The Draft, Day 1: A much bigger ballgame

The Draft, Day 1: A much bigger ballgame

SECAUCUS, N.J. -- On the 45th anniversary of Major League Baseball's First-Year Player Draft, a 17-year-old wunderkind was chosen with the top overall pick, clubs focused on their futures, legends reunited to remind you of the past, fans watched agog and gave instant analysis, and an important event got even bigger.

"When you think of what a secretive process this was years ago and what it has become, and each year it's growing in stature," Commissioner Bud Selig said after announcing each of the first-round selections. "It's clearly growing now. I've always wanted this to be what it is today and even more so. "I'm very hopeful and definitely believe that this will grow, and it should."

Draft Central

The Draft is under way, bearing little resemblance to its first iteration when Arizona State outfielder Rick Monday was chosen No. 1 overall by the Kansas City Athletics in 1965. Fifty names were read Monday night between the first and Compensation A rounds combined, starting with the Nationals' selection of Bryce Harper, the outfielder who slugged an outrageous 31 homers in 66 games for the College of Southern Nevada.

Never has there been a portrait of baseball's feeding system quite like what is on display in a breathtaking 24-hour window for the Nationals, the worst team in the Majors a year ago. A night after drafting Harper they welcome the arrival to The Show of their 2009 top overall pick, Stephen Strasburg.

"Now starts the journey," Barry Larkin said.

He should know. Larkin was the fourth overall pick of the 1985 Draft by Cincinnati, and who could have known that he would go on to spend an entire Major League career -- 19 seasons -- with the same Reds who put their faith in him on that Draft day?

On this night, Larkin was seated at the Reds' table on the floor of the MLB Network's Studio 42, next to Reds special assistant to the general manager Gene Bennett, as baseball's unique tradition of well-known club reps working the event continued.

"I'm just happy for the players," Larkin said after the Reds chose University of Miami switch-hitting catcher Yasmani Grandal with the 12th overall pick. "I'm happy that they're publicizing it and making a big to-do because it is a life-changing experience to get drafted. A lot of these kids who are having opportunities when they sign and they go start their professional careers, it's just something they've been dreaming about their entire lives. It's nice to be a part of that.

"I remember the butterflies, the anticipation, just being nervous. I remember playing out the scenarios, thinking, 'If I get drafted by this team or that team, who are the players I might be competing with for a job?' You go through all that, because this is your livelihood."

Although so much of the focus is on the top of the Draft, it is all just getting started. That is still one of the biggest things that distinguishes the MLB Draft from those of other sports; it is a long, long process and through it all there is rapt attention from players, families and friends in seemingly every community where baseball is played. Someone knows someone who hopes to get drafted.

The Draft continues Tuesday via conference call beginning with the second round at noon ET and is scheduled to go through the 30th round that day. The Draft will resume on Wednesday beginning with the 31st round at noon ET. The Draft will have 50 rounds and will conclude after all 30 teams have passed on a selection or after the final selection of the 50th round, whichever comes first.

Starting Tuesday, MLB.com will offer comprehensive live programming of the Draft's final two days, including a live pick-by-pick stream, expert commentary and the exclusive Draft Tracker, a searchable database of every draft-eligible player, featuring statistics, scouting reports and video highlights.

Noticeably absent from the proceedings this time was any player, unless you consider a former player like Roberto Alomar, who was talking before the first pick about how thankful he was for coming so close in the last Hall of Fame voting.

Harper was a lock for the top overall pick and was not competing in a tournament that might have kept him away, yet for some reason he could not be in attendance to be greeted with a Nationals jersey by the Commissioner. There were no other prospects in attendance this time, either, and Selig said after the first round that it indeed is a point of concern. "It's something we'd definitely like to change and improve," he said.

That is only a minor point of concern in the big picture, though. The Draft has soared in reach, in popularity, and in presentation.

"Given the economics of the sport today, the Draft is even more important today, if that's possible, than when they instituted it in 1965," he said. "So, this really is a very, very crucial day in many respects."

"Crucial" is exactly what Luis Gonzalez was thinking as he sat at the D-backs table and was on the phone with his represented club while the Commissioner read the name of Barret Loux, a right-hander from Texas A&M. That was the sixth overall pick.

"He's a tall, strong right-handed pitcher, and we're in desperate need of pitching right now if you've seen any of our games," Gonzalez said. "Hopefully he's one of those guys. He's not a high school player so he's hopefully developed a little more. If he stays healthy he could move up the ranks quickly."

Gonzalez was a fourth-round selection by the Astros in 1988, debuted with the club two years later, signed with the Tigers as a free agent in 1997, was traded to the D-backs for Karim Garcia after the 1998 campaign, led Arizona to its first world championship in 2001, and called it a career in 2008 after 2,591 hits. He is amazed by the evoluton of the Draft process.

"It is exciting, because I know that for a lot of young players now, their dreams begin today. And tomorrow and the next day for the guys that aren't drafted in the first round," Gonzalez said. "You put yourself in their situation and remember what it was like when you got drafted."

One twist added this year was the presence of four MLB dignitaries who did the bell-ringing to start the NASDAQ session on Monday morning in New York's Times Square. Connecting to that kind of human magnitude is important as this event keeps growing.

"This is a great event," said Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president who was among the bell-ringers. "We always knew it would be a fantastic event, from the days when we just had it in a conference room. Now starting the day at NASDAQ in Times Square, then being here at MLB Network, I think it's fantastic and everybody's very happy about it.

"What always excites me is how many of these guys will actually make a contribution as early as next year -- like Strasburg is going to do for the Nationals this week. We just had Ike Davis with us at NASDAQ, and he was just drafted two years ago and he's already the starting first baseman and batting cleanup for the Mets. As we keep going forward, a lot of these kids will come up and be playing a lot sooner at the Major League level."

Solomon said that is because "there is more of a trend toward college players." In the first round, 17 players were chosen from high school ranks while the other 15 have college experience.

"These college players are better developed now. A lot of these kids are spending time learning the fundamentals of baseball the right way, but at an early age. So many of them now don't need the extra-long time at the Minor Leagues to get to the next level. Of course, the Minor Leagues are very important and will continue to be important to us, but every now and then we will get these little jewels in the rough that won't be so rough, like we're seeing."

Joe Randa, selected in the 11th round by the Royals in the 1991 Draft, called it "an honor." He sat next to longtime scouting head Art Stewart, and was on the phone with the war room back in Kansas City as the team chose shortstop Christian Colon of Cal State-Fullerton with the No. 4 overall pick.

"Being drafted by the organization as a player, being part of the community and being here now, it's pretty cool," said Randa, who finished a 12-year Major League career in 2006.

Randa had some words of advice for players being drafted this week -- especially those beyond the first round.

"If you're in the middle rounds, and you sign, you have to go in with the idea that 'I gotta make a statement and I gotta prove myself every year, every game, and never take any plays off,'" he said. "Granted it's a long season and hard not to take some plays off, but put that in perspective of knowing I can't take this for granted and I've got to earn my stripe every year. I think that's where guys get in trouble. They take their foot off the gas pedal and that guy shoots by them. If you keep your focus on what's at hand and what you're doing, I won't say it will work out every time, but you can look at yourself in the mirror and say you gave it everything you had if you do that."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. Follow @MLB on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.