Monday, June 21, 2004
Top 10 call-ups of all time
By Alan Schwarz
Special to ESPN.com
We can hear the footsteps. With every 5-2-3-1 statline at Triple-A Durham, shortstop phenom B.J. Upton moves ever closer to his imminent arrival at Tropicana Field. The 19-year-old is almost certainly the most-anticipated prospect of the 2004 season -- a spectacular package of bat and glove, speed and smarts. A Derek Jeter waiting to happen, and happen any day now.
This got us to thinking: Who are Upton's ancestors? Which players before him had baseball waiting most eagerly?
The following is a look at the Top 10 most-anticipated debuts of baseball's draft era, starting in 1965. (Not including ready-made imports such as Hideo Nomo and Ichiro Suzuki.) These are the players who generated the most fanfare, the most media attention, the most Polynesian dancers. Yes, Polynesian dancers ...
1. Jim Abbott
|Jim Abbott came to the Angels as a No. 1 pick and an Olympian.|
April 8, 1989: It was one thing for the Angels to spend the eighth pick of the 1988 draft on Abbott, the Michigan left-hander who had been born with no right hand. It was quite another when, after having spent that first summer pitching for the U.S. Olympic team, Abbott was a candidate to skip the minor leagues and break camp in the Angels rotation. He did indeed make the club, and prompted 150 media types, four Japanese television crews and 50,000 fans to his debut at Anaheim Stadium. Abbott got lit, yielding six runs in 4 2/3 innings, but justified his promotion by finishing the season 12-12.
2. David Clyde
June 27, 1973: Clyde's name is now synonymous in baseball with unmet expectations -- and boy, what expectations there were when the 18-year-old schoolboy phenom made his pro debut in the majors with his home-state Rangers. The event drew almost 36,000 fans (four times Texas' average at the time) and was marked with Polynesian dancers, live lion cubs and one papier-maché giraffe. Clyde didn't disappoint, beating the Twins 4-3. He pitched well for another five starts but soon thereafter began the long decline that left him an enduring symbol of promise unfulfilled.
3. Mark Prior
May 22, 2002: Baseball has had its share of great college pitchers, and when Mark Prior left Southern Cal as the No. 2 overall pick by the Cubs in 2001, he was considered the best of them all. He was an organic pitching machine -- tall, calves like rump roasts, pitches as perfect as his mechanics. The Cubs didn't start him in the big leagues the next spring, preferring to avoid even more hype than there would be already, but after six starts in Double-A and three in Triple-A, they couldn't keep him down any longer. Prior justified the fanfare of his debut, threw up a 6-4-2-2-2-10 line against the Pirates at Wrigley, and got the 7-4 win.
4. Bob Horner
June 16, 1978: One of the great college sluggers ever at Arizona State -- ranking right with Reggie Jackson before him and Barry Bonds after -- Horner left the Sun Devils with a then-NCAA record 56 career home runs. After being drafted No. 1 overall by the Braves, the swaggering slugger convinced Atlanta GM Bill Lucas that he should begin his pro career straight in the big leagues. Three days after signing, Horner did just that before a crowd of 18,572 at Fulton County Stadium, 7,500 more than the Braves' average that season. In his third at-bat, Horner went deep against the Pirates' Bert Blyleven. He went on to slam 22 more in the next 3½ months and won the National League's Rookie of the Year Award.
5. Alex Rodriguez
July 8, 1994: Everyone knew Alex Rodriguez was a spectacular prospect, a stunning package of tools who had gone No. 1 overall to the Mariners one year before. And he had just received a promotion to Double-A after tearing up the Midwest League for two months in his first pro season. But Lou Piniella's summoning him to Seattle was an astounding event; just 18, Rodriguez became the youngest big league regular since Robin Yount 20 years before. The experiment lasted only three weeks -- Rodriguez was returned to the minors after batting .204, looking lost on breaking balls and making six errors -- but baseball knew full well that this was its first glimpse at a future Hall of Famer.
6. Ken Griffey Jr.
April 3, 1989: Ken Griffey Jr.'s debut already would have been big news: The precocious 19-year-old, less than two years after being drafted No. 1 overall by the Mariners, had torn up the minors and then big league spring training with a .359 average. What made it most compelling that he would be the first son to play while his father was an active player as well. (Ken Sr. was still with Cincinnati, on the downside of his own standout career.) Junior went 1-for-3 against Oakland in his first game, hitting a double off Dave Stewart, and the following year played with his pop in Seattle, even homering in the same game.
7. Eddie Bane
July 4, 1973: Eddie who? No one was asking that in Minnesota in 1973, when the Twins drafted this 5-foot-9 Arizona State left-hander No. 11 overall and decided to get some quick box-office help. One day after Clyde's debut down in Texas, Minnesota owner Calvin Griffith followed suit and also started his first-rounder in the majors. Bane's start drew almost 46,000 fans, the largest regular-season crowd in Twins history to that point. He pitched well, too, yielding three hits over seven innings, but watched the bullpen blow his 2-1 lead as the Twins lost 5-4. Bane rarely pitched that well again, lost his outstanding curveball, and was out of the majors after 1976.
8. Todd Van Poppel
Sept. 11, 1991: In many ways, the demise of the draft began in 1990 when Todd Van Poppel, a Texas prep phenom considered one of the best pitching prospects in a generation, slipped all the way to the defending-champion A's at No. 14 because of his high price tag. Instantly considered the best prospect in the minors, the hard-throwing right-hander went 6-13, 3.47 for Double-A Huntsville the following year but was contractually on the 40-man roster, so the A's called him up for one start that September. Van Poppel began blazing, striking out five in the first two innings, but imploded in giving up five runs in the fourth. He got no decision in Oakland's 6-5 win, and didn't return to Oakland until mid-1993.
9. Bo Jackson
|Bo Jackson was a fourth-round pick in the baseball draft.|
Sept. 2, 1986: The most intriguing athlete of his time, Jackson, a Heisman Trophy-winning running back at Auburn and the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, shocked the sports world in 1986 by signing with the Royals as their fourth-round draft pick and beginning his minor league career. It didn't last long: After hitting .277-7-25 in 53 games at Double-A Memphis, Jackson was promoted to Kansas City, and in his first game went 1-for-3 with a single off aging Hall of Famer Steve Carlton of the White Sox. A week later he went 4-for-5 against the Mariners, and a few days after that hit his first home run. Jackson stayed in Kansas City after that -- that is, until he began his football hobby the following fall.
10. J.D. Drew
Sept. 8, 1998: J.D. Drew's debut was a circus all right -- hundreds of media members, a worldwide television audience, the whole bit. OK, they came to see the Cardinals' Mark McGwire hit No. 62 in the fourth inning against the Cubs. But two innings later also came the pinch-hitting debut of one of the most notorious prospects in baseball history, Drew, whose contentious contract negotiations with the Phillies the year before led him first to the Northern League and then to being redrafted by the Cardinals, with whom he signed a whopping $8.5 million contract. He blew through Double-A and Triple-A in two months and arrived as a side story to McGwire, but a notable one nonetheless. He hit .417 the rest of that season.
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His new book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is being published by St. Martin's Press in early July, and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.