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Monday, June 6, 2005
Ryan, Bonds, Beltran have something in common

By Alan Schwarz
Special to ESPN.com

If history is any indication, baseball's 2005 draft, which begins Tuesday afternoon, should be one of the most notable in history.

That's because the baseball draft loves any year that ends in 5. Consider this: Such years have seen the first draft ever (1965), the worst draft ever (1975), the best draft ever (1985) and a 1995 affair that stocked the NFL almost as much as it did MLB.

Here's a look at the four drafts that this year's affair will have a tough time topping:

1965 Major League Baseball's first amateur draft, held at New York's Commodore Hotel, came about for a very simple and time-honored reason: team owners wanted to save money.

The previous year, the best prospect on the market, University of Wisconsin outfielder Rick Reichardt, had received an unheard-of $205,000 bonus from the Los Angeles Angels. So the owners voted for a draft, becoming the last of the four major sports to do so (the NFL draft began in 1936, basketball in 1947 and hockey in 1963).

It was quite a festive occasion, actually. In the days leading up to the draft, the buzz surrounded which of the consensus best two talents the Kansas City Athletics should take: Arizona State outfielder Rick Monday, or – get this – Montana high school pitcher Les Rohr.

Nolan Ryan
Ryan

Johnny Bench
Bench

The A's took Monday and signed him for just $104,000; he enjoyed a 19-year big-league career. That left Rohr going to the Mets, for whom he posted two career wins. Kansas City proceeded to have the most bountiful draft among the 20 major-league teams, getting 10 big leaguers, including Monday, Sal Bando (sixth round) and Gene Tenace (20th).

Yet the A's didn't snag either of the '65 draft's biggest names. Those belonged to the Reds' second-round pick (Johnny Bench) and the Mets' 10th-rounder (Nolan Ryan).

Bench was valedictorian of his Binger, Okla., high school class of 22, and he received an $8,000 signing bonus. In 1989, he became the first baseball draft pick to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

"I was totally surprised Cincinnati drafted me," Bench said. "I hadn't talked to any of their scouts, and I hadn't expected anyone to pick me that high."

Ryan's low selection is even more baffling today. The Alvin (Texas) High right-hander was the 295th player chosen, amid rumors that he was too small (155 pounds), was overused by his high school coach and suffered from malaria.

"I swear he threw over 100 mph as a junior," said Red Murff, who signed Ryan for the Mets. "There were no radar guns in those days, but he had the best arm I'd ever seen – not just in high school, in my life. And I'd seen Bob Feller and Sandy Koufax. It's always been a mystery to me why other organizations never saw in him what I saw."

1975 The '75 draft will always be remembered for two things. First, Danny Goodwin was the No. 1 overall pick once again, the only time a player has had that honor twice. And second, very few subsequent picks proved much better than Goodwin – so this draft holds the distinction of being the worst draft of all time.

Goodwin, who had also gone No. 1 overall to the White Sox in 1971 before attending Southern University, enjoyed little success in a seven-year big-league career. Yet he could take solace in the fact that the only 1975 first-rounder to put together anything close to a standout stint in the major leagues was Rick Cerone (No. 7 overall to the Indians), who spent 18 years in the majors as a reliable if unspectacular catcher.

Highlighting how poor the opening round was, the best players after Cerone were Clint Hurdle (No. 9 to Kansas City) and Dale Berra (No. 20 to Pittsburgh). Just 50 percent of the 24 first-round picks reached the major leagues for even one game.

Arm problems short-circuited the careers of pitchers Mike Lentz (No. 2, Padres), Chris Knapp (No. 11, White Sox), Bo McLaughlin (No. 14, Astros) and Jim Gideon (No. 17, Rangers). Hurdle was stymied by burdensome expectations. Sports Illustrated featured him on a 1978 cover as a rising star after he'd played just nine major-league games the year before, but he never played up to his billing. He was seen as a disappointment for the rest of his 10-year career.

Andre Dawson
Dawson

Lee Smith
Smith

The 1975 draft did produce some stars in later rounds, such as Lou Whitaker (fifth round, Tigers) and Dave Stewart (16th round, Dodgers). The best of them, with apologies to all-time save leader Lee Smith (second round, Cubs) probably was Expos find Andre Dawson.

Dawson's talent was clear, but he played for an obscure college that got little attention, Florida A&M. Because of that he slipped to the 11th round, when Montreal grabbed him primarily for his defensive skills.

1985 Their names ring out like a who's who of baseball's last 20 years: Bonds. Johnson. Larkin. Palmeiro. When they left college 20 years ago, after ushering in one of college baseball's most glorious eras, they entered pro ball with such legends and talent that everyone recognized they were destined for greatness.

More stars emerged from the 1985 draft than any other. Don't forget Will Clark, John Smoltz, Mark Grace, David Justice and many more. At the time, many considered the 1984 draft one of the best ever because of U.S. Olympians such as Mark McGwire, Cory Snyder and Billy Swift. But when the next draft rolled around, they knew they'd spoken too soon.

"A lot of people would have thought the talent group out of the Olympic year would never be duplicated," said Tom Grieve, then the Rangers' general manager. "Well, 1985 came sooner than anyone thought."

The Brewers' selection of North Carolina catcher B.J. Surhoff with the No. 1 pick today appears puzzling, but at the time he was considered a safe bet. And he still has played 19 seasons in the big leagues.

Barry Bonds
Bonds

Barry Larkin
Larkin

Meanwhile, fellow first-rounders Clark (No. 2, Giants), Barry Larkin (No. 4, Reds) and Barry Bonds (No. 6, Pirates) shot through the minor leagues and quickly established themselves as big-league stars. Even No. 3 pick Bobby Witt, considered by many an underachiever, was good enough to win 142 games in 16 major-league seasons.

Randy Johnson went in the second round to the Expos because many teams considered his wild, 6-foot-10 mechanics too risky. Smoltz was considered a top talent as well, but lasted until Detroit picked him in the 22nd round only because teams thought he was committed to Michigan State.

The quick success of Clark, Bonds, Larkin, Palmeiro and many others – all of them former All-Americans – helped usher in new respect among major-league clubs for college talent. The 1985 draft also added a twist that lasts to this day: After No. 8 overall pick Pete Incaviglia (a monster slugger at Oklahoma State) held out for five months and forced the Expos to trade his rights to the Rangers, MLB instituted its rule that forbids teams from trading picks until one year after they have signed.

1995 It's hard to believe today that the most talked-about player leading up to the draft was ... Ariel Prieto?

The hard-throwing, 25-year-old Cuban right-hander did not defect from his homeland – the Cuban government let him leave to be with his wife's family in Florida. But as soon as he arrived, organizations started buzzing about him possibly going No. 1 overall because of his talent and supposed instant readiness for major-league competition. He wound up going fifth to the A's and pitched quite poorly (15-24, 4.88 ERA) for parts of five seasons before being exiled to Tampa Bay. In the end, the A's have never forgiven themselves for taking Prieto instead of the next player on their board, University of Tennessee masher Todd Helton.

Holding the No. 1 pick, the Angels resisted the Prieto buzz and went for Nebraska outfielder Darin Erstad, who appears to have justified that selection in part because the rest of the first round wasn't particularly strong. The Cubs took Kerry Wood at No. 4 but have been teased with his talent almost ever since. Helton (No. 8, Rockies), Matt Morris (No. 10, Cardinals) and Roy Halladay (No. 17, Blue Jays) are the most notable names after that. Except perhaps for No. 18 overall pick Ryan Jaroncyk of the Mets, who a few years later abruptly retired because he never liked baseball in the first place.

Carlos Beltran
Beltran

Todd Helton
Helton

No, this wasn't the 1985 draft at all. Carlos Beltran (second round, Royals), Russ Ortiz (fourth round, Giants), A.J. Burnett (eighth round, Mets) and Mike Lowell (20th round, Yankees) wound up as standout selections, but most drafts produce more than this one. It would have helped if high schoolers Brad Wilkerson (13th round, Dodgers), Brad Lidge (42nd round, Giants) and Pat Burrell (43rd round, Red Sox) had signed with their teams rather than going to college.

In the end, the most famous names in this draft had nothing to do with baseball. The Phillies' eighth-round pick, out of Patrick Henry High in San Diego, was a shortstop named Ricky Williams (who opted instead to play running back at Texas and then in the NFL). And the Expos tabbed a strong-armed catcher from Serra High in San Mateo, Calif., none other than Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer at Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.