1985: The best draft of all time
By Jon Scher
Will Clark could be playing for the Milwaukee Brewers right now. So could Bobby Witt, Barry Larkin or Barry Bonds. And Pete Incaviglia could be crushing baseballs for the Brewers, while endangering the Wisconsin city's supply of bratwurst.
None of that matters to Ray Poitevint, who spearheaded the Brewers' scouting efforts as they prepared to make the first pick in the June 1985 draft. Poitevint knew who he wanted: B.J. Surhoff. And if he had to do it all over again, Poitevint says he's make the same choice.
"I saw every one of 'em more than once, and I kept coming back to Surhoff," said Poitevint, a special assistant to Milwaukee general manager Harry Dalton. "Everyone in the country knew his physical ability, but I knew his inner makeup. He does not recognize pressure."
The pressure was on Poitevint in the spring of '85. For plunging to last place in the AL East with a 67-94 record in 1984, the Brewers got first crack at what just may have been the best pool of talent for any draft in history.
Less than two years after that June draft, an unprecedented 10 first-round picks were in the major leagues. Including one B.J. Surhoff, catcher, Milwaukee.
"I thought he could get to the big leagues at any position we chose to use him at," Poitevint said of Surhoff, who played some shortstop as well as catcher at the University of North Carolina.
"I have great respect for all those kids. They all are going to be great major league ballplayers," added the man who passed up the chance to draft Clark, Incaviglia, Bonds and the rest. "But I wouldn't trade any of 'em for B.J."
The best draft ever?
At best, the first round of the average baseball draft might eventually produce a dozen quality major leaguers. With 10 players in the bigs already, and more on the way, the 1985 first round may well become known as the best of all time.
"It already has been one of the good drafts," said Terry Ryan, scouting director of the Minnesota Twins. "A lot of those guys are All-Star caliber. And we haven't even begun to talk of the high school players who haven't gotten there yet."
Because they are older and have more experience, the initial 10 major leaguers to arrive from the '85 first round were former college players. Among the top nine high school players drafted and signed, three have advanced to the Double-A level: Jeff Bumgarner of the Twins, Tommy Greene of the Braves and Gregg Jefferies of the Mets. Jefferies was named the Minor League Player of the Year last season.
Even Mets vice president Joe McIlvaine, an outspoken advocate of drafting high school talent, is willing to concede that the college Class of '85 could make that year's first round the deepest ever.
"Eighty-one was pretty good, too," McIlvaine said. "The first 10 guys drafted in '81 all played in the big leagues (including Mike Moore, Joe Carter, Dick Schofield, Kevin McReynolds, Daryl Boston and Ron Darling).
"But I don't think the caliber of '81 was equal to the caliber of '85. An awful lot of 'em have a good chance to have good careers. And it's probably the fastest group to get to the big leagues. Whether that says something about the outstanding caliber of the players themselves, or the caliber of play in the major leagues, I don't know. But it's pretty amazing."
Major league executives thought the 1984 draft was something special--the first round included names like Cory Snyder, Oddibe McDowell, Billy Swift and Scott Bankhead. All were members of the first-ever U.S. Olympic team.
"A lot of people would have thought the talent group out of the Olympic year would never be duplicated," said Tom Grieve, general manager of the Texas Rangers. "Well, 1985 came sooner than anyone thought."
Actually, the '84 Olympic team, considered to be the strongest American amateur team ever, contributed heavily to the talent pool for the '85 draft. Surhoff, Clark, Witt and Larkin--the first four players selected--were all teammates at the Olympics.
"A lot of this was exposure," Surhoff said. "We got a lot of publicity from the Olympic team, and I think the teams that drafted us were willing to take a chance on us because of that. But we were also in the right place at the right time. Some of us just happened to be drafted by teams that needed players right away, and we came through when we got the chance."
Incaviglia started it all
During the summer of 1985, the seeds of the future were scattered across the country. Like any other newcomers to professional baseball, they began their careers in places like Beloit, Wis. (Surhoff); Fresno, Calif. (Clark); and Tulsa, Okla. (Witt).
All except Incaviglia. The most prolific slugger in college baseball history--48 homers in his last year at Oklahoma State--was determined to write his own ticket. Incaviglia demanded a big league contract, and announced he did not want to play for the Montreal Expos, the team that drafted him.
Incaviglia held out all summer, and the Expos finally made a deal to send him to Texas the following winter. With a big league contract in his pocket, Incaviglia made the most of his opportunity. He opened the 1986 season as the Rangers' right fielder.
"The contract we gave him would have made no sense if we thought he'd play in the minor leagues," Grieve said. "I'm not trying to say we told you so, but we had an opening in right field and we thought he could fill it."
Incaviglia wasn't the only '85 draftee to make the Rangers that spring. Witt, the hard-throwing righthander who had gone 0-6 at Double-A Tulsa, also made the team. He wound up winning his first professional game in a major league uniform.
Meanwhile, Clark proved he was ready for major league pitching and went north with the San Francisco Giants. When the perennially dismal Rangers and Giants began winning, other major league organizations began re-evaluating traditional thinking. And other players from the '85 draft began popping up in the bigs.
Outfielder Barry Bonds got the call from the Pirates. Bobby Thigpen, a hard-throwing reliever who was a fourth-round pick after playing mostly the outfield as Clark's teammate at Mississippi State, moved up to the White Sox. Shortstop Barry Larkin was promoted to the Reds. Rafael Palmeiro earned a stint in the Cubs' outfield in September, and the Angels gave pitchers Willie Fraser and Mike Cook a late-season look.
All but Palmeiro opened the '87 season on major league rosters.
This spring, Surhoff made his debut with the Brewers, while second baseman Joey Cora joined the San Diego Padres. And pitcher Joe Magrane recently was promoted to the Cardinals.
"I think major league teams are giving players the opportunity to play in the big leagues quicker than they did before," Grieve said, citing the success of Incaviglia and 1986 draft picks Greg Swindell and Bo Jackson--both current big leaguers.
"We're telling hard-line big league people that a player doesn't have to play a certain amount in the minor leagues to be a success . . . What more could Pete Incaviglia do than he did in college? The only reason guys like him didn't do that before was they didn't get a chance to."
McIlvaine of the Mets, who stresses patience with young players, isn't rushing to jump on the bandwagon. "Now it'll be interesting to watch whether they can sustain it," McIlvaine said. "Was it a mistake to take these good, quality players up there so fast? I think you'll see mixed results. Some will continue to do well, and some will fall back."
The college connection
The former college players among the first-round Class of '85 say the constantly improving quality of play in college baseball was a key to their rapid advancement.
"Going to Oklahoma was the best decision of my life," said Witt. "It enabled me to bypass rookie ball and A-ball."
"It was definitely a big help," said Clark of his years at Mississippi State. "It taught me all the fundamentals of the game, and put me up against top competition."
At Arizona State, Barry Bonds played in the College World Series twice. "All the guys I played baseball with in college were the best," he said. "A lot of players I knew, there was no doubt they were gonna be in the major leagues--it was just a matter of when.
"I just don't think any of us really expected all this so fast."
Ron Polk, who coached Clark, Palmeiro and Thigpen at Mississippi State, says college coaches should take the success of the Class of '85 as a compliment.
"It does indicate that college baseball certainly is doing a good job of instructing and getting people ready for professional baseball," Polk said. "I think if a kid leaves Texas or a school like that at age 21 or 22, you don't stick him in rookie ball for two or three years. You'll find out very quickly whether he's ready to play."
Grieve agreed. "There's no doubt college programs are better than they've ever been before," he said. "But several of these guys were drafted out of high school. Had they signed, they wouldn't have been in the '85 draft, so you could make a case that it was luck. As to why '85 was a particularly good year, maybe it was pure luck. Maybe it should have been the year they were in high school."
Lou Gorman, general manager of the Boston Red Sox, is a charter subscriber to the pendulum theory. "It's just on of those things that come in cycles," he contends. "Some years college players will predominate, and some years high school players will predominate. There's no criteria for why it happens. It just does."
The St. Louis Cardinals lean toward college players when making their first-round selections. But scouting director Fred McAlister recognizes college baseball has some limitations as a player development source.
"I don't think it's like basketball and football, where you can put 'em right in the big leagues," McAlister said. "But it's closer than it's ever been."
Pushing 'em up
Will the rapid advancement of 1985's college-age first rounders put pressure on organizations to seek the quick fix in the future? The answer is a resounding maybe.
"I think the pressure is on the scouting director," said the Brewers' Poitevint. "If you're drafting No. 1, you have to look for the player who can get to the big leagues the fastest."
But many scouting directors espouse the Mets' philosophy, and say they look for the best available talent regardless of age or position. "In most cases, teams draft the player who has the most ability," said Grieve. "Of course, there's certainly something to be said for how soon he'll get to the big leagues.
"And there's no doubt you know more about a college junior than a high school senior."
Last year, scouting directors ignored the example of '85, drafting more high school players than college players in the first round. That's expected to happen again this June.
Regardless of whether their prospects are out of high school, college or Latin America, most organizations seem to be speeding the talent toward the major leagues.
"Clubs are pushing 'em more now," said the Cardinals' McAlister. "People see the other guy doing it, and they're not afraid to bring 'em up any more. It used to be, people didn't want to hurt a player, so they put 'em at Class A, then Double-A and then Triple-A. But now so many kids have proven they can do it . . . "
Poitevint offers another reason for pushing 'em along. Money.
"Today you don't have five, six, seven years to get a high school kid or a college guy to the big leagues," he said. "You only have three or four years. That's a built-in demand from the scouting director, who operates the budget."
Whether they competed against each other in college or played together on the Olympic team, a certain kindred spirit can be felt by some members of the Class of '85.
"It's a little like a brotherhood," said Clark. "Everyone pulls for one another coming out of that draft."
Witt said when he saw how quickly some of his old college opponents--as well as Olympic teammates Oddibe McDowell of the Rangers and Billy Swift of the Mariners--made the big leagues, he began to believe he could, too. Even without a minor league win under his belt.
"I tried to put myself in their shoes," he said. "When you see those guys up there, it seems like yesterday you saw them in college. When I see them play in the major leagues, it makes me feel good, too.
"You're always hoping they do well--but not against you."
Bonds, too, says he gets together with old college teammates and opponents now in the big leagues. "It's good to see people you know. It's good to see everyone do well," he said. "But it's not anything I didn't expect to happen."
OK. So these guys got to the majors fast. They're making a lot of money, and they're having fun.
But will the Class of '85 be the best ever?
"I don't think you could say the best of all time," Poitevint said.
"But I don't think anyone would argue with you on it."
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