CD's Connect the Dots... What Might Have Been

Memorial Day always brings to me a touch of melancholy. I celebrate the brave soldiers who fought and died to preserve our liberty. For this I am always humbled and grateful. Yet, as a Phillie fan I cannot help but think back to Memorial Day 1998. Oh, I know that things have turned out fine, and without Memorial Day 1998 we probably wouldn't have Jim Thome, Kevin Millwood or David Bell. Still, I think I can speak for every Phillie fan when I admit that I will always wonder what might have been?

The name JD Drew still instills in every Phillie fan a certain distaste, a definite attitude of scorn, brought on no doubt by the same exact feeling of being scorned. Any Phillie fan from 1997 remembers the story all too well… how a horrendous Phillie team took a chance by drafting a player who seemed to have all the skills of a superstar and an agent who was bound and determined to keep him as far from Philadelphia as possible.

Still, with Drew in the news lately for his standout performances on the Atlanta Braves, and with Memorial Day being the six year anniversary of the Phil's final futile attempt to get him under contract, what better time to revisit the player and the story. In many ways, the story is a fascinating one, as so many individuals took part in this melodrama, yet it is also a sad one, because a team we all love, the Phillies, were changed, and somewhat scarred forever by the experience.

Let's start at the beginning, back in early June 1997, and a Phillie team hopelessly losing games, not to mention the hearts and minds of Phillie fans everywhere. Managed at the time by rookie skipper Terry Francona, the team was a mixture of mediocre veterans like Dave May and Kevin Jordan and eager youngsters like Kevin Sefcik and Mike Lieberthal, who were in over their head.

In fact, the '97 team actually had only two solid players, one a veteran of World Series fame, pitcher Curt Schilling, and the other a youngster who would become a genuine star, third baseman Scott Rolen. This Phillie team was so bad that for half a season, there were unflattering comparisons to the ineptitude of the 1962 New York Mets and their final 40-120 record. Though the comparisons may have been a bit unfair, the fact that they came up at all gave credence to the futility of this team.

With this as a backdrop, the Phils prepared to make Drew their choice in the first round of the '97 draft. Though the Detroit Tigers had the first pick it was widely known that they were scared away by Boras's demands for a 10 million dollar bonus, an almost unheard of total for an untried amateur.

Boras had as his ammunition the fact that All-American Travis Lee and a few others had found loopholes in the contracts offered after the 1996 draft and were declared free agents. On the open market, Lee was able to receive a 10 million dollar bonus, and Boras felt Drew was every bit the player Lee had been in college.

Up to an hour before the draft, Boras was on the phone warning the Phils not to draft Drew unless they were prepared to pay him a 10 million dollar bonus. The Phils, undeterred by these warnings, drafted the outfielder from Florida State and almost immediately found themselves in a snow flurry of acrimonious charges and countercharges from Drew, Boras, then GM Lee Thomas and Managing General Partner Bill Giles.

To recap every twist and turn in this story would take more time than this column allows, but highlights are certainly in order. From the beginning, Boras attempted to find ways to achieve free agency for Drew, from falsifying Drew's home address, to placing him in the Northern Professional League. Though Boras was the real villain in this case, there was enough blame to go around.

For his part, Drew knew of Boras' shenanigans and never tried to stop them though he had attempted to present himself as a man of principle. On the Phillie side of the ledger, many thought Thomas underestimated the resolve of Drew and felt that the lure of professional baseball would be enough to get a signed contract.

When Thomas met Boras and Drew a week after the draft, his contact offer was insulting to a player who was considered a possible "franchise" player by no less an authority than Thomas himself. Though the general manager's arrogance certainly didn't help negotiations, it is my opinion that Giles made the most foolish mistake of any Phillie official.

Far from respecting Drew's maturity and ability to make a sensible decision, Giles only added fuel to the fire when he was asked about Drew's demand for 10 million dollars on a four-year deal. Instead of politely declining to comment on what were ongoing negotiations, Giles made the ill-fated "the boy's not a free agent" comment. I will always believe this was the day the Phils lost whatever chance they had of signing the star outfielder.

The comment was condescending and rude, and certainly showed no respect for a player who was almost 22 years of age. Finally, in exasperation both at the Phil's continuing losing ways, as well as in his inability to sign Drew, Giles relinquished day-to-day operations of the club to Dave Montgomery, the current Managing General Partner.

Although Montgomery tried to smooth things over with Drew and Boras, once even planning a surprise visit to Minnesota to watch Drew play, nothing seemed to work. Then Thomas was fired in December of 1997 and current GM Ed Wade was hired. He immediately tried to negotiate with Boras, even signing another Boras client, infielder Mark Lewis. Still, the freeze continued.

In one of the ironies of the whole story, many believed Drew could not stand the thought of playing for such a wretched team, a team that seemed on pace to lose 110 games. Yet, in an amazing and long forgotten turnaround, the '97 team was the best club in baseball over the final 60 games, winning 36 of them, including a stunning three game sweep of the eventual World Champion New York Yankees.

When spring of 1998 approached, the word filtered to Clearwater that Drew might be ready to end the thaw. Although he had a pending law suit against Major League baseball to make himself a free agent, few thought he could win. Then the Phils caught what they thought was a lucky break.

Former star outfielder Lenny Dykstra was forced to retire due to back miseries, an event that not only opened up an outfield spot for Drew, but also saved the Phils millions of dollars. Wade hinted that the money might well be used to lure Drew, yet when he made a contract proposal to Boras, it was quickly rebuffed. In fact, Boras asked for a trade, not only teetering on the edge of a lack of ethics, but also certainly displaying a lack of understanding of the rules. It was then, and still is illegal to trade a draft pick in professional baseball.

The 1998 season began and the Phils were playing well. Schilling was a standout pitcher once again, and Rolen, fresh from signing a new four-year, 10 million dollar deal, was playing like a cornerstone player. Phillie fans could not help but envision Rolen and Drew leading a lineup that promised riches and victories once the new stadium was built.

Adding to the dreams, the Phils had the number one draft pick in the '98 amateur draft and made it clear they would draft collegiate slugger Pat Burrell of Miami U. Along with this potential devastating threesome was newcomer Bobby Abreu, acquired in a late November trade. His solid bat and rifle arm promised another piece to a burgeoning puzzle of talent.

With Rolen, Abreu and young catching star Mike Lieberthal in toe, and potential sluggers Drew and Burrell on the horizon, the Phillie future looked bright indeed. So bright that Schilling, unbeknownst to anyone, put in a late night call to Drew trying to convince him to sign. Not only did Drew rebuff the phone call, but he hung up not even believing that the person on the other end of the phone was really Schilling. Only later did he find out the truth of the call.

Finally, in mid May of 1998, baseball ruled against Boras and Drew in their desire to give him free agency. They also gave the Phils one week to sign JD, with the final day being Memorial Day 1998. If the Phils could not find a way to sign the recalcitrant outfielder then he would reenter the draft and possibly go through the same scenario once again.

Wade did all he could, but admits that he never came close to getting Boras to budge from that 10 million dollar number. The Phil's final offer was a five-year deal worth an estimated 6.4 million dollars. The final call came on the morning of Memorial Day when Wade and Boras realized the futility of the negotiations. Boras ended the conversation by saying that he was going to an Angel game that night and would keep his cell phone on in case Wade wavered. That was a call that never came.

To say that Phillie fans were mixed with anguish, anger and disdain would be an understatement. As angry as they were with Drew and Boras, they also realized the impact the player could have made in Philadelphia. In another bit of irony, there was a JD Drew-Phillie baseball card made that year, a card that must be an interesting bit of trivia to anyone who has the card.

In the '98 draft, the Phils selected Burrell, and Drew was drafted as the fifth pick by the St. Louis Cardinals. He signed two weeks later for a bit over 8 million, a number the Phils had to top in order to sign Burrell. Drew made his debut late that season and was an immediate star. Burrell took a bit longer to make it to the big leagues but is an established star now.

It is impossible not to imagine how Phillie history might have changed had Drew become a member. With Rolen, Drew, Burrell, Abreu and Lieberthal as cornerstones, the addition of draft picks Jimmy Rollins, Marlon Byrd and Chase Utley would have rounded out a very young and talented lineup. Had the Phils signed Drew, they would have placed him in left field and put Burrell at first.

With a young and talented club heading for possible playoffs and a new stadium, the trades of Rolen and Schilling probably never would have happened. With Schilling as the ace, the Phils probably would have kept young catcher Johnny Estrada as Lieberthal's heir apparent. In the '97 draft the Phils selected Estrada, as well as a left-hander named Randy Wolf.

The chances are excellent that with Drew in the lineup in the late 90's, manager Francona might have had more success, and he might still be managing in Philadelphia instead of current skipper Larry Bowa. One is free to surmise on the merits of that change.

Schilling and Wolf might have made a very impressive righty-lefty duo, and a lineup featuring a batting order of Byrd, Drew, Abreu, Rolen, Burrell, Utley, Lieberthal and Rollins would have been young, skilled and exciting. Add Estrada, Jason Michaels and Ricky Ledee to the mix and the Phillies of 2004 would have had a different, albeit younger look.

No one will ever know if that team would have been more talented than the current one. Certainly Jim Thome has become a symbol of all that is good about Phillie baseball, and Bell has added professionalism and class. Millwood and Vicente Padilla have won more than their share of games, and Placido Polanco is a popular force in the clubhouse.

Still, it is impossible to see a Memorial Day pass without at least contemplating the heartbreak that was the JD Drew story and how so much has happened in its aftermath. Though most Phillie fans, given their druthers, would probably choose the current edition of the team, one cannot help but speculate, one cannot help but wonder…what might have been?

Have a Happy and Safe Memorial Day everyone!

Columnist's Note: Please send any comments or suggestions to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond. Thanks! Allen Ariza aka CD from the Left Coast

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