Image credit: B.J. Surhoff (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Allsport)
The Brewers’ front office staff dined on Danish rolls and consumed coffee in the early morning hours of Monday, June 3, 1985, gathering in a conference room at the Milwaukee’s luxurious Pfister Hotel.
The Brewers held the first pick in the draft. So not long after sun rise, general manager Harry Dalton joined a conference call with the commissioner’s office in New York. Dalton then relayed the Brewers’ pick to commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who in turn announced it to the other 25 GMs.
Unlike many draft-day gatherings over the years, there was little anxiety within the group that included Dalton, scouting director Ray Poitevint, executives Dan Duquette, Walter Shannon, Walter Youse and scouting supervisors Nelson Burbrink and Roland LeBlanc.
The Brewers had decided a week earlier that B.J. Surhoff, an athletic catcher at North Carolina, would be their pick. As comfortable as they were in tapping Surhoff, the Brewers also knew they could not have gone wrong with selecting just about any of their top candidates.
“That was a fun year,” said Sandy Johnson, who at the time was the Rangers’ scouting director and now is retired after 53 years in the game. “Every night, or any assignment you had, when you sent your guys out, you saw quality players. You’d go out and you’d see some tremendous athletes and great players.”
As it turned out, the 1985 class included the greatest collection of amateur talent in draft history. The first round after Surhoff included Will Clark (second overall), Barry Larkin (fourth), Barry Bonds (sixth) and Rafael Palmeiro (22nd). Hall of Fame pitchers Randy Johnson and John Smoltz went in later rounds, as did long-time position regulars Mark Grace and David Justice.
Beyond the historic talent level, the ’85 draft signaled a continuing shift to greater credence in the selection of college players, the growing involvement of agents in the negotiating of contracts, the institution of a rule that prevented the trading of draft picks and the continued belief by Major League Baseball that all of this drama should be cloaked in secrecy.
“I don’t think there’s nearly the mystery in today’s draft that there was back then,” said Doug Melvin, then the Yankees’ scouting director and now a senior advisor for the Brewers. “Call me old school, but I just like the fact there was a lot of mystery to it. There was a lot of hard work, there was a lot of due diligence, there was a lot of secretive stuff going on.”
Until the summer of 1984, a general belief pervaded baseball that college players were too smart for their own good. They did not receive proper tutoring in college, the thinking went, and professional coaches ultimately were forced to break down their games and start anew at teaching the game’s basics.
Then along came the ’84 U.S. Olympic team, regarded as the greatest amateur team ever assembled. The team toured the country for a series of exhibition games before claiming a silver medal at the Los Angeles Games, where baseball was a demonstration sport that year.
The ’84 Olympic squad proved to be a bonanza for scouts, who not only got to watch an incredible collection of amateur talent on one stage, but also got to view them against some of the best talent from around the world.
“That was a scout’s dream to see that team,” said Dan Duquette, Milwaukee’s assistant farm and scouting director at the time.
Seventeen of the 26 players drafted in the first round in 1980 were high schoolers. Four years later, just eight high school players were selected in the first round. Among the 18 college players picked in ’84 were 12 Olympians—among them future big leaguers such as Mark McGwire, Cory Snyder, Oddibe McDowell, Scott Bankhead and Billy Swift.
There was a pronounced carryover to ’85, when Surhoff, Clark, Bobby Witt, Larkin and Chris Gwynn were all former Olympic team members selected in the first round. They led a wave of 11 college selections in the first 12 picks. Just nine high school players were selected in the first round.
Rather than sending scouts to high school outposts across the country, major league teams were figuring out that they could double up on their viewing pleasure by watching both Clark and Palmeiro at Mississippi State as well as Surhoff and Walt Weiss at North Carolina. Further, scouts could catch Bonds at Arizona State and Joe Magrane at Arizona, or Witt at Oklahoma and Pete Incaviglia at Oklahoma State, sometimes in the same day or same game.
So as MLB front office staffs gathered in conference rooms across the country in preparation for the ’85 draft, college players dominated the first-round conversation.
Baseball America ranked Surhoff, Witt and Clark as the top three prospects in the draft, and most teams agreed in spirit, if not in order. The lefthanded-hitting Clark was believed to have the sweetest swing in the draft class. Scouts were enamored of the first baseman after he led the Olympic team with a .397 average, 16 home runs and 43 RBIs. The righthanded Witt received the only perfect 80 score from the Major League Scouting Bureau on its 20-80 scouting scale with an explosive fastball that accounted for 231 strikeouts in 197 innings in two years at Oklahoma. As a freshman for the Sooners, Witt was so wild that he was redshirted.
Surhoff batted .392 with 32 home runs in three seasons at UNC. What distinguished him from the others, according to Duquette, was that he played catcher. That was enough to prompt the Brewers to draft him.
“The thinking was, if you’ve got a good catcher and you’ve got a good position player at the top of the draft, you can potentially build a team around a catcher,” Duquette recalled. “B.J. had a lot of outsets. He could run, he could hit, he had power, he was a good competitor. Some of the guys in that class distinguished themselves with the bat beyond B.J., but B.J. was a pretty complete player.”
Only a few players among the top draft prospects had agents. Surhoff was one. He and his family employed Bob Woolf, who had represented athletes such as Carl Yastrzemski and Larry Bird as well as TV and radio host Larry King.
Duquette, who later became GM of three major league teams, met with both the Surhoff family at their home in Rye, N.Y., and with Woolf at his Boston office. The Brewers wanted to make certain Surhoff could be signed for their $150,000 bonus offer if they took him first overall. Wolff assured the Brewers that was acceptable.
The Giants quickly followed by snapping up Clark. Then it was the Rangers’ turn.
Texas was coming off a 92-loss season and wanted to bolster a pitching staff anchored by 36-year-old knuckleballer Charlie Hough and 30-year lefthander Frank Tanana. The Rangers believed they found the answer in Witt.
“He had one of the best arms I’ve ever seen as far as pure arm strength,” Johnson said of Witt, who once struck out 17 Texas Longhorns as a redshirt sophomore.
Witt’s case was typical of the high school and college player at the time when it came to handling negotiations with clubs. Prior to the draft, he personally met with team officials, who asked how much it would take to sign him.
Witt understood he had great leverage with the possibility of two seasons remaining at Oklahoma. He recalled that he first met with the Giants, and then the Brewers. He told both organizations that he was non-committal on a bonus figure and said he would wait to see where he was drafted.
Only after the Rangers selected Witt did he bring on an advisor, or agent. That was his father Bob, who was retired from the Marine Corps and earned a living as a firefighter.
Dad turned out to be a tough negotiator for his son after consulting with a few players from the previous year’s draft about how the process worked. When Johnson sat in the Witt family home to discuss a signing bonus, his first two offers were rebuffed by Witt’s father.
“Man, are you sure?” Witt recalls telling his dad.
When Witt accepted the third offer, he received the highest bonus—$179,000—in that year’s draft.
The Reds were gleeful to take Larkin, a hometown Cincinnati product and shortstop out of Michigan, with the fourth pick. The White Sox followed by selecting Kurt Brown, a high school catcher from Glendora, Calif., just ahead of Bonds by the Pirates. Brown’s career peaked at Triple-A, while Bonds belted a major league record 762 home runs. The next pick in the draft was Hawaii pitcher Mike Campbell, a six-year big leaguer.
Despite being forewarned that he was not interested in playing in Montreal, the Expos still selected Incaviglia with the eighth pick. Murray Cook, the Expos’ GM at the time, recalled that the club believed it could sign Incaviglia anyway. His power was that tempting. Incaviglia cranked 48 home runs and drove in 143 during as an Oklahoma State junior.
Incaviglia also employed an agent, but not just any agent. The cocksure Incaviglia was represented by Bucky Woy, the hard-nosed negotiator with clients such as golfer Jack Nicklaus and Bob Horner, the No. 1 pick in the 1978 draft.
As compensation for playing in a cold-weather climate, Incaviglia and Woy demanded a two-year contract that called for his career to begin in Montreal.
The negotiations dragged on for five months before Incaviglia finally said he would only play for the Rangers. So Cook said he called Rangers GM Tom Grieve.
“Look, he wants to play over there and he’ll sign for (150) grand,” Cook recalled. “We’ll sell him to you for (150) grand and you can give us a couple of players.”
On Nov. 2, Incaviglia signed for $150,000 with the Expos, who traded him to the Rangers for the $150,000 as well as minor league pitcher Bob Sebra and journeyman infielder Jim Anderson.
“Neither one was going to be a front-line player in the big leagues. We knew that,” Cook said. “I felt like we’re not going to come away with nothing.”
Once the Incaviglia deal was consummated, MLB promptly prohibited teams from trading drafted players for a period of one year, a rule that stood until 2015, when it was modified to allow a drafted player to be traded at the conclusion of the current major league season.
The Yankees could relate to not having a first-round pick. For one of the many times in their history, they went without a first-round selection as a result of signing free agent pitcher Ed Whitson.
Knowing they would not draft in the first round, the Yankees focused their efforts internationally. On the recommendation of international scouting director Fred Ferreira, as well as Puerto Rico scouts Luis Arroyo and Roberto Rivera, the Yankees flew a young outfielder in to try out at Yankee Stadium. At the time, Puerto Ricans were not eligible for the draft.
Melvin, the Yankees’ scouting director, told other scouts that Bernie Williams was there simply as a favor to Arroyo and the scouts. But Melvin was being coy. He really wanted to keep Williams under wraps and make certain no other team saw him.
When the Yankees signed the 16-year-old Williams, who would play 16 seasons for the team, to a contract in September, they believed they had more than made up for the loss of a first-round selection. Williams signed for $16,000.
Just as Williams’ signing went virtually unnoticed, so too did most of that year’s draft. MLB was adamant that draft selections remain out of the public eye, for reasons that seem illogical today.
MLB was concerned that college teams were using draft lists as a recruiting tool. Also, MLB was becoming cognizant that agents were scooping up potential clients before the teams themselves had a chance to contact their draft picks. It was not long before MLB instituted a strict “hands off” policy on information related to draft picks, with the exception of players selected in the first round.
Not until 1998 did MLB recognize the value of publicity that comes with releasing the names of all selected players immediately. It finally caught up with the NFL and NBA in the 2000s by televising the first round.
As a result of all the secrecy inherent at the time, San Diego State outfielder Chris Gwynn learned from his college coach a few hours afterward that he had been selected by the Dodgers with the 10th overall pick in ’85.
Because teams often dealt directly with players, Gwynn said he tired of all the phone calls from scouts and executives in the final three weeks leading up to the draft. So Gwynn gave a fake phone number to the Scouting Bureau, and the calls stopped.
Gwynn batted .383 in college and scouts believed his swing was on par—if not better—than his Hall of Fame brother, Tony. Chris was a certain first-round pick.
When Gwynn did not hear from teams on draft day—because none had his proper phone number—he figured he was headed back to campus for his senior season. Then Aztecs head coach Jim Dietz called to congratulate Gwynn.
Cook was equally befuddled after the Expos drafted Johnson out of Southern California in the second round and signed him for $60,000. Johnson then reported to short-season Jamestown in the New York-Penn League.
“He was absolutely awful,” Cook said. “He was heavy, big and he didn’t throw hard.”
Johnson ran up a 5.93 ERA in his pro debut, with 24 walks and 21 strikeouts in 27 innings. It took another two seasons and a trade to the Mariners before Johnson began to flash the form that would make him a Hall of Famer.
Johnson’s tale served to show, according to Cook, that the draft is a “crap shoot, at best,” even one like 1985 that has proven to be the greatest collection of talent ever.