Townsend seeks to show real image
by John Manuel
One year after making the cover of Baseball America's College Preview issue, Wade Townsend thought the last place he'd be was back home in Dripping Springs, Texas.
He had an eventful year. It included an undefeated 12-0 junior season at Rice, as well as being the eighth overall pick of the 2004 draft. An academic all-American as well as a two-time BA All-American, Townsend also got his history degree from Rice in December after seven semesters and posted a 3.6 overall GPA.
He should be getting ready for his first spring training. He probably wouldn't be doing that in Dripping Springs, about 25 miles west of Austin, either.
"It's always bittersweet to leave college, but I'm thrilled to be done," he says. "I'm glad to come home. I actually like my parents, so I feel blessed to have been able to spend time with them."
That's one thing Townsend has had: time. Time to give pitching lessons in Houston and go to sporting events with pal and former Rice teammate (and roommate) Jeff Niemann, the fourth overall pick, who with Owls righty Philip Humber—the third overall pick—joined Townsend on the cover.
And time to think about what the heck happened. Because one year after making the cover of this, the annual College Preview issue, Wade Townsend is right back where he started, getting ready for another draft. Because he went back to class in the fall, he ended his negotiations with the Orioles and will have to re-enter the draft in 2005 (BA, Oct. 11-24).
"My arm feels great, and I'm in the best shape of my life," he said. "I feel re-energized. I'm done with school, and I know I'm ready."
Positively Will Not Be Undersold
Townsend probably knows that he was ready last June, if not before, but negotiations with the Orioles went nowhere. Baltimore was ready to draft Atlanta prep shortstop Chris Nelson when owner Peter Angelos, entering the draft room after the proceedings already had started, insisted the club draft a college pitcher. Unfortunately for Townsend, he happened to be the one the Orioles took. The two sides never came to terms after the Orioles offered him a smaller ($1.7 million) signing bonus than they gave their 2003 first-rounder, outfielder Nick Markakis.
Yes, it seems ludicrous to turn down seven figures to play pro baseball. Now imagine doing your own job as well as you can—say, to the tune of 25-3, 2.05, with 13 saves and 363 strikeout in 290 career innings—and being offered significantly less money than a similarly talented co-worker. That's the situation Townsend found himself in; two picks later, the Rangers gave a similar righthander, New Orleans' Thomas Diamond, $2.025 million to sign. Diamond throws consistently harder than Townsend, whose fastball is in the 89-93 mph range while flashing 94-96 at times, but Townsend's curveball is much better.
It didn't matter to the Orioles, who miscalculated what it would take to sign Townsend, and underestimated how much his college degree means to him. When Townsend returned to school, he and his agent, Casey Close of IMG, appealed to Major League Baseball to continue negotiating with the Orioles, hoping that Townsend would not be penalized for wanting to get his degree. MLB's rules, however, are quite clear, and Townsend's appeal was denied.
Townsend doesn't regret that the gambit didn't work. He wanted his degree; he says convincingly that being named the NCAA's academic all-American of the year means more to him than where he got drafted. He also realizes that turning down $1.7 million isn't the best way to ingratiate himself to the other 29 clubs that will size him up for the '05 draft.
With all this time on his hands, Townsend has realized he has a reputation to mend. He's not just the guy who turned down all that money. He's the one that ESPN featured with the painted toenails during the 2003 College World Series. He's the quotable, excitable one of the Owls trio, the emotional one, the one who pumps his fist after a strikeout, or screams for the umpire to give him a call on a checked swing.
He's also the guy who testily ended negotiations with the Orioles, losing his cool in a conference call that involved club vice president Jim Beattie. Townsend's the one scouts saw protest a balk call in the Cape Cod League by dropping into what most scouts call a "dirt angel" on the mound.
"Yeah, I've heard that one," Townsend says. "I agree completely; the misperception is that I'm the goofball. Only I can get rid of it. When people meet me, they always have me pegged as this other guy. When they get to know me, it's like, 'Hey, you're not a total screw-up.' It shocks people."
Townsend prefers to think of his passion for the game as a positive, the fuel that helped him throw 97 mph in games against Big 12 Conference powers or in the postseason, instead of the high 80s and low 90s against the likes of Louisiana Tech and other Western Athletic Conference teams. Coach Wayne Graham recognized Townsend's passion and talent early on and shepherded him through a difficult first fall practice, when Townsend couldn't throw strikes. He gave him a blueprint for pitching, taught him how to prepare between starts, and how to get his mechanics back when he got out of whack.
"I've been awful," Townsend says, "and I've figured out how to fix it."
Now Townsend's got a reputation to fix. He hopes to prove to teams that his degree and GPA are a better indicator of his maturity and readiness for pro ball than his reputation for being a hot-head on the mound.
You can reach John Manuel by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.