We can argue endlessly about what's the toughest sport to play, and we can cite every athlete who picks his own sport. The debate would be no more than fun. But if we're going to have the debate, a vote is here cast for baseball -- even if hitting a baseball isn't the toughest athletic feat.
The case for baseball would begin with an understanding that players generally aren't even expected to be major league ready until they're 24 or 25 years old. If it's so hard to make it in the NFL, after all, then why are so many players starting on Sundays within a few months of college? If basketball is so difficult, then why did the NBA have to put in a rule keeping its teams from drafting high school kids?
The annual first-year draft of amateur baseball talent is coming up Thursday. Major League Baseball apparently wants to pass it off as a TV event like the NFL and NBA drafts, striking a deal to broadcast parts on ESPN. Unlike the football and basketball drafts, the baseball prospects aren't already famous. Unless baseball is your junk, you won't recognize any names.
If the coming draft goes as usual, then around 1,500 names will be called and, within a dozen years, about 200 of them will appear in major league box scores, the overwhelming majority for no more than a couple dozen games. It's simply too difficult to develop a major league player, and it's easy to screw one up.
Physical talent alone doesn't cut it. Baseball is about attitude, temperament and meticulous command of fine motor skills through years of refinement. In no other sport does so much victory and defeat originate in a man's fingers. And while those skills are in the making, by the way, the young pitcher's arm might fall off before he's ready.
In the entire 42 years of amateur baseball drafts, only 21 players have gone straight to the major leagues without first spending time in the farm system. One expects to find those 21 talents among the greats of the game. But only one, Dave Winfield, is in the Hall of Fame.
Three others (Burt Hooton, Mike Morgan and John Olerud) enjoyed long careers. A few others (Jim Abbott, Pete Incaviglia, Bob Horner, Chan Ho Park and Xavier Nady) became big league regulars for a few years. But what happened to Mike Adamson, Pete Broberg, David Clyde, Tim Conroy and Ariel Prieto?
A Reds fans might raise another question: Whatever happened to Pat Watkins, John Oliver, Ty Howington, Chris Gruler and David Espinosa? All were first-round draft picks by the Reds from 1993 through 2002, and only Watkins ever sniffed the big leagues, playing in all of 100 games for the Reds.
Because the distance from the draft to the big leagues is so long -- at least five years in most cases -- no one can really begin to understand major league baseball without understanding something of the player development process, which is substantially carried out at the professional level.
The most memorable Reds teams -- the Big Red Machine and the 1990 World Champions -- were mostly homegrown. But the Reds have hiccuped in player development over the past 20 years, which is largely the reason for today's doldrums.
By the 1990 championship, Reds scouts already left en masse, many blaming the environment under the ownership of Marge Schott. The Reds covered themselves by spending on big league talent, staying competitive throughout the decade.
Jim Bowden's first five drafts as general manager in the mid-1990s produced two everyday players of some duration (third baseman Aaron Boone and catcher Jason LaRue), one starting pitcher who has lasted 10 years in the majors (Brett Tomko), two good relievers (Scott Sullivan and Scott Williamson) and a strong utility player (Eric Owens). Along with them came a dozen cameo performers like Chad Mottola, Gookie Dawkins, Ricky Pickett and Lance Davis. That's out of 223 draft choices.
The Reds hit with their next two picks, taking Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns in the first two rounds of 1998 as Bowden moved the scouting philosophy toward hitters and away from run-and-throw guys. The same draft produced reliever Todd Coffey, marginal big league starter John Koronka (lost in a Rule 5 draft) and reliever B.J. Ryan, who was well-spent to acquire pitcher Juan Guzman for the 1999 stretch.
But intrigue soon took over the palace, the baseball operation lost its way. Bowden's final drafts (1999-2003) produced only three players who ever suited up for the Reds: Steve Silverman, Chris Denorfia and Ryan Wagner. Three out of 341 draft picks.
The Reds took four high school pitchers with their first-round picks in that time. Dustin Mosely (2000) didn't make it to the big leagues until a year after the Reds traded him. Howington (1999) and Gruler (2002) never made it. Jeremy Sowers (2001) chose college and went to Cleveland in the 2004 draft.
In Dan O'Brien's first draft, 2004, the Reds took Homer Bailey, a high school pitcher from LaGrange, Tex., with their first selection. Bailey is coming, so maybe the Reds got one right.
He's tearing it up in Louisville: 6-1 with a 2.31 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP in 10 starts. He just turned 21. The Reds finally are bringing up Bailey for at least a spot start this weekend.
It's not too early, judging by how clubs have handled high school pitchers taken in the first round. Generally, they make it to the big leagues some time in the middle of their fourth or fifth professional seasons. Bailey is in the middle of his fourth year.
But the Reds are right to the extent that they're cautious with him. It's more important to develop the player than to waste him on this season, when the bullpen will lose games for him anyway. Bailey projects as someone who can anchor a rotation for 10 years. It's not worth trading away 10 years for this one.
Expect the Reds to take it easy, and don't blame them if they do. If General Manager Wayne Krivsky's operation doesn't get player development right, the big league club will never contend.
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