It's easy to go back and torture yourself about the draft picks that got away. The Rockies had their choice of Tim Lincecum or Clayton Kershaw, and they chose neither. There were 23 teams that passed on Mike Trout, and all 30 teams passed on Albert Pujols over and over and over again. Skipping down the alternate timelines would be a fun way to kill a century or three.
While this is an article about alternate timelines, it's not as simple as "Imagine if this team drafted that player." This is about the teams that did draft that player. A bunch of people in their front office got together, studied a list of 1,000s of amateur baseball players, and settled on this player. They were smart to pick him: He became superstar.
For whatever reason, though, the team and the player couldn't reach an agreement, and the player would go to college and eventually thrive with another team years later.
This is about what would have happened if these players signed with the first team that drafted them. While it's impossible to know for sure, I've spent several minutes thinking about it, and it all checks out.
Mark McGwire, Expos (eighth round, 1981 draft)
"I remember thinking he was skinny, but that he had a chance to fill out," said Expos scouting director Danny Menendez. "He didn't have the fastball yet, but he had the arm. And he certainly had the height. It took some convincing to get the owners to buy out the kid's scholarship to USC, but I was pretty persuasive."
The Expos signed McGwire for a $30,000 bonus, which was a big deal at the time. He went to pitch for the rookie ball team in Calgary, and his progress was slow and steady.
"There wasn't anything too unusual about him. But he kept adding velocity, and he developed a killer split-finger along the way," Menendez said. By 1987, he had replaced long-time closer Jeff Reardon, and by 1989, he was a perennial All-Star, the National League's answer to Dennis Eckersley.
He blew out his arm in 1991, though, and he never got the fastball back. "It was a shame," former manager Buck Rodgers said. "I think we rushed him back too quickly.
Three years later, baseball shut down because of the strike.
Six years after that, Major League Baseball filed for bankruptcy protection.
Just over 10 years later, the league folded entirely.
"That is exactly how it happened, but I don't understand why you're including that in a profile about a retired pitcher," my editor said. "Please get back on track."
There are still leagues out there, though. They still have dreams of bringing the sport back. One of them is the upstart CanAm league, where the Montreal Royales have won back-to-back championships under their new manager ... Mark McGwire.
"For whatever reason, it feels like I was born to save baseball, so I came back to Montreal," McGwire says. "Every night, I have this dream with a shrieking blood owl in the Forest of Eternal Winter, and it makes me walk into a pillar of fire to save a baseball from burning. It's wild. And it kind of makes me feel like I can never, ever leave this job. Please help me."
Barry Bonds, Giants (second round, 1982)
He had the legacy. He had the bloodlines. And he certainly had the talent. Barry Bonds was an immediate star in San Francisco, and while some people wondered if he would feel too much pressure in the shadow of his father, he quickly put that talk to rest. He set his sights higher. He wanted to make people talk about him in the same breath as his godfather, Willie Mays.
Bonds arrived in the majors in 1984, just 19 years old, and while there was some controversy in his rookie season when manager Frank Robinson was arrested for strangling Bonds on Opening Day, there was no mistaking the once-in-a-generation combination of power and speed.
"He was the best player I ever saw," GM Tom Haller said. "And I truly mean that."
After his third MVP in 1990, Bonds became a free agent. While he was tempted to stay with the Giants, the only team he had ever known, he famously remarked, "Holy crap, is this stadium a pile of frozen penguin shit, or what? I mean, seriously," causing a huge uproar that led to his falling out with Giants fans, which directly led to his record-setting deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Even while he was winning year after year with the Pirates, though, he never forgot his first team. That's why it didn't surprise anyone when, at the tail end of his career, he re-signed with the Giants.
"I love it here," Bonds said. "Tampa is my kind of town, and I'm proud to finish my career with the Giants."
Randy Johnson, Braves (fourth round, 1982)
It sounds like an apocryphal story, something too good to be true. But Leo Mazzone insists that it happened just like they say.
"I was doing my thing in spring training, when this minor leaguer came up to me. Big sucker. Tallest pitcher I'd ever seen," Mazzone said. "Later I caught one of his side sessions, and he couldn't throw strikes. When he pitched, his delivery made him look like he was a seven-foot-long sleeping bag filled with angry skinks."
The year before, Johnson had walked 141 batters in 145 innings, and he was stalling out in Triple-A. Something had to change.
"So I walked over and said, 'Hey, let's change that landing spot for your front foot real quick.' And after that, whammo, strike after strike after strike."
Johnson was an immediate success, winning three Cy Youngs with the Braves, and finishing in second place to his own teammates three more times. It's hard to say just how many of the Braves' eight championships they would have won without Johnson, but Mazzone has no illusions that they would have been as successful.
"So you have three great starting pitchers, big deal. What's that good for, a championship or whatever?" Mazzone said. "Four great starting pitchers, that's where it's at. Any loser team could do OK with three Hall of Fame pitchers, but four Hall of Fame pitchers is, like, one more."
"Without Johnson, none of this would have happened. He was the glue."
Bo Jackson, Yankees (second round, 1982)
"The kid stays at shortstop." All it took was one play in the Grapefruit League, and George Steinbrenner ended the organizational debate that had been consuming the Yankees for years. Jackson went into the hole on a ground ball — closer to the bullpen mound than third base, really — and fired a 97-mph strike off his back leg to first. It was too late to get the runner, but Steinbrenner didn't care.
"The kid stays at shortstop."
That doesn't mean it was easy to keep him there. "He didn't have soft hands, quite frankly, and at the end of the day, he would have been much better in center field," said scouting director Brian Sabean. "He was a natural center fielder, but we had to make do with what was given to us."
Jackson eventually became a serviceable shortstop, though, with his arm making up for his below-average hands. His best year came in 1991, when he hit 35 homers and stole 41 bases. The Yankees finished 82-80, but the future looked bright for Jackson, who never dislocated his hip while playing baseball because, really, who does that? Everything was nice and normal.
Jackson will likely finish his career short of 500 homers, but still he's a viable Hall of Fame candidate.
"He never led the Yankees to a championship," writer Peter Gammons said, "but it's not like he had a lot of help, either. The Yankees tried to get pitching around him, like when they took Pete Janicki in the 1991 draft, but nothing ever really worked out."
Regardless, Jackson is an indisputable part of Yankees lore, championships or no. And just like kids in New York argued about Mantle, Mays and Snider, this last generation spent their summers arguing about shortstops. Yankees fans will take Jackson because of his power and speed. Mets fans will take Derek Jeter because of his batting average, leadership and pleasing fragrance.
The debates will rage on forever. It's what baseball is all about. And it wouldn't have happened quite like this if George Steinbrenner didn't make a decision that he probably wasn't qualified to make. Yankees fans can't thank him enough. Where would they be without a franchise shortstop like Jackson?
Davey Lopes, Giants (eighth round, 1967)
Steve Garvey, Twins (third round, 1966)
Ron Cey, Mets (19th round, 1966)
Bill Russell unfolded his napkin, placing it neatly on his lap. When the waiter came over, Bill visibly brightened.
"How long have you worked here? Do you enjoy waiting tables? Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if I waited tables," Bill said.
The waiter excused himself politely, saying that he had other tables to attend to. Bill smiled, but the smile turned into a deep sigh. He stared at the salt and pepper shakers for five minutes until his soup came.
The soup was barely lukewarm, but Bill didn't mention it. He sighed again, then put three shakes of pepper into the soup.
After he finished dinner, Bill went to the movies by himself. He looked around and saw nothing but people his age, young and carefree, enjoying each other's company. He sighed deeper this time, under his breath. He couldn't follow the story on the screen, and his mind wandered.
The movie ended, and Bill went home and fell asleep with his clothes on.