting injuries, insults and those who say his religious devotion keeps him from stardom

March 22, 2004
March 22, 2004

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March 22, 2004

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The Passion Of J.D. Drew Atlanta's new outfielder has spent his career fighting injuries, insults and those who say his religious devotion keeps him from stardom

It's an inevitable rite of spring: Baseball scribes from across
the nation congregate in the Florida and Arizona sun and trade
gossip about the players they cover. Andruw Jones sure put on
weight.... Delmon Young isn't nearly as nice as his brother
Dmitri.... What's that dead cat atop Josh Beckett's head?... Can
you believe Scott Erickson married Lisa Guerrero? In Kissimmee,
Fla., where the Atlanta Braves train at a complex called Disney's
Wide World of Sports, much of the spring chatter has centered on
J.D. Drew, the team's new rightfielder and number 5 hitter.
Around the time Drew was pulling on his Braves uniform for the
first time, Atlanta's beat writers were getting the lowdown on
the reputation Drew developed during his six seasons with the
St. Louis Cardinals: a player with the passion of a lamppost; a
guy with Mantle-esque talents and Randall Simon-esque desire; a
man who'd sit out a week with the slightest toothache or muscle
pull. In short, a guy who's softer than a roll of Charmin.

This is an article from the March 22, 2004 issue Original Layout

Sitting near his locker on a recent afternoon, Drew hears the
suggestion that perhaps that reputation has less to do with his
real character than with his devotion to Christianity--that if he
were just another injury-prone outfielder, one who didn't
sprinkle every third sentence with the word Jesus, few would
speak ill of him. A thoughtful 28-year-old with brilliant blue
eyes and a small shrub of dirty blond hair on his chin, Drew
ponders the idea for a moment.

Then something miraculous occurs. The Red Sea parts, the bush
burns, water turns to wine and J.D. Drew, one of baseball's most
laconic players, gets mad. Not just mad. Enraged. His nostrils
flare and his forehead furrows. "You know what," he says. "That
sort of talk has come up before, and it really burns me. It's
garbage. Yes, I love Jesus. But if you're a true believer, you're
gonna be devoted to the ability God has given you. It's your
obligation. Anything less than 100 percent is a repudiation of
God's gifts. And I can promise you one thing--I give 100
percent."

It's a rare glimpse of Drew's passionate side--the side the
Braves will need to see more of. In the midst of a dramatic
makeover, the 12-time defending division champions (three in the
National League West and nine in the NL East) are more vulnerable
than ever. Greg Maddux is gone to the Cubs, replaced in the
rotation by (egads) John Thomson, a righthander with an ERA of
4.93 over his six major league seasons. Javy Lopez is off to
Baltimore, his spot behind the plate taken by (oy) Johnny
Estrada, and his .231 with eight home runs and 41 RBIs in 115 big
league games. Most glaringly, Gary Sheffield has left for the
Bronx, taking his .330 average, 39 home runs and 132 RBIs from
2003 with him. In his place in rightfield? Drew.

In December, Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz acquired his
newest outfielder (along with utilityman Eli Marrero) from St.
Louis in exchange for reliever Ray King, righthanded starter
Jason Marquis and top pitching prospect Adam Wainwright.
Schuerholz was convinced that Drew, born in Valdosta, Ga., and
raised 12 miles northwest in tiny Hahira, Ga., could return to
his roots and emerge not just as a fan favorite but as a
superstar. Following five seasons of injuries and unfulfilled
potential, Drew, in the final year of his contract, would
presumably play with vigor, passion and, most important, a
healthy dose of pride. "It's funny when you hear about J.D.'s
religious convictions as a negative," says Schuerholz. "We're
always reading about people who do wrong, be it drugs, crime,
whatever. Then when someone comes along with convictions and
character, he gets ripped. I think that's unfair. We're talking
about a player who came up with great fanfare, has incredible
tools, but whose career has been up and down. If anyone will be
motivated and intense, I expect it'll be J.D. Drew."

Indeed, Drew has much to prove. Seven years ago he left Florida
State as perhaps the best college player of the '90s and was
selected second, by Philadelphia, in the June 1997 amateur draft.
But after he and his agent, Scott Boras, demanded an $11 million
contract, the Phillies backed off, and Drew's name became
synonymous with greed in sports. After playing parts of two
seasons with the independent St. Paul Saints, Drew reentered the
draft in '98, was picked fifth by the Cardinals and quickly
signed for $8.5 million over four years. Since then his career
has been about trying--and generally failing--to live up to the
advance billing.

Drew has never played more than 135 games in any of his five full
major league seasons. His injury history is an encyclopedia of
medical misfortune: Strained right quadriceps in 1999. Sprained
left ankle in 2000. Broken right pinkie and lower back sprain in
2001. Right knee tendinitis in 2002. A lengthy recovery in 2003
from off-season knee surgery on his right patella tendon. Save
for '01, when he batted .323 with 27 homers and 73 RBIs in 109
games, Drew has never hit better than .300 or had more than 20
homers or 70 RBIs. In 100 games last year he hit .289 with 15
homers and 42 RBIs. "For him it's just about staying healthy,"
says Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. "We saw signs from him that
made you say, 'This kid is unbelievable.' But teammates
ultimately respect guys who go to the post the most. When
something keeps happening that prevents you from going out there,
they're not very forgiving."

Drew is keenly aware of this perception. He calls his career
"disappointing" and "unfulfilling," and, despite the hype that
accompanied his joining the Braves, he did everything possible to
steer clear of the spotlight. "I've contributed nothing here," he
says. "This is Chipper Jones's team and John Smoltz's team, the
guys who've kept it all going." On a recent afternoon Drew was
asked to pose alongside his new outfield mates, Chipper and
Andruw Jones, in one of those macho, we-rule-the-world publicity
shots. Drew obliged, looking about as comfortable as Bud Selig at
an OutKast gig. "That's not J.D.," says his younger brother, Tim,
a nonroster pitcher with the Braves. "He's about humility and
playing this game for the Lord."

This winter Drew was working out at his home in Hahira, a town of
1,626 some 213 miles south of Atlanta, when the phone rang. His
wife, Sheigh, picked it up, and a strange look crossed her face.
It was Cardinals G.M. Walt Jocketty. She handed the phone to her
husband. "I've got good news and bad news," he told Drew. "The
good news is, you're moving closer to home. The bad news is,
we're trading you."

For a guy who's as Georgian as a basket of peaches (just listen
to the twang), Drew was, surprisingly, heartbroken. His goal had
been to win a World Series with the Cardinals, and instead he was
being shipped out--a potential star who never reached his
potential. He had been working on his hitting and rehabbing his
right knee, expecting to finally have a breakout season with St.
Louis in 2004. Instead he was gone.

But when he arrived in Kissimmee for spring training last month,
Drew immediately felt at home, especially with his brother's
stall just across the clubhouse. In St. Louis, Drew--who says he
has never drunk alcohol, smoked cigarettes or used drugs, and
remained a virgin until his marriage two years ago--struggled to
connect with some of his more freewheeling peers. His numerous
stints on the disabled list and unfulfilled potential didn't help
matters. "Do we miss him?" one Cardinal recently said of Drew. "I
don't think anybody really does." But in Atlanta, Drew felt
comfortable right away, even expressing his faith. On one of the
first days of full-roster workouts, Drew and 17 teammates,
including pitchers Smoltz and Russ Ortiz, attended the opening of
The Passion of the Christ. A few weeks later several of them
rented out a theater to watch the movie again.

The film moved Drew in ways he'd never felt. There, on the big
screen, was the man to whom he had devoted his life; a man who
suffered and suffered, then finally fulfilled his destiny.
Besides causing tears to stream down Drew's cheeks, it gave him a
new perspective.

"I've had my trials and tribulations," he says. "But whatever
happens, in the end I'm just a baseball player. I'm not the
savior. I'm not special. I'm just human. I can only be me." ±

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO IN THE SWING Drew hit five home runs in his first six spring training games.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SCOTT AUDETTE/AP SHELF LIFE Drew has never played more than 135 games in a season. "I've had my trials," he says.COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS LOW KEY In terms of fanfare, Drew won't try to keep up with the Joneses--fellow outfielders Andruw and Chipper (right).

"For him it's just about STAYING HEALTHY," says La Russa. "We
saw signs from him that made you say, 'This kid is
unbelievable.'"

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