"People understand how critical it is to the future of the game. It is a big day in baseball."
This was the second year that the Draft was staged in front of a live audience, including an ESPN2 viewership for the first and compensation rounds, followed by rounds that are exclusively being posted through Friday on MLB.com. Shortstop Tim Beckham of Griffin High School in Kennesaw, Ga., was the first overall selection by Tampa Bay, which bussed over some of its loudest fans for an event that the Rays have gotten started in both years.
The 2008 event took on even greater significance because it was preceded by a special Negro Leagues Player Draft, the idea of Hall of Famer Dave Winfield as a way to continue righting some historical wrongs in society. Each club drafted a former Negro Leagues player, including Emilio "Millito" Navarro, former infielder for the Cuban Stars, who now can say at the age of 102 (the oldest surviving professional baseball player) that in his lifetime he was drafted by Major League Baseball.
The First-Year Player Draft began in 1965, when Rick Monday was selected by the Kansas City Athletics, and it has come a long way. Just ask Roland Hemond. The special assistant to the president for the D-backs, Hemond is one of the sage ambassadors of the game with a long and often storied front-office background. He was one of those dignitaries seated at the 30 tables on the main floor at The Milk House, communicating with the club back in Arizona, and after the first round he walked out and told a story.
"First of all, you have to congratulate everybody here involved with the Negro Leagues Player Draft," Hemond said. "The selection of the Negro Leaguers here was a very nice ceremony. You could genuinely see how nice it was to be remembered.
"As for the full Draft, it's a far cry from that first one in 1965. Here is a scoop for you since no one asked me today. At that first one in New York, I was there for the California Angels and we had two scouts covering the College World Series out in Omaha. One of them was Rosie Gilhausen, the other Tufie Hashen. After the first round, I get a call and they said, 'Roland, you're wanted on the phone.'
"It was Rosie. He said, 'Who did we draft?' They were out there and had done all this homework and they never heard of our pick. I said, 'Well, we drafted Jim Spencer from Glen Burnie (Md.).' I found out that it said on the wires that we used that 11th overall pick on 'Glen Burnie.' Everyone wanted to know who Glen Burnie was!"
Spencer, who passed away in 2002, went on to a 15-year American League career that included a 1973 All-Star selection and two Gold Gloves at first base. History also will show that his selection has been properly documented.
The town of Glen Burnie (pop. 38,922) still is indeed a community and not a Draft pick. But it also is worth noting that the town was named after an actual person. In 1812, Elias Glenn established a county seat in the Baltimore area, and his property was named "Glennsburne." That was changed to "Glennsbourne Farm" and then "Glenburnie" -- and in 1930 the postmaster made it two words.
Sometimes extracurricular activity is just inevitable in these events. Today, of course, there would be no way that the 11th overall pick could be announced to the general public as the player's actual hometown. Had that happened on Thursday, the Rangers would have selected a first baseman named Goose Creek. It might even have been fitting in this year of Hall of Fame inductee Goose Gossage. Alas, Goose Creek is the hometown of Justin Smoak, and you know that because it was announced by Selig in a live setting and on a major cable network, and it was also happening live with the MLB.com Draft Tracker.
"It's a little more sophisticated today," Hemond said, laughing. "That was a classic."
There was another classic on Thursday that many people will remember if they attended the 2008 First-Year Player Draft.
A Rays fan and a Yankees fan got into it while Selig and all the legends on the floor were right there in the middle of it.
It happened as Selig announced the Yankees' selection of right-hander Gerrit Cole of Orange Lutheran High School in Santa Ana, Calif., with the 28th overall pick. For background, the Rays were 35-24 and battling the Red Sox for first place in the AL East, while the Yankees had just won an afternoon walk-off thriller to reach .500.
Rays fans had been a dominating presence here all day in the seats that are elevated on each side of the huge fieldhouse. Suddenly one of those Rays rowdies on the left side (facing the stage) shouted out:
"Your ship is sinking! Give him $50 million right out of the gate!"
That might have been the end of it, just your usual catcall at the Yankees. After all, people either love or hate the Bronx Bombers. Always have.
But then a guy in a gray Yankees road jersey, standing in the seats on the opposite side of the hall, shouted right back amid the post-selection quiet:
"When you win a championship, come talk to me!"
That prompted laughter throughout The Milk House. Tino Martinez, seated at the Yankees' table as their representative (and also a former Rays player), heard it. Al Kaline, the Hall of Famer seated at the Tigers' table, heard it and chuckled as he looked up at the Yankees fan. Everyone kind of enjoyed the humor of the moment.
The Commissioner announced two more selections, both shortstops (Lonnie Chisenhall by Cleveland and then Casey Kelly by Boston), and then moved briskly to get to that flight for St. Louis. Before leaving, he was asked if it was too early to consider how the 2009 event might be handled.
There has been no shortage of input from people around the game, including a suggestion by MLB.com analyst (and 2008 Mariners Draft representative) Harold Reynolds that the event rotate each year to a different Major League city and precede a night home game there, attaching autograph shows to it and making it a full family day. There were more fans at The Milk House than there were in 2007, thanks largely to the Rays bringing over a busload of their hardcore loyalists, and perhaps it will come back here for a third year. Selig was noncommittal either way.
"It's too early to tell," he said. "We'll look at everything again and make that determination."
There were some surprises on Draft day.
Mainly this one, which could rattle all Cardinals fans to the core:
The Cubs just picked up right-hander Chris Carpenter.
OK, granted. This guy selected in the third round by the rival Cubs is actually not the same one who led the Cardinals to their 2006 World Series title. This Chris Carpenter comes out of Kent State. But that was pretty bizarre to hear as an announcement. Although not as bizarre as two shortstops in the Southeast named Beckham being taken in the first eight picks. Besides Tim, there was University of Georgia standout Gordon Beckham (not related) going to the White Sox at No. 8.
This first round started with a shortstop and ended with one. There were six shortstops taken in the first round. It was a weak first round for the other position on the double-play combination, though. Only one second baseman went that round -- Jemile Weeks, the University of Miami second baseman and brother of Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks. Jemile was drafted 12th overall by Oakland.
This Draft was just beginning as everyone gradually made their way out of The Milk House. The MLB.com Draft Tracker is now the eyeball magnet for the rest of the week, as friends and family and fellow community citizens of thousands of possible Draft picks all look on to see if one of their own will have a path to the pros.
Tony Oliva once had that path. He was signed by the Twins as a free agent in 1961, four years before there was such a concept as a "Draft." He was AL Rookie of the Year in 1964 and finished a 15-year career with a .304 average.
For the second year in a row, the Twins legend sat at the Minnesota table, a representative during the process. The only Draft pick in attendance was outfielder Aaron Hicks from Woodrow Wilson High in Long Beach, Calif., and the Twins selected him with the 14th overall pick.
"It was a great day with the Negro Leaguers being drafted, something different," Oliva said. "To get an opportunity like this, and for people to actually see the Draft happening, I was excited to see it and be part of it all. And especially with our kid (Hicks) here."
Another Draft was under way, bigger than ever on a big day for baseball.