The Draft Goes Public

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.’”From the parking lot to the podium, Disney’s Wide World of Sports was all talk on June 7.

Major
League Baseball’s draft has always been the year’s most discussed day
in baseball’s inner circles, but for the first time in the draft’s
43-year history, the masses were invited to partake in the pastime.

No
one was really sure what to expect, but as team representatives, media
members and MLB’s top executives filtered into the building known as
the Milk House, the air was rife with anticipation and expectation,
with a triple-shot of curiosity about the draft’s metamorphous.

“I
don’t think anyone really knew what this was going to look like when it
finally unfolded because we were taking such an important event, that
was simply a conference call for so many years, and building all of
this around it,” said Joe Garagiola Jr., as he cast his eyes around the
room and gestured at the grand stage the draft has finally received.

Garagiola,
MLB’s vice president of operations and the manager of the 40-plus-man
roster of MLB employees who packed up their laptops and set up shop a
thousand miles south of their Park Avenue offices, wore a look of
satisfaction, and his excitement after witnessing the transformation
was genuine.

“What was a non-event from the public’s
impression became an event that suddenly had a life, with names and
faces,” he said, “and all the while the clubs behind it didn’t miss a
beat.”

Lifting The Veil

After
more than four decades of working, effectively, as an underground
operation, the cloak was lifted from the draft in a 70,000-square-foot
arena with a large stage designed specifically for the occasion.

A
few hundred fans gathered in seats overlooking the floor and ESPN was
there to host the draft’s television debut, as the likes of Peter
Gammons joined in conversation with luminaries such as Dave Winfield,
Roland Hemond and Tommy Lasorda. They talked about who would be drafted
where and how terrific it was that the event was on its way to becoming
the newest piece of baseball’s fandom.

This was the draft’s new
look’”a once faceless event written by a band of
hoping-to-remain-anonymous scouts who had spent 364 days preparing its
script. A handful of area scouts, a general manager and a couple of
farm directors were here to represent their teams, but the crowd that
gathered at Disney was widely just there for the party.

When it
became time for the Devil Rays to make the first pick, one-time Rays
outfielder Dave Martinez and baseball lifer Don Zimmer stared at a
phone in front of them and waited for the call to be placed from Tampa
Bay. Martinez and Zimmer had heard of Price, but the dynamic at work on
draft day was compelling, in that those who were physically in
attendance were just there for the show. Not a thing changed for the
decision makers’”the scouting directors and GMs were still stationed in
their respective war rooms across the country, right in front of a
speakerphone, just like before.

From the club’s perspective, the
less these changed the better, and although the world got to see the
likes of Andre Dawson and Darryl Strawberry, the draft was business as
usual for the men calling the shots. The only difference was the time
in between picks, five minutes per pick in the first round, which used
to take five minutes as a whole.

Because most fans watching
wouldn’t know most of the names being called, MLB made sure there were
others that everyone knew. Appropriately, Jimmie Lee Solomon, one of
MLB’s driving forces behind the initiative to improve the draft’s
exposure, stepped up to the podium first and ushered in this new era.

Javier
Lopez, 33, was one of at least 100 fans who made the 90-minute drive
from Hillsborough County to show his support for the Devil Rays, and to
say he was an eye-witness of the first-ever live draft. “This is part
of history,” he said. “The first live draft and we had a chance to be
part of it.”

Rays fans began chanting, “We want Price,” and a
few minutes later, they got their wish when commissioner Bud Selig
announced David Price, the lefthander from Vanderbilt, as the No. 1
pick. The crowd cheered spiritedly and a big-screen TV hanging from the
left of the stage showed Price on ESPN’s video feed as he was
congratulated by friends, family and teammates.

Months in the
making and decades overdue, the draft finally had a face, and while it
wasn’t instantly recognizable to the casual fan, it was an identity
that will be built around.

“I could see that this was going to
happen,” said Brewers assistant GM Gord Ash, a 25-year major league
front-office veteran. “It was only inevitable at some point that the
draft be given its due. It’s a big league atmosphere  . . . It’s the
first step in increasing the draft’s visibility. Maybe at some point
we’ll have access to war rooms and more of the process. This is just
the inauguration process.”

The Personal Touch

Just
three players and their parents accepted an invitation to attend the
draft themselves, and they were seated stage left on a raised row of
chairs. Baseball got its Kodak moment when the Cubs called Josh
Vitters’ name with the third pick and he leapt to his feet and hugged
his mom and dad.

Vitters, a high school third baseman from
Southern California, said just 10 minutes before he was taken that he
had no idea when he was going to be drafted, and his reaction was
genuine, offering the day’s brightest highlight. Several fans stood and
gave him a warm ovation as Vitters strolled onto stage, shook Selig’s
hand and sported a crisp, new Cubs jersey and cap.

For years
Vitters had worked his way to this moment. He flew across the country
last summer going from showcase to showcase, and fortified his
reputation with each stop. He battled pneumonia during his senior year,
but during a workout near his home in Anaheim he took personal batting
practice with Cubs scouting director Tim Wilken, and smiled widely as
he retold the story of that telling afternoon that secured his status
as the Cubs’ choice.

His father, Warren, stood with arms folded
a few feet behind him as writers from across the country gathered
around and interviewed Vitters as the first player to ever be ushered
into professional baseball in such formal fashion. Vitters says that
his father, an automotive mechanic, is the only person he’s ever taken
a batting lesson from, and the fulfilling feeling of witnessing Warren
share this moment with his son was precisely the type of special touch
baseball’s draft has desperately needed.

Fifteen minutes later,
the Nationals made the second of the three players who were in
attendance, Ross Detwiler, their pick at No. 6. Flanked by brothers Wes
and Brian, Detwiler exchanged hugs and followed Vitters’ lead as he
stepped onto stage.

Afterward he mingled with Barry Larkin and
Tim Foli, the Nationals’ representatives at the draft and both former
first-round picks themselves, as they shared stories about their draft
days and how much the process had changed all in one afternoon.

“When
I walked into the room my eyes lit up,” Detwiler said. “To see a room
for of Hall of Famers, I was like, ‘I’d rather interview them than be
interviewed.’ It’s been an unbelievable experience.”

It’s OK To Dream

About
an hour into the proceedings, most of the excitement in the building
had subsided. The picks were called out one-by-one, and only the
Yankees’ selection of Andrew Brackman at No. 30 drew much of a reaction
from the fans, who gradually filtered out of the Milk House with
armloads of giveaway items and perhaps an autograph or two.

Gammons
and the ESPN crew packed up their things as the supplemental round
wrapped up, and Seilg passed the baton to Solomon, who read off the
names of the second round.

As the commissioner stepped off the
stage, he addressed about a dozen reporters near the back of the room,
and he glowed as he talked about the importance of the day. It was yet
another progressive step made during his tenure, and on this day, the
only reminder that baseball’s landscape wasn’t as warm and fuzzy as
Mickey and Pluto themselves was one fleeting inquiry to Selig from a
writer regarding his intentions to attend Barry Bonds’ pending
record-setting performance.

“Not today boys,” he responded. “Today is about the draft, about these players.”

As
the show wound down and the picks began firing off every 60 seconds,
Winfield, Ken Griffey and Dwight Evans mingled with familiar faces and
the media, paying little attention to the names as they were called out
one-by-one. Some of them retold their own personal stories of draft
day. Griffey’s mom got the call from the Reds on this day back in 1969.
She passed the phone to her son right away, thinking he had been
drafted by the Army.

The draft has certainly taken on a new
personality since those days. For 42 years its execution remained
mostly unchanged, but with a national TV audience, a warm reception and
a stage all to its own, for one day in Disney World, dreams really did
come true.

Draft | #2007

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