MLB Draft: Why It's the Purest Thing There Is About Professional Baseball
Most American boys are bound to be exposed to the game of baseball at some point or another. When they are, it's only a matter of time before they allow themselves to dream of playing in the big leagues.
For every boy who has it, this dream always reaches the same pinnacle. Game 7 of the World Series. Two outs in the ninth. Bases loaded. Three-and-two count. Crowd on its feet. And the pitch...
Very few young boys who have this dream will ever get a shot at realizing it. But on Monday, a chosen few will take a giant step toward seeing it come to life.
Major League Baseball's first-year player draft begins today at 7:00 p.m. ET (live coverage on MLB Network and at MLB.com). Monday will see the first round and and the first compensatory round come and go. In all, 60 young men are going to get some very good news.
For these young ballplayers, this is it. This is the moment when professional baseball will go from being a pie in the sky to reality.
If you're a true baseball fan, you've gotta love it. Too much nonsense surrounds our national pastime these days, and it's only getting worse every year. But the draft? This is about as pure as it gets. It's an excuse for every last one of us to forget about all the nonsense and focus on what baseball is really all about: men playing a boys' game for the sake of the little kid in all of us.
Granted, the draft is a rare baseball tradition that is not as old as the game itself. It isn't even 50 years old, meaning it's only been around for less than a third of the game's lifespan.
MLB held its inaugural draft in 1965, and it was brought about primarily due to concerns over competitive balance. Before the draft came along, young players were free to sign with whichever club came calling with a contract, and the rich teams hogged all the talent.
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Take, for example, the scouting and signing of Mickey Mantle. He started playing pro ball with the Baxter Springs Whiz Kids (they don't name 'em like they used to, huh?), a semi-professional team based out of Baxter Springs, Kansas. The story, according to MickeyMantle.com, goes that New York Yankees scout Tom Greenwade happened to see a game in which Mantle hit two monster home runs, one from each side of the plate.
Soon after, Greenwade got Mantle to agree with a contract with the Yankees worth $140 per month with a $1,150 signing bonus, mere pocket change for a club like the Yankees. The rest is history.
Basically, all it took back in those days was a very simple conversation between a scout and a player.
"You like playing ball, kid?"
"Yeah, I do."
"You want to come play in the majors for lots of cash?"
"Yeah, I do."
"Good, sign here."
Ah yes, those were the good old days.
Well, sort of. You can't help but feel a kind of pastoral appreciation for the way amateur scouting used to work, but the draft was a change that needed to happen. The playing field needed to be leveled.
For a time, it worked. Starting with 1965 No. 1 overall pick Rick Monday, signing bonus dollar amounts went way down, and the talent was spread evenly between the haves and the have-nots.
This didn't last, of course. Slowly but surely, the dollar amounts being handed over to prospects started to increase, and with the help of agents, prospects discovered more and more ways to jack up their prices. The draft became less about talent and more about "signability."
All of this is ancient history now (knock on wood), as the new collective bargaining agreement that was signed last year gave the draft a much-needed shakeup.
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As detailed by Mike Persinger of MLB.com, the draft has several new rules, chief among them being the new bonus pool that restricts the amount of money teams can use to sign top draft picks. Each club has a different amount of money to spend (Baseball America has the details), and they will face harsh penalties if they go over their limits.
The 2012 draft is going to be a defining one, but nobody has any real clue how things are going to play out. The idea, though, is to turn back the clock to a time when things were simpler.
Here's how MLB Executive VP of Labor Relations Rob Manfred put it, via Jerry Crasnick of Baseball America (subscription required):
What we hoped to achieve through the system was to restore the draft to its original purpose. That's what the commissioner said when we got into this whole business. We see that purpose as the best players being available to the lowest-finishing clubs. We think the beauty of this system is that they're going to be available at a reasonably predictable price.
There are some who are skeptical over whether the new rules will work. Since teams have an exact dollar amount to work with, they need to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can actually sign the players they want and that the players they want will be actually worth the money.
There is no margin for error on either the scouting side of things or on the financial side of things, and that means a lot can go wrong.
The most intriguing part of this new-school system is that it will require teams to use an old-school approach to develop relationships with players.
Here's how Crasnick put it:
The new system places a premium on area scouts to forge relationships and do the reconnaissance to give teams a sense of security. In this respect, it marks a return to values that baseball held dear before the draft became such big business.
In other words, the new draft will be a mix between the good old days and the good new days. It may be a brave new world, but it's a brave new world that has a nostalgic feel to it. Baseball is still baseball, except even more so.
Baseball fans should look at this as a good thing. The new draft will require a traditional approach, and the league has a good chance of delivering the parity that so many critics say it lacks.
If the new system works, fans will be happy and the MLB bigwigs will pat each other on the back. For the young men being drafted, however, relatively little will change. They will go from being amateurs to being professionals, and that's something that can indeed just as easily become a curse as it can a blessing.
Of the young men who will be drafted, only a select group will actually get to enjoy big-league careers. The next couple of days will be a happy occasion for all of them, but reality will quickly set in. Before the majors lie the minors, a harsh world where many good men are lost. Financial concerns will kick in, and the pressure to perform will never go away.
Thankfully, the one thing that will remain constant is the dream. And over the next couple days, many young men are going to be given an opportunity to chase it.
If they're lucky enough, they will find themselves in a familiar scenario.
Game 7. Two outs in the ninth. Bases loaded. Three-and-two count. Crowd on its feet. And the pitch...
That's the climax. The draft is Chapter One. Once it's over, anything is possible.
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