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Thursday, April 11, 2002
No. 1 picks a big uncertainty

By by Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine

David Clyde never had a chance. The Rangers made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 1973 draft, and owner Bob Short brought him directly from high school to the major leagues to save the franchise. Clyde did help save the franchise, but he wasn't ready for the big leagues at such a young age. He had a great arm, but he wasn't a good athlete, which made making adjustments difficult. His major-league career ended in 1979 for a variety of reasons, including alcoholism. A potentially great career ended with an 18-33 record.

This is not an uncommon story among No. 1 picks in the 37-year history of the draft. Steve Chilcott, Danny Goodwin, Brien Taylor and Al Chambers were top picks who didn't succeed, but they're hardly alone. Of the 36 No. 1 picks (Goodwin was the No. 1 pick twice), only 15 made a major-league All-Star team (a total of 43 times), three won an MVP (Jeff Burroughs, Ken Griffey Jr. and Chipper Jones), two won Rookie of the Year (Bob Horner and Darryl Strawberry) and none won a Cy Young. None of the 10 pitchers selected No. 1 ever had a 20-win season in the big leagues; the combined record of the 10 was 725-745.

There are several reasons for the hit-or-miss fortunes of No. 1 picks. First, baseball is the hardest game in the world to play well; it is also the hardest game in the world to scout. If a college football player from a big-time program weighs 210, benches the world, runs a 4.2 40 and loves to hit, there's a good chance he's going to play in the NFL. If a college basketball player from a big-time program is 6'8", can run the floor, shoot the ball, defend and loves to play, he's got a good chance to play in the NBA. Most scouts can watch a player run up and down the floor for a half and know whether that player is ready for the next level.

It's not as easy in baseball. A scout can watch a player for a week and not see all the plays he needs to see that player make. Twins scout Joe McIlvaine, when GM of the Mets, had one day to look at first baseman Jay Gainer, whom the Mets were considering drafting many years ago. The day McIlvaine went to see him, Gainer was walked intentionally four times, and his pitcher threw a perfect game with 18 strikeouts. So, McIlvaine never got to see Gainer swing the bat, catch a groundball or make a throw. The Rockies, not the Mets, drafted Gainer.

A great body guarantees more in basketball and football than it does in baseball, which is one of the game's many beauties. Chambers, the Mariners' No. 1 pick in 1979, had tremendous size, power and athleticism -- he was a terrific defensive end in football in high school. There was no reason he shouldn't have been a good major leaguer; instead, he only played three seasons. He finished with only 120 at-bats and had 11 homers. The Mariners wanted him to change his style, to pull the ball more, which may have fouled up his swing and his mind.

Baseball is filled with similar stories partly because the game moves so slowly, creating so much time to think as you stand in the outfield. In basketball, where there's little time to think, you react: a great jump shooter rarely worries that he has missed 10 shots in a row. He can't wait to shoot the 11th and he knows it's going in. Not so in baseball. When something gets in your head, it's hard to get it out.

Mike Ivie, the No. 1 pick in the country in 1970, had the softest hands of any catcher you'll ever see. Plus, he had tremendous power. What a combination. He was going to become one of the great catchers of all time. He played 857 games in the big leagues -- just nine as a catcher. In his first special workout with the Padres' major leaguers, soon before he was heading off to his first minor-league assignment, Ivie hit the pitcher's screen with a throw, prompting a veteran Padre to belittle him for not even being able to throw the ball back to the pitcher. His mental block with throwing continued in the minor leagues, and before long, he had switched to first base. Three times he left his teams in the major leagues because of "mental exhaustion" which, we'll bet, happens more to baseball players than to players in other pro sports.

Taylor didn't even play in the major leagues. In 1991, the Yankees made him the No. 1 pick in the draft because he was left-handed, threw 97 mph and dominated high school hitters in North Carolina so easily. He was a "can't miss" prospect. As it turns out, he, like Clyde, wasn't a good athlete -- he had trouble throwing to the bases, throwing a pitchout, fielding bunts, etc. He eventually hurt his arm (in a fight), lost his great velocity and had nothing to fall back on.

The Yankees were wrong on Taylor, but how can you not draft an arm like that? The problem, and the fascinating part about baseball, is that scouts can watch players for years and not be sure at what level they can play. The aluminum bat in high school and college doesn't help the scouting process; some kids can't hit with a wood bat, some pitchers change their style working against hitters with aluminum bats. More mistakes are made in baseball scouting than other sports because it's so hard to measure if a player can play.

Eddie Murray, Robin Yount and Dave Winfield were drafted the year Clyde went No. 1. Don Mattingly was a 19th-round pick the year Chambers went No. 1. There are hundreds of examples like that.

When the Orioles drafted Ben McDonald No. 1 out of LSU in 1989 for $350,000, they called him the most complete, most polished pitcher ever to come out of the draft. He was not, but after making only two appearances in Class A ball, he was in the major leagues. He became a representative pitcher for several years, finishing with a 78-70 record, his career ending due to injuries. He was a great kid with great stuff, but too much hype and not enough will to succeed.

There are also many success stories among No. 1 picks. In 1990, the Braves were poised to take Todd Van Poppel, a high school pitcher from Arlington, Texas. But Paul Snyder, the Braves' scouting director, argued for Chipper Jones, and ultimately won. Jones has become one of the best players in the game; Van Poppel is still in the major leagues, but has struggled more than he has flourished. That can be said for more than a few No. 1 picks in the history of the draft.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight. E-mail tim.kurkjian@espnmag.com.