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The curious case of J.D. Drew

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As teams scramble to sign their draft picks, a look back at one of the strangest negotiations in history.

It was a pretty good looking swing, you have to give him that.
It was a pretty good looking swing, you have to give him that.
Elsa/Getty Images

The Cardinals have never had the #1 overall pick in the First Year Player Draft. In fact, they've never picked higher than third. But in 1998, they did manage to acquire a #2 overall pick, through a bizarre series of circumstances, in the form of J.D. Drew.

The story of how the Cardinals got a #2 pick from the #5 slot stretches all the way back to the earliest days of the professional game and one of the founding principles of baseball ownership: Suppressing a free labor market.

While the Reserve Clause prevented major leaguers from earning market value through free agency, for decades the signing of amateur players was more wide open, with top prospects free to sign with whoever offered the biggest bonus. Various regulations were tried and often abandoned, including the so-called "bonus rule," which required any player signed for more than $4,000 to remain on the major league roster for at least two years. But the rules were often ignored, and teams such as the Yankees - and yes - the Cardinals, seized a big advantage in signing amateur talent.

The last straw in the open amateur market came in 1964, when Rick Reichardt, a two-sport star who had played fullback for the Wisconsin Badgers, signed with the Angels for a staggering $205,000. The owners of teams big and small came together and agreed on a framework for what they called "The Amateur Draft." In the end, only the Cardinals voted against the proposal.

In the first year of that restricted amateur market, top pick Rick Monday signed for just $104,000. In fact, no draftee would sign for a bonus more than Reichardt's until Daryl Strawberry in 1980. Baseball executives had once again triumphed over a free market, and that system would remain more-or-less unchanged for 30 years. Then came Scott Boras.

In 1994, Boras' client Jason Varitek was drafted by the Seattle Mariners. When the Mariners offer came in lower than desired, Boras advised Varitek to sign with the independent St. Paul Saints. Remember, this thing was called "The Amateur Draft," and Boras argued, like, how could he be an amateur if he's already a professional, man? There was a standoff, but eventually the Mariners blinked and upped their offer. A precedent-setting crisis was averted... for a time.

More holes were punched in the Amateur Draft in 1996, when four of the top 12 picks won actual free agency after their teams failed to adhere to a rule that required teams to tender them contracts within 15 days. Travis Lee, the #2 pick by the Twins, signed a 4-year, $10 million deal with Arizona because of the snafu. That offseason, MLB changed the language that allowed the players to earn free agency, and set out to formally rechristen the event the "first-year players draft" to eliminate the "amateur" loophole Boras tried to exploit.

That brings us to the 1997 draft: Enter J.D. Drew. He came in on the heels of his junior year at Florida State where he put up an eye-popping slashline of: .455/.599/.961, and was the first college player to ever post a 30/30 season. And to represent him in the coming contract negotiations, he chose none other than Scott Boras.

Boras let it be known among all the teams with high draft picks that his client would sign for no less than the $10 million Travis Lee did the season before. Never mind that Lee was an honest-to-God free agent, who leveraged his value by negotiating with multiple teams.

Boras' demands may have been enough to scare off the Tigers, who used the #1 pick on flamethrowing reliever and eventual bust Matt Anderson. But with the #2 pick, the Philadelphia Phillies selected J.D. Drew.

The Phillies had no intention of paying $10 million. They reportedly offered something in the realm of $2 million, and privately believed they could sign him for $3 million. The negotiation quickly became contentious. Less than two weeks after he was drafted, Drew was quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer saying:

"I don't want to end up playing in a Phillies uniform at half my market value," [Drew] said in a thick Southern drawl... "Other teams came in and put the money on the table, and the Phillies' offer is one-third or half of that. It's hard to play for a club that shoves something down your throat to get you to play for them."

Boras would try a variety of methods to get Drew out of his obligation to the Phillies. He tried to exploit a similar loophole to Lee and the others from the Class of '96 by arguing that Drew's contract - while mailed on-time - was sent to his Mom's house in Georgia rather than his new address in Florida. But ultimately, Boras would go back the tactic he tried with Varitek. On July 10, 1997, J.D. Drew signed a contract to play professional baseball for the St. Paul Saints in the independent Northern League.

A number of future major leaguers had played in the Northern League over the years, including Daryl Strawberry and Jack Morris, but in the words of one reporter, "never [had] a player with a future as bright as Drew's played in the league." Drew would play 74 games for the Saints over the last half of 1997 and first half of 1998, continuing to mash just as he had at Florida State.

Meanwhile, Boras was embroiled in a Mexican standoff with Major League Baseball and the MLB Player's Association. The league had changed the name of the draft from amateur to "first-year players," but all of the changes it had made were done without negotiation with the MLBPA, which the union was none too happy about. A flurry of lawsuits and arbitrations took place. An arbitrator eventually ruled that MLB had violated its agreement with the player's union when they unilaterally modified draft rules, but Drew could not benefit from that because he was not a member of the union.

So J.D. Drew would re-enter the draft in 1998.

The Cardinals came into the 1998 draft with the #5 pick and the front office publicly touting a plan to shift their focus from from college players to "good athletes." There was speculation that Drew might be a target, and while nobody disputed his talent, many questioned his motivations and judgment. Mark McGwire was even quoted saying "You've got to get your head examined if you're going to turn down $6 million out of college."

The Phillies had the first pick and took Pat Burrell. Mark Mulder, Corey Patterson and Jeff Austin followed. With the fifth pick, the Cardinals selected J.D. Drew of the St. Paul Saints.

A full month passed from the day of the draft without Drew signing. Bill DeWitt told the Post-Dispatch publicly that it might not be possible to reach an agreement. But on July 3, the Cardinals held a news conference to announce they had signed Drew to a deal for 4-years, $9 million.

At the press conference, Drew was handed a Cardinals jersey with no number on the back. A reporter asked why there was no number, and Walt Jocketty quipped, "we're still negotiating that."

Several years from now, when the Cardinals have J.D. Drew established as a perennial All-Star in center field at Busch Stadium, when Chad Hutchinson is among the game's most dominating young pitchers and the hype machine is trumpeting Ben Diggins as a natural successor to first baseman Mark McGwire, baseball fans can remember how truly special June 2, 1998, was in the team's history.

-- Mike Eisenbath, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

***

J.D. Drew played 14 years in the major leagues. He was an All-Star who finished as high as 6th in the MVP voting. And yet so prodigious was his talent to the naked eye, he was considered by many to be a bust, or at least an under-achiever. Tony La Russa was one of them.

In Buzz Bissinger's 3 Nights in August, which focuses on a single series on the 2003 season - Drew's last with the Cardinals - much consideration is given to La Russa's efforts to coax Drew into playing with a passion the manager believed that he lacked.

"A lot of young players fall into this trap where it's uncomfortable to push yourself on a daily basis," La Russa said. "In the case of J.D., if you have the chance to be a twelve-million-to-fifteen-million-dollar-a-year player, you settle for 75 percent of that."

Whatever the truth - whether Drew truly lacked a fire for the game or whether his ultimate talent, while great, was just not quite what everyone wished it to be - he never escaped being seen as a player who cared more about money.