It would be impossible to properly
catalog all the people who have played a part in the evolution of
baseball and Baseball America over the past 25 years. From the bullpen
catcher for a Rookie-level team to the men who have served as
commissioner of baseball, thousands of people have helped bring the
industry to where it is today.
celebration of our 25 years in the game, we’re focusing on the 25 most
significant of those people in our world. As a reflection of our
coverage of the game wherever it’s played, you’ll see much more than
just major league figures in the following pages. So while many of the
people you’ll read about are quite familiar to you, some probably won’t
be. We’re happy to introduce or reacquaint you with them. After all,
that’s what Baseball America is all about.
For Paul Snyder and the Braves, Andruw Jones posed a problem as he rose through their minor league system in the mid-1990s. No, he didn’t need fine-tuning on his swing, improvement in the outfield or off-field babysitting. The Braves just had to make sure he didn’t get bored.
Jones flew through the Braves organization as a teenager, racking up back-to-back Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year awards in 1995 and ’96. Snyder, the longtime Braves scout who then oversaw the farm system, said the organization couldn’t challenge him enough.
“Andruw was beyond his years, baseball maturity-wise,” Snyder said. “The biggest problem was that we couldn’t find any level that he didn’t dominate. He accomplished everything. In every league we put him in, he got to the top quickly. Very seldom do you get a guy like this to come through so quickly. A normal player his age will take at least four years to get to the big leagues and stay.”
Jones signed in 1993 after drawing attention during a game in Puerto Rico. Three years later, as a 19-year-old in his first World Series game, he took the Yankees’ Andy Pettite deep to become the youngest player to ever homer in the Fall Classic. Jones finished the 1996 season as the Braves’ starting left fielder after combining for a .316-39-105 minor league campaign that year.
Through his young career, Jones has flashed all five tools: he stole 56 bases at in low Class A as an 18-year old, he has won eight consecutive Gold Gloves and averaged better than 11 outfield assists a season, and he hit 51 homers and drove in 128 runs last year and was runner-up for National League MVP.
Yet many say the four-time all-star still hasn’t reached his potential, pointing to his .267 lifetime average and high strikeout rate. Snyder said Jones’ amazing natural ability made it easy for critics to look for weaknesses.
“Andruw makes everything look so easy,” he said. “They said the same thing about Henry Aaron years ago. Some guys just don’t have to work at it like the rest of us. He gives you the impression that he doesn’t care because he can be so good while making it look so easy. There was that one negative game (in 1998, when Jones failed to catch a shallow fly ball in center field and was removed from the game), but Bobby Cox took care of it and that’s the end of it.”
When Snyder first saw Jones his mind quickly drifted back several decades. “In 1960, I was about 75 miles from Philadelphia and went to see Roberto Clemente play,” he said. “When I saw Andruw, it was like seeing another Clemente. But Andruw’s a much better power hitter. He’s going to strike out like most power guys, but he’s got the most outstanding range and one of the most accurate arms for anyone that plays out there. He’s a beautiful player. He’s a long way from the 155 pounds he was when we signed him, but he’s still got the same gracefulness.”
Few American fans have seen him play, but Baseball America recognizes him as the most influential amateur player of the last 25 years because more than anyone else, Omar Linares helped Cuba dominate international baseball during his career. It’s a run that began in earnest in the 1987 Pan American Games, when he was just 17 and the youngest player in the history of Cuba’s national team.
Linares won three Olympic medals while playing for Cuba’s dominant national team, winning gold in 1992 and ’96 and silver in 2000. His Olympic numbers are staggering: Against amateurs and using metal bats, he went 40-for-82 (.488) in ’92 and ’96 with 12 home runs, including eight in his defining performance in Atlanta in ’96. He slammed three in the gold-medal victory against Cuba at Atlanta’s old Fulton County Stadium.
He was held to 11-for-33 in Sydney in 2000 with two home runs while facing professionals and using wood, but he still owns Olympic baseball records for hits (51), homers (14), at-bats (115) and games (27).
His statistical record in Cuba’s Serie Nacional is even more staggering. He amassed 2,195 hits and 404 home runs in fewer than 6,000 at-bats during his 20 seasons, slugging .644. Most of that career was spent using metal bats, but some of it came with wood as Cuba switched bats in the late 1990s.
But because he played for a Communist nation in a career that began during the Cold War, Linares’ greatness was confined to the international stage, and he didn’t play professionally until 2002 in Japan, when he was 34 and well past his prime.
So how good was Linares? Opinions on his ultimate value vary, but the consensus was that he was Cuba’s best player for more than a decade, and his talent inspired comparisons to Mike Schmidt. The Yankees were believed to have offered Linares $1.5 million to defect in 1996, but he declined.
“He could definitely play here,” White Sox third baseman Robin Ventura said in 1992, four years after he had faced Linares in the ’88 Olympics.
A Baseball America survey of scouts at the ’96 Olympics rated Linares, even at age 28, the top prospect at the Games. “I’d take the regular over the righthanded pitcher,” one international scouting supervisor said when asked to compare Linares to Kris Benson, the No. 1 pick in the ’96 draft. “I think you can take Linares and put him in the big leagues right now, and he’d be an all-star. Look at third base. Since Mike Schmidt retired, there haven’t been too many guys like that.”
Linares was known for his quick bat, strength and cannon throwing arm, and he had nimble feet at third base, where he was an above-average defender. His career was winding down when the most baseball fans got a national look at him in the U.S., when the Orioles played host to Cuba and then traveled to Cuba for exhibition games.
“Imagine what he was in his prime,” current Mets general manager Omar Minaya said at the time. “He could have been Jose Canseco at (shortstop) in his prime.”
Under the microscope since the age of 15, Joe Mauer has yet to crack. And what with him leading the American League in batting for his hometown team in his second big league season at age 23, it looks unlikely he ever will.
Mauer excelled at football, basketball and baseball growing up in the Twin Cities and was a local celebrity for the storied Cretin-Derham Hall prep program. The Twins took him with the top pick in the 2001 draft and bought him out of a commitment to Florida State, where he had signed to play quarterback.
“He did everything easy,” Twins scouting director Mike Radcliffe said. “Whether he was playing quarterback, point guard or behind the dish, he had a commanding presence that stood out. He was a natural leader.”
The Twins had watched Mauer’s high school ride, which included state championships in football and baseball. They watched him make contact at an unbelievable rate, not striking out in high school until the semifinals of the state championship in his senior season.
The Twins drooled at the possibility of bringing their market a hometown hero, and their scouts were on hand for each of his games during his senior season, with the team forced to decide between Mauer and Mark Prior.
“You never saw him crack under any of that,” Radcliffe said. “He doesn’t lose his cool, and just stays steady, focus and composed.”
When the Twins did take Mauer, others assumed they had gone the inexpensive route because Prior was regarded as the consensus best player available. Mauer thrived under these doubts. After signing in 2001, Mauer hit .400 in 110 at-bats in the Appalachian League. The next season, he would hit .302 as a teenager in the Midwest League. With each step up, Mauer continued to hit.
“You know, his physical tools aren’t that superior to a lot of baseball players,” Radcliffe said, “but his ability to process information is what separates him. In a lot of ways, I think his best tool is his brain.”
In 2003, Mauer won the Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year award after hitting .338 between high Class A Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain. In addition, Mauer was showing defensive skills that were unparalleled for someone his age.
Mauer’s next season was cut short by a knee injury that many predicted would move him from behind the plate. Rumors of a move to third or first base were rampant, but through intense rehabilitation, Mauer returned in 2005 to throw out 40 percent of basestealers while hitting .294.
This season, Mauer is making headlines with his defense and his bat, at one point reaching base four times in five consecutive games to tie a major league record. While Mauer is seemingly at the beginning of a long, successful career, Radcliffe will always remember the special teenager he drafted.
“Only (Alex Rodriguez) was in the same kind of class that Joe was in high school,” Radcliffe said. “He’s at the top of the list for catchers, and really, I can’t think of anyone else that’s close.”
If Mark McGwire had stayed the course, it’s likely he would have ended up just another wild, hard-throwing, dime-a-dozen righthander.
After a lackluster freshman season on the mound at Southern California, McGwire’s career was altered when he played at first base in the Alaska League that summer. The team needed power, and Rick Vaughn had seen the way the ball jumped off McGwire’s bat.
“I had remembered he swung the bat pretty good from after seeing him in high school,” said Vaughn, an assistant at USC and in Alaska. “He had bad speed and power potential, so we decided to use him at first when he wasn’t on the mound.”
The experiment was promising, but before McGwire could become the hitter who would blast 583 career home runs, the USC staff had to make alterations. “You never know how a player will take to adjustments,” Vaughn said. “We altered his stance, the positions of his hands, we altered his feet, and he took to it pretty rapidly.”
McGwire found fast success but fell to the Athletics with the 10th overall pick in the 1984 draft because of rumors about his bonus demands. He moved quickly through the minors. After a cup of coffee in 1986, McGwire opened the next season as Oakland’s regular first baseman. Vaughn still worked out with McGwire during the winter, and he started to notice a change before his rookie season.
“He was not totally understanding what the A’s were preaching right away,” Vaughn said. “But I noticed in workouts that it was really starting to click for him before spring training.”
McGwire hit 49 home runs in 1987, and he and Jose Canseco quickly became the poster boys for both the A’s and the long ball. After hitting 363 home runs with the A’s over 12 seasons, the team traded him months before free agency would have made him too expensive. McGwire was in the middle of a huge season, and he finished 1997 with 58 home runs.
That was only a prelude to 1998, however. Along with new bash brother Sammy Sosa, McGwire challenged and eventually broke Roger Maris’ hallowed season home run mark with 70 homers. Their race was one of the key factors in boosting baseball’s prospects after the 1994-95 work stoppage.
“I’m going to remember that he developed himself as the premier power hitter in baseball,” Vaughn said, “and in doing so rekindled the spark of enthusiasm the country had with the game.”
Just three seasons after his ultimate glory, however, McGwire retired after injuries had derailed his career. Canseco then fingered him as a steroid user in his tell-all book, and Congress called him to testify at its steroid hearings in 2005. McGwire had stepped out of the public eye in retirement, and his return to the limelight did not go well, as he looked uncomfortable and declined to answer questions about his career.
Steroids or not, the most famous images of McGwire remain his home run swings of 1998, his bear hug with Sosa following his 62nd home run. While McGwire’s legacy has surely been altered since that day, he has still ended up far from the wild righthander at the back of USC’s bullpen.
For nearly half a century, the O’Malley family was synonymous with Dodgers baseball. And from the early 1980s to the time he sold the club to Fox in 1998, Peter O’Malley’s Dodgers did more to highlight the impact of international talent than any other club.
Of course, it’s only fitting that the franchise that integrated the major leagues in 1947 would guide other clubs in the direction of new talent. The Dodgers’ efforts in the Dominican Republic and later in the Pacific Rim put them at the forefront of international player development.
Peter O’Malley’s father Walter assumed control of the Dodgers, still in Brooklyn, in 1950 and presided over two of the most successful eras in franchise history. It was into this shadow that Peter O’Malley stepped in 1970 when he was named Dodgers president. The organization, then headed by general manager Al Campanis, was credited with devising the 20-80 scouting scale, but it was the Dodgers’ innovative means of unearthing talent that gave them a true competitive advantage.
Dodgers scouts Corito Verona and Mike Brito made the club’s first international breakthrough while scouting in Mexico in 1978, when they discovered charismatic young lefthander Fernando Valenzuela. The Dodgers signed Valenzuela for $120,000, taught him a screwball and watched him quickly master the pitch and use it to record a rookie-record eight shutouts in ’81, when he won rookie of the year and Cy Young awards and led the Dodgers to World Series victory.
The club put a crowning touch on its international efforts in 1987 by opening Campo Las Palmas, a first-of-its-kind baseball academy situated on 75 acres in Guerra, Dominican Republic. The list of big leaguers developed at the camp includes Pedro and Ramon Martinez, Adrian Beltre, Duncan, Raul Mondesi, Pedro Astacio and Roger Cedeno.
Looking to tap into Los Angeles’ large Japanese-American population and to increase fan interest after the ’94 strike, O’Malley’s Dodgers signed righthander Hideo Nomo for $2 millioin sight unseen on Feb. 13, 1995. He became the first Japanese player to have success in the American majors.
The Dodgers had debuted Korean righthander Chan Ho Park in 1994, but it was Nomo’s success that led the Dodgers to intensify their search for talent in Japan, Korea and Taiwan, where they signed outfielder Chin-Feng Chen, lefthander Hong-Chih Kuo and shortstop Chin-Lung Hu. Chen, in 2002, became the first player from that country to debut in the majors. The same was true for Australia and shortstop Craig Shipley in 1986.
O’Malley also played a key role in baseball gaining a visible role at the 1984 Olympics, where it debuted as a demonstration sport, by hosting international baseball leaders in Los Angeles in 1979. The group would later become the International Baseball Federation (IBAF).
Perhaps nothing reaffirmed the Dodgers’ commitment to internationalizing the game during O’Malley’s 28-year tenure more, though, than the club’s nine NL West titles, five pennants and two World Series wins.