Prior to covering professional baseball, I covered household expenses and built a meager savings by reporting on Clemson athletics for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier. Clemson has typically been a fixture in the NCAA Tournament and in early June of 2010 I covered a bizarre scene at the regional in Auburn, Alabama.
One of Clemson’s star players was Kyle Parker, who was also the starting quarterback for the school’s football team. While playing quarterback at Clemson was the higher-profile amateur position, he was expected to choose baseball professionally, as he’d shot up draft boards that spring and was regarded as a potential first-round pick. On the opening night of the draft, Parker found himself also playing an NCAA Tournament regional elimination game against Auburn in Auburn.
Parker was the starting right fielder for Clemson, and Auburn had something of a party deck just beyond and above the right-field wall, where a rowdy collection of loyal Auburn partisans gathered. As a sort of preemptive measure, Parker approached the section of fans before the game and suggested they heckle him in any manner they chose, but he made one request: he ask they avoid one subject matter in their taunts and that was anything related to the draft.
Parker envisioned a scenario in which the fans out there distracted him while his team was on the field. “Hey, Kyle, you just went fifth overall!” “Hey, Kyle you’re really sliding!” Imagine the NFL draft taking place the night of the national title game. This was nearly the baseball equivalent.
In the middle of the seventh inning, a cheer went up during a rather innocuous, low-energy point in the game. It was audible throughout Plainsman Park. It had been produced by the Parker family, seated in the grandstands on the first-base side. The yelps indicated that Parker had been selected 26th overall by the Rockies, who at the time had a thing for college quarterbacks (See: Helton, Todd and Smith, Seth.) Earlier in the game, Parker had smashed a three-run homer, so maybe the whole life-changing-moment, life-changing-money thing hadn’t been so much of a distraction. Or maybe Parker was smart to make a personal appeal to the Auburn’s rowdiest contingent of fans. A similar situation played out this past Monday night, as University of Florida Friday night starter Alex Faedo was selected 18th overall by the Tigers while his Gators were in the midst of an NCAA Tournament game.
I will hardly be the first or last person to question the awkward timing of the amateur baseball draft. Baseball faces a number of challenges related to the draft given that it has its own feeder system (the minor leagues) to consider, while the NFL and NBA largely use colleges to develop much of their future talent. Major League Baseball probably has little interest in pushing back the draft and losing weeks of potential development time with minor-league seasons underway and short-season ball on the verge of beginning. College baseball, for its part, has shown little interest in changing its schedule. While the sport might benefit from holding its postseason when school is still in session and students are on campus, cool early-spring weather already puts Northern schools at a disadvantage.
While the timing of the draft isn’t the most pressing issue facing college or professional baseball, it is the most obvious portal through which to view the imperfect relationship between MLB and college.
At some level, college and professional baseball are merely variations on the same sport. The two levels employ different bats and balls. While major-league clubs are most concerned about developing players in the minor leagues, college coaches are being asked to win games to keep their jobs. There’s real pressure to win. (Ask now former South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook.) And some coaches push the limits of responsibility with regard to pitch counts, as Gerald Schifman demonstrated earlier this week in what was akin to a CarFax report on college arms leading into the draft. Schifman found that UCLA, in particular, has pushed the workloads of pitchers. I once witnessed North Carolina head coach Mike Fox leave then-ace Matt Harvey on the mound for 157 pitches in a regular season game against Clemson. We don’t know much about why pitchers break down, but we know enough to expect decision-makers like college coaches to also consider the future of arms, especially high-profile ones.
The draft is another area where interests don’t align.
The NFL and NBA drafts are highly rated TV events. First-round picks are often present at them and walk up to the stage to hold their new club’s jersey and momentarily embrace the relevant commissioner. There’s often a vocal live audience.
The baseball draft, by comparison, has relatively few prospects present due to its place both (a) on the calendar and (b) in the confines of the MLB studio. In the absence of a live audience, the draft has the feel of a fantasy baseball draft being conduced in the finished basement of a New Jersey home.
While baseball will always have the disadvantage in regard to draft interest because of longer wait times and higher attrition rates for prospects between the draft and their major-league debuts, while the draft will never be what the NBA and NFL versions are, it seems reasonable to believe it could be better, that there could be some compromise to find a better venue, a better place on the calendar. Moreover, the draft is becoming more popular. There are more resources devoted to draft prospects (and prospects, in general) at FanGraphs, and elsewhere, as public interest grows. There’s an opportunity for greater coverage and exposure.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred deserves credit for his focus on growing the game at the amateur levels, including by means of his “One Baseball” initiative, an attempt to create a more united front and relationship between the pro, college, and lower-level amateur levels of the game. As a guest on a ROOT Telecast last week in Denver, Manfred was asked about the draft.
“We love the draft,” Manfred said. “The best part of the draft is when you get the kids there, when you are actually there and you see the young men drafted. It’s great. We’ve actually had some conversations with the NCAA about trying to work out our calendars a little better. One of the things that limits the number of kids that are there is some are playing in the College World Series, they have more important business right now. We have talked about trying to get those calendars coordinated.”
Could the draft wait until after the CWS? Could NCAA move up its postseason tournament? Is there a middle ground?
Manfred said he finds the level of interest in the draft “fascinating” and recounted a story about a recent conversation with a young fan who was part of the Make a Wish program. The 12-year-old “rattled off about nine prospects” in this year’s draft, Manfred recalled.
“The first five [names mentioned], I was doing OK,” Manfred said. “This 12-year-old knew more about who was going to be drafted than I did.”
While the draft dilemma is not an easy problem to solve, college and professional baseball could do well to form a better relationship, a more mutually beneficial one.
The draft is not the most pressing issue to solve — professional baseball would be better served with a higher number of scholarships for college baseball, to help attract better athletes — but the draft is the most visible one. College and professional baseball would be wise to take a look their calendars and more often try to find common ground.