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A fateful day approaches

A fateful day approaches

The most exciting day of the year for all Major League Baseball teams will take place on Tuesday.

It's draft day, when teams select high school and college players. It's the only day of the year when a team has the opportunity to add 50 players to its organization.

It's a day that can set the course and determine the fate of a Major League team for a decade.

It's a day when the judgment of the baseball scouts is put to the test.

The first amateur draft was held at a hotel in New York in 1965. Roland Hemond was the scouting director for the California Angels and he can remember the day like yesterday.

"We sat around a big table and all of us were working from written reports by our scouts on the players," said Hemond.

"We had to rely on the view of the territorial scout because there were not many scouting supervisors in those days. You were as good as the view of your local scout."

"Our first selection was first baseman Jim Spencer out of a high school in Maryland and it was a solid selection for us because he went on to a good big league career."

Hemond went on to become a successful general manager and remains in baseball as an advisor for the Chicago White Sox.

"The draft is so much different these days that it's hard to compare," said Hemond. "You have sophisticated computer systems used by the teams and the Commissioner's office, scouting departments are much more organized with cross-checkers and double checkers and, of course, the difference in the money is night and day.

"But you know what? You still are only as good as your scouts."

The first player selected in 1965 was center fielder Rick Monday out of Arizona State. He received a signing bonus of $104,000 from the Kansas City A's.

Two college players selected in last year's draft -- pitcher Jered Weaver from Long Beach State and shortstop Stephen Drew from Florida State -- signed contracts this week after nearly year-long negotiations with each receiving a $4 million bonus.

It is the amount of dollars spent on amateur players and the emergence of the player representatives that have changed the draft landscape the most.

The real financial breakthrough for the players came in 1991 when a high school pitcher out of North Carolina -- Brien Taylor -- signed for a bonus of $1,550,000.

The dollars never have been the same even though they have stabilized with the average first-round bonus running between $1.8 and $2.1 million the past six years.

The initial draft in 1964 reflected just what all future drafts were to show -- there are no sure things and the only way to judge a draft is to look back a decade later.

After the Kansas City Athletics selected Monday with the No. 1 selection 40 years ago, the New York Mets used their No. 2 slot to select a high school pitcher named Les Rohr.

Rohr would go on to win only two big league games in his career but the Mets' selection in the 10th round -- Nolan Ryan out of Alvin High School in Texas -- would go on to a Hall of Fame career.

A high school catcher out of Oklahoma -- Johnny Bench -- also went on to a Hall of Fame career after being selected in the second round by the Cincinnati Reds.

Every Major League organization has assembled its key scouting people for meetings at this time as Tuesday's draft approaches.

The draft rooms are filled with the same conversations that were taking place four decades ago. The scouts are comparing the talent of players throughout the country, talking about the signability of the prospects and debating the merits of college players as compared to high school players.

Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz has had a first-hand look at every draft since 1966, when he left a job as a junior high school teacher to join the Baltimore Orioles in a front-office position.

"My best memory of the draft took place in 1971 when I was the assistant farm director in Kansas City," said Schuerholz.

"We were still conducting the draft out of a hotel in New York. When our group met to determine our top selections there was a lot of support for a right-handed pitcher named Roy Branch. Our scouts compared him to the great Bob Gibson. He became our No. 1 selection.

"What I will always remember is that a veteran scout named Tom Ferrick spoke up and reminded us that we shouldn't forget about this young shortstop from El Segundo, California, and he said he wouldn't hesitate to take him No. l."

Kansas City selected Branch with its first selection. After some early success, he developed arm problems and eventually ended up in Mexico and then out of baseball.

When it came time for the Royals' second selection, the young shortstop from El Segundo still was available and the team went with Ferrick's recommendation.

The player selected was George Brett, a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

As Schuerholz sits in on the Braves' meetings this year he listens carefully as the scouts speak.

"I'm present to remind the scouts that their productivity in this process has been the absolute cornerstone to our long-term success," said Schuerholz.

From time to time as Schuerholz listens to the discussions and the debates on players, he thinks back to a veteran scout who put his neck on the line for a high school player from El Segundo.

Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as executive vice-president and general manager. His book "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue," is available through SportsPublishingLLC. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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