If you’ve been anywhere within earshot of sports media over the past couple weeks, you’ve heard that Heisman Trophy Winner Kyler Murray - previously drafted by the Oakland A’s - has now declared himself eligible for the NFL Draft.
If he enters the draft, Murray would likely be offered a contract larger than the $4.6 million signing bonus he received from the A’s. But in a truly shocking twist, it was reported that Major League Baseball has actually given the A’s permission to offer Murray a larger, guaranteed Major League contract to stick with baseball.
And that got me thinking about Brian Jordan... and J.D. Drew.
The two former Cardinals each took unconventional, even unprecedented routes to the big leagues, and each has some bearing on what Murray is trying to do now.
The Brian Jordan comp is the most obvious in that Jordan, like Murray, was a two-sport athlete who leveraged his potential outside baseball to maximize his earnings. But the early years of Jordan’s career also illustrate why Murray might be considering football more seriously in the first place.
Jordan was the Cardinals first round pick (30th overall) in the 1988 amateur draft. That same year, he was taken in the 7th round of the NFL Draft by the Bills, who would cut him in training camp.
But Jordan didn’t walk away from football. Instead, he signed with the Atlanta Falcons and made it into four games of the 1989 season. In 1990 and 1991, Jordan spent his summers riding the bus in the minor leagues, then spent the fall playing under the bright lights of the NFL. In ‘91, Jordan led the Falcons in tackles and was selected to the Pro-Bowl.
So Jordan approached the 1992 season in a very similar place to where Murray is now. If baseball (the Cardinals) wanted him to give up football, they were going to have guarantee a lot of money to a minor leaguer. Jordan reportedly made $140,000 in the NFL during the 1990 season. As a minor leaguer, he was paid $1,850 per month.
While Jordan would start the ‘92 season in AAA, he was called up just two weeks later. Behind the scenes, throughout spring training and the first half of the season, Jordan’s agents were working to sign their client to a guaranteed, long-term deal. Incidentally, they were also trying to negotiate the same thing with the Falcons.
On June 15, the Cardinals officially signed Jordan to a guaranteed contract of 3-years, $2.2 million. As part of that deal, he would not play football. But that wasn’t the end of Jordan leveraging his football potential to maximize his baseball earnings.
In September of 1995, Jordan declined a 3-year, $7.3 million extension from the Cardinals and let it be known that he wanted to play football again. He visited Rams training camp and was ultimately offered $1.5 million by the Raiders to play the remainder of the ‘95 season.
But when Walt Jocketty came back with a $10 million offer, Jordan again signed and again agreed to stick to baseball.
J.D. Drew was not a two-sport athlete, but he and Murray came into the league with the same agent: Scott Boras. And one thing Boras has long showed a propensity for is to circumvent the restrictions on amateur players entering the professional ranks.
Boras had previously tried to sidestep the draft in 1994 by having his client Jason Varitek play for the professional, if independent, St. Paul Saints. Then in 1996, he managed to have Travis Lee and several other top picks declared free agents because of a technicality whereby they were not mailed their formal contracts by the date stipulated.
When Drew entered the 1997 draft, Boras tried all of these tricks. He tried to argue that Drew’s contract had been mailed to the wrong address. Then, when the Phillies failed to offer the $10 million bonus Drew and Boras were seeking, they declined the offer and Drew played for the Saints in the independent Northern League.
Boras hoped to have Drew declared a free agent, but MLB - having renamed the draft the “first year player’s draft” to avoid the whole amateur/professional thing - ruled Drew would have to re-enter the draft. He did so, and it was the Cardinals with the #5 pick who selected Drew. After more negotiations, they signed him for $9 million.
Knowing the extent of the battles between MLB and Boras in the 90s, I was shocked when I heard that the league might be making some kind of exception for Kyler Murray. Open that door a tiny crack and Scott Boras will drive a semi truck through.
But Jeff Passan later clarified what was going on somewhat:
Clarifying the Murray news: MLB technically would not be waiving a rule for Kyler Murray. The rule prevents major league contracts for drafted players. Murray signed a minor league contract. A major league deal would be like him being selected onto the big league roster.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) January 13, 2019
So in essence, what the A’s are doing and MLB is allowing is essentially what the Cardinals did with Brian Jordan. They are considering Murray a minor league player, though he hasn’t played any minor league baseball. The A’s are then exercising the right that any team would have to offer a multi-year guaranteed contract and spot on their 40-man roster to a player who has never played a game of professional baseball.
And maybe if you follow that reasoning, this isn’t technically an exception to the rules in terms of contracts for amateur players. But it sure feels like at least a nod in that direction, and I would expect Boras and other agents to continue trying to leverage this whenever they can.
On one hand, Kyler Murray is something of a unicorn, and his path may not have much to do with other players on the whole. But I see it as not just a throwback to Jordan and Drew, but an interesting piece in the ongoing war between players, their agents and the league to allow amateur players to be paid at a market value.
And with much consternation now at the lack of money being spent on veteran free agents, it seems likely that the battleground for the new collective bargaining agreement could well be how young and even pre-MLB players are compensated.