Drew may win battle, lose war

Wednesday, May 27, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

J.D. Drew has won his holdout and lost his way. For refusing to blink in his negotiating battle with the Philadelphia Phillies, the extraordinary outfield prospect has earned only the right to haggle with someone else.

He is to be congratulated and consoled.

Drew's career moved back to Square One at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday when he failed to come to terms with the Phillies, who last year made him the second player picked in baseball's amateur draft. The aspiring slugger will thus be able to start from scratch all over again next week when major-league teams choose their next crop of phenoms.

This is what the classicists call a Pyrrhic victory -- one in which the costs are so high that victory is difficult to distinguish from defeat. J.D. Drew may ultimately beat the system by signing a sweeter deal than the Phillies could justify, or by winning unfettered free agency through the courts, but the time he has lost is irretrievable.

When last seen, he was languishing in Hardball Siberia, plying his trade for the independent St. Paul Saints of the renowned Northern League. He had passed up a $2.6 million signing bonus to labor for $1,500 a month.

J.D. Drew has the rare opportunity to achieve both millions and martyrdom, to be viewed both as pioneer and pariah. He is either the most principled ballplayer since Curt Flood, or the most despised since Jim Bouton. Or both.

"This is an opinion business," said Drew's agent, Scott Boras. "And it's very clear to me that we have a real difference of opinion as to who this player is. I think J.D. has dramatically more value than (the Phillies) do."

Boras says Drew belongs in the same exalted class as Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey, Jr; that he is a "A once-in-a-decade player." The Phillies describe Drew as a prospect whose production remains unproven. The agent is paid to hype his client. Management is obliged to minimize his value on the open market.

On a tightrope

The real debate here, though, does not concern the relative worth of a particular player, but the terms of engagement between amateurs and professional teams. Boras argues that baseball discriminates against American players by subjecting them to a draft while foreign players are free to entertain bids from all teams.

Boras has correctly identified a serious problem for an industry never lacking for a new crisis. What he hasn't supplied is a solution.

"The small-market teams would not be able to compete if they eradicate the draft," Reds General Manager Jim Bowden said Tuesday. "If you give the large-market clubs the avenue of being able to outbid you for the high school and college players, you might as well shut the door and go home."

What little chance low-revenue teams have to compete with the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves requires that they spend prudently on player development. Yet as baseball's talent pool becomes increasingly international, prudent spending is not nearly enough.

"The system doesn't work properly," Bowden said. "There's an imbalance. The Yankees spend three to four times the money we do in development and scouting. That's dramatic. A worldwide draft would solve all those problems."

Idea worth exploring

Bowden's suggestions to fix baseball are always creative, usually impractical and rarely get off the ground, but this one might have some legs.

Though restricting the negotiating rights of foreign players would run contrary to the trend toward more open sports markets, it might be sold to the Major League Baseball Players Association as a means to deliver an even larger piece of the payroll pie into the hands of veteran players (instead of prospects).

If the veteran players presently have nothing to complain about, that's largely beside the point. Their resentment of J.D. Drew is palpable. Their avarice is unmatched.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com