- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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The Major League Baseball draft will begin Thursday, televised for the first time on ESPN2, and Vanderbilt pitcher David Price and Georgia Tech catcher Matt Wieters are about to feel very wealthy and wanted.
Once the first round is complete and the cameras disappear, the 30 teams will resume the task of selecting future prospects and organizational filler. The longer the draft goes, the more the groundwork of scouts will come into play.
Some legitimate prospects fall in the draft because teams are concerned they're going to college. It's a question of "signability." In 1971, Keith Hernandez lasted until the 42nd round because he had just sat out his senior year of high school in a dispute with his coach. But St. Louis saw enough promise to give him a lucrative $50,000 bonus.
Dozens of other players are considered too small, velocity-impaired or lacking in bat speed or foot speed to have a realistic shot at the majors. But they're chosen because of a supportive scout or some other twist of fate. Once in a great while, the road leads to a Hollywood-style happy ending.
In honor of the baseball draft, this week's installment of "Starting 9" pays tribute to overlooked picks who accomplished more than anyone could have imagined.
Mike Piazza (62nd round to the Dodgers in 1988)
When Los Angeles chose Piazza as a "favor" to manager Tommy Lasorda, he was the 1,390th player to go off the board.
Ted Williams, of all people, was a big early booster. When Piazza was in high school, his father, Vince, met the Hall of Famer at a card show through a scouting friend. Vince Piazza told Williams he had a son who could swing the bat, and Williams dropped by the family home in Norristown, Pa., to watch Mike hit in a cage.
"If this kid figures out the mental aspect of the game, he'll hit 25 home runs a year in the major leagues,'' Ted Williams told Vince Piazza.
"Do you want to see him hit left-handed?'' Vince replied. At which point Mike turned around and stroked a few line drives from the opposite side.
That's almost where it ended. Piazza was a backup first baseman at the University of Miami before transferring to Miami-Dade Community College. Lasorda, a close friend of the family, figured he stood a better chance of earning a scholarship to a four-year school if he was drafted, so Los Angeles made him a courtesy pick in Round No. 62.
The Dodgers weren't even interested in signing Piazza until Vince flew him to Los Angeles for a workout and the kid began cranking balls into the blue seats. The onslaught convinced Ben Wade, Los Angeles' scouting director, to offer Piazza a modest $15,000 bonus to sign. With 420 career homers, Piazza is now bound for Cooperstown.
Albert Pujols (13th round pick by St. Louis in 1999)
He went by the name Jose Albert Pujols at Fort Osage High School in Independence, Mo., and showed enough promise to play at the Area Code Games in California and crack Baseball America's top 100 prospects list.
But some scouts considered him too chunky and "heavy legged,'' and there were rumblings that he might be older than advertised. He played at Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, and St. Louis scouting director John Mozeliak, at the urging of scouts Mike Roberts and Dave Karaff, saw him at a college tournament in Wichita and thought he was worth a shot.
The Cards signed Pujols for a reported $60,000 and sent him to the instructional league in Jupiter, Fla. In his first at-bat, Pujols hit a ground ball up the middle. The next time up, he launched a shot off the roof of a building beyond the left field fence.
Farm director Mike Jorgensen nudged Mozeliak in the ribs and asked him, "What do we have here?'' As it turns out, only the most prolific hitter of his generation.
The euphoria in St. Louis was countered by a sense of regret in Tampa Bay. Devil Rays scout Fernando Arango liked Pujols so much, he arranged for a personal tryout with the team. But the Rays passed on Pujols, and Arango was so crushed, he submitted his resignation.
Jim Thome (13th round pick by Cleveland in 1989)
Don Mitchell, now a player agent, was working as Midwest cross-checker for Cleveland in the spring of '89 when he received a call from area scout Tom Couston.
"Tom told me, 'I've got this third baseman at a junior college I want you to see. He inside-outs everything and he never pulls the ball. No other scouts like him, so there won't be anybody else at the game when you go there,'" Mitchell recalled.
Sure enough, when Mitchell went to see Thome play for Illinois Central College, he was the only scout in attendance. He saw a skinny kid with a big frame, a sunken chest and lots of enthusiasm for the game.
It was enough to pique his curiosity, and when the draft rolled around, the Indians acted on Couston's "gut instinct,'' picked Thome and signed him for $15,000. Sometime this season, Thome will join the 500 home run club.
That same year, the Indians were criticized for wasting a No. 1 pick on outfielder Calvin Murray even though it was common knowledge that he was bound for the University of Texas. Not long afterward, Cleveland fired scouting director Chet Montgomery.
Nearly two decades later, Montgomery's 1989 draft looks pretty darned good. The Indians selected Thome and future big leaguers Jerry Dipoto, Jesse Levis, Alan Embree, Curtis Leskanic, Kelly Stinnett and Brian Giles between the third and 17th rounds.
Jose Canseco (Oakland's 15th round pick in 1982)
Canseco was an awkward, defensively-challenged third baseman coming out of Coral Park High School in Miami. He was so unheralded, the Major League Baseball scouting bureau didn't even turn in a report on him.
But Oakland had a source with inside information. A's scout Camilo Pascual, a former big league pitcher, had a son who played for Coral City. Pascual threw batting practice to the team and believed that Canseco possessed big-time power.
"Camilo used to carry around a lot of money,'' said former Oakland scouting director Dick Wiencek. "He came into our meeting and threw some on the table and said, 'Dick, I like him so much, I'll give him my own money.' ''
The A's signed Canseco for $15,000 and sent him to the Rookie League, where he proved to be a butcher at third base. They shifted him to the outfield, and he went on to become baseball's first 40-homer, 40-steal man and hit 462 career home runs.
Kenny Rogers (39th round choice by Texas in 1982)
As a high school senior in Florida, Rogers weighed 135 pounds and played shortstop on his summer league team as a left-handed thrower. He seemed a more likely candidate to run the family's strawberry farm than play in the major leagues.
But Texas scout Joe Marchese was intrigued by Rogers' arm strength and convinced Joe Klein, the team's assistant farm director, to come watch the kid play right field for the high school team. The two baseball men sat in a car and watched Rogers uncork two throws over the third baseman's head and two more off the screen behind the catcher during pregame warmups.
"Let's sign him in the 40th round as a pitcher,'' Marchese told Klein. The Rangers managed to snag Rogers a round earlier for a $1,000 bonus.
Rogers was so raw, he had no clue how to pitch out of the stretch upon arrival at rookie ball. But he went on to win 207 games, throw a perfect game, make four All-Star teams and win four Gold Gloves. That ugly 2005 incident with the cameraman notwithstanding, he's an amazing success story.
"We could have taken him in the 99th round,'' Klein said. "Nobody has come further in their particular choice of positions in any sport than Kenny Rogers.''
Jeff Conine (Kansas City's 58th round selection in 1987)
Conine was a pudgy kid growing up in California, but he developed into a versatile athlete. At UCLA, he won the national junior racquetball championship on the strength of a 165 mph serve. He was a terror on the beach volleyball court and quite formidable with a golf club in his hands.
Conine also played baseball at UCLA, but strictly as a pitcher. While teammates Eric Karros, Todd Zeile and Bob Hamelin attracted attention for their hitting exploits, Conine went 5-4 with a 6.06 ERA in three seasons. But Guy Hansen, Conine's college pitching coach, took a job as a scout with Kansas City and remembered how comfortable Conine had been taking batting practice. He convinced the Royals to invest a late pick on Conine, and the money was a relative snap.
While the Royals deserve credit for discovering Conine, they botched it by leaving him exposed in the 1992 expansion draft. Florida selected Conine, and after 1,947 career hits, he's still playing.
Orel Hershiser (17th round pick of Dodgers in 1979)
Hershiser attended Bowling Green State University with a desire to play baseball and hockey, but things initially failed to work out as planned. He didn't pitch enough to earn a varsity letter as a freshman and sophomore.
As a junior, Hershiser sprouted three inches, added five miles per hour to his fastball and made the All-Conference team. That was enough for the Dodgers to take a flier on him.
Before the Dodgers called with the news, Hershiser's college fraternity buddies faked a call from the San Diego Padres telling him he was a first-round pick. After Hershiser won 204 big-league games, the joke was on them.
Brett Butler (23rd round choice by Atlanta in 1979)
Butler always dreamed big for a little guy. As a high school bench warmer in Chicago, he informed his coach of his desire to play for a pre-eminent college program at Arizona State.
"You can't play for me, but you want to play for Arizona State?'' the coach said.
Butler emerged from a field of more than 200 walk-ons to make the Sun Devils JV squad. But when no scholarship was forthcoming, he left for Southeastern Oklahoma State University. After he made two Division II All-America teams, Atlanta drafted him as a favor to his college coach and signed him for a $1,000 bonus.
Butler played 17 seasons, amassed 2,375 career hits and ranks 24th in history with 558 stolen bases. Not bad for a guy who took it as a compliment when opponents called him a "gnat,'' a "pest'' and even a "cockroach.''
Mark Grace (chosen by Cubs in 24th round in 1985)
Grace was a hotter commodity as a basketball guard than a slap-hitting first baseman at Tustin High School in California. He didn't make the varsity team until his senior year.
The Twins drafted Grace after his junior year at San Diego State, but he spurned a $10,000 offer to return to school. After he showed some pop in the Alaska summer league, the Cubs upped the ante to $30,000.
Chris Gwynn, Tony's younger brother and Grace's college teammate, went to the Dodgers as the 10th pick in the 1985 draft. He batted .261 with 263 hits in 10 seasons.
Grace, who came off the board 23 rounds later, did just fine for a first baseman with suspect power. He won four Gold Gloves, and led all major leaguers in hits and doubles during the 1990s.
Don Mattingly (19th rounder with Yankees): Mattingly's lack of speed and power hurt him coming out of high school, but teams also feared he was headed to Indiana State to play baseball.
Ryne Sandberg (20th round to Phillies): It was less about talent than signability for Sandberg, who planned to play quarterback for Washington State. The Phillies spent $20,000 to convince him to try baseball.
Ken Griffey Sr. (29th rounder with Cincinnati): He once scored 40 points as a 6-foot center on his high school basketball team in Donora, Pa., and made all-state as a wide receiver in football. Originally unheralded in baseball, he played 19 seasons in the majors.
Andre Dawson (11th rounder with Montreal): The Hawk slipped through the cracks while playing in obscurity at Florida A&M.
Raul Ibanez (36th round pick with Seattle): He broke into pro ball as a catcher after the Mariners selected him 1,006th overall.
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