Mets vividly recall a guy named Chilcott

June 02, 1994|By Phil Jackman

Ed "The Only" Nolan was quite a pitcher in his day, once starting 38 ballgames during a season and completing 37 of them. One day, though, he missed a game for what he thought was a perfectly good reason, and he got fired. Fired.

Baseball being what it was at the time, which was before the turn of the century, Nolan had no recourse. He couldn't sign and play elsewhere (due to collusive owners) and only public clamor returned him to his National League team.

Unfortunately for the players, there was no appeal process open to them as the game for its first 80 years was conducted with all the style and grace of the Spanish Inquisition, with not too many self-respecting people caring much.

This story seems cogent at this time for this is the day we celebrate 30 years of what started out being called the "Free Agent Draft," which sounds as if it were some sort of emancipation proclamation for the ballplayers.

As we all know, the draft of schoolboys and collegians has never been that, free. Bill Veeck used to refer to it as the "ultimate suppression. As though it's not bad enough we signed players to perpetuity to begin with, at least they had that first, free choice."

That all changed when a representative of the then-Kansas City Athletics stood up that June day in 1965 and announced that outfielder Rick Monday, out of Arizona State University, was their man.

It was Veeck's contention that the game should have adopted the contract procedures used by the movie producers in Hollywood, consisting of the studio's owning a person lock, stock and barrel but for just seven years.

"What the heck," Veeck used to say, "if you don't know what you've got after seven years and you don't know how to keep him happy when time comes to re-sign him, then you're in the wrong business."

This is just one of the reasons Veeck was always held in such "lofty" esteem by his peers, the man's common sense and justice.

Ultimately, a little more than 10 years later, true free agency came to the game with salary arbitration tagging along behind. And baseball has had an advanced case of discombobulation since.

Meanwhile, the amateur draft is wending its way toward becoming an institution, albeit an anomaly, gaining all the stature and preeminence of those things we hold sacrosanct in the game. And some of the stories ain't been bad either. For instance:

Once again it's the New York Mets getting the first selection (for the fifth time), hoping devoutly that they don't make the mistakes of selecting Steve Chilcott in 1966 and Shawon Abner in 1984.

Chilcott, a catcher, was chosen just ahead of Reggie Jackson, whom all the other teams coveted frantically, and poor Steve ended up not getting so much as a September call-up for his trouble.

With no one to bid against, teams naturally went the austerity route, which prompted high school hotshots such as Mike Flanagan to head for the founts of higher learning.

"My GPA was usually much lower than my ERA, but things worked out for me," says Mike. Picked on the 15th round by Houston in 1971, two years later Flanagan went much higher and a far better team, the Orioles.

A name that will live as long as the draft is conducted is Danny Goodwin. The kid was so good the Cubs selected him ahead of future stars George Brett, Jim Rice, Mike Schmidt, Ron Guidry and a few dozen more with can't-miss credentials. Only trouble is, they couldn't sign him.

So what happens four years later and after Goodwin attends college? The Angels make him numero uno again. Danny averaged about 90 at-bats a season over the next seven years for three different teams and his career average (.236) and home run total (13) suggest he was over his head all the way.

For all the "mistakes," there have been exceptional finds far down in the grab bag. Don Mattingly, they say, was chosen so late in the 1979 draft (19th round) that all that was around was waitresses looking to clean up the coffee cups, shut out the lights and go home.

All told, there have been 30,509 selections made over the years, 18,275 deciding to sign. Lately, it seems, teams have loosed the purse strings to sign collegians, about 75 percent signing over the last 15 years, while the figure is just 25 percent among kids coming out of high school.

The game hopes, of course, that the kids trundle off to college and spare them some of the expense of development while giving them a few more years to make a final determination. Naturally, it helps that the game sponsors a central scouting bureau for those who aren't into making decisions.

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