Technology and Strasburg reign at '09 Draft
MLB delivers an interactive experience like no other
SECAUCUS, N.J. -- The 2009 First-Year Player Draft will be remembered.
Maybe it will be remembered as the impetus for a glorious pitching career of Stephen Strasburg, the wunderkind selected No. 1 overall by the Nationals. Maybe we are watching Draft picks who will go on to legendary status, similar to that of men like Al Kaline, Craig Biggio, Bill Mazeroski, Billy Williams, Tino Martinez and others who represented clubs on the floor for the early rounds on Tuesday night.
Most everyone seems to be in agreement that whatever happens in years ahead, this Draft will be remembered as a defining moment for Major League Baseball, its prospects and its fans. It is a time when baseball is leveraging all available technology -- including its new 24/7 MLB Network that reaches 52 million households, MLB.com and Twitter. More people are talking about this Draft than any before it, and that means more people than ever are aware of the players who were chosen -- forever the raison d'etre.
"It's time to make a big deal about it," said Biggio, the 22nd overall pick of the 1987 Draft and future Hall of Famer who represented his career-long Houston club at one of the Draft tables. "This has been a great experience -- just like those other sports now. You're talking about a group of young men who are getting a chance to live out their dream. They deserve being showcased, and that's what they have done here now."
The Draft was expanded to add a third day this year -- just one of the many new wrinkles -- and it continues, starting at noon ET today exclusively on MLB.com, with the fourth round, and then goes on through Thursday's conclusion. All of the remaining picks are being streamed live on MLB.com, which also streamed first-round picks while they were televised live by MLB Network. The Studio 42 setting was a dramatic change from Disney World's Wide World of Sports complex that served as its home the past two years.
"It's been terrific," Commissioner Bud Selig said after announcing each of the first 32 picks. "I love the studio. It's the perfect place to do it. It really showcases the channel. Everybody's been great here.
"Years ago, you didn't announce [picks] until days later. We can do even more to market this event. I know it's great for BAM [MLB Advanced Media] and it's a great day for the Network. I'm glad people can see what we have here. In a short period of time, they have done an amazing job with this Network."
The Draft itself was loaded at the top with pitching. That is not uncommon in this era, when such a premium is put on young arms, but it was in stark contrast to last year, when only 10 pitchers were selected in the first round. This time there were 16 -- four fewer than the record -- and what was most significant about that was that 14 of them went in the first 20 picks.
Of course, the first one is the one everyone is still talking about, and now comes the signability factor. Strasburg, the right-handed power pitcher from San Diego State, comes with massive hype and an on-field background to back it up. It remains to be seen how the Nationals and agent Scott Boras handle the negotiations over his signing, but Strasburg's selection is seen as a hopeful harbinger of change for the club.
"I'm just really enjoying this time right now with my friends and family, and we'll have to see what happens," Strasburg said after his selection.
Strasburg was followed as the top selection by the University of North Carolina's sweet-swinging Dustin Ackley (Mariners), high school outfielder Donavan Tate (Padres) and Boston College catcher Tony Sanchez (Pirates), and then came the run of pitchers -- eight of them in a row, culminating with the choice of Aaron Crow by the Royals.
Interestingly enough, the Phillies and Mets were playing simultaneously in a huge rivalry series, and their fans had little stake in the early part of this Draft. Both teams waited until the 70s to make their first pick. Dallas Green, the former Phillies manager, was representing the reigning World Series champs at their table and said the reason they picked so late was well worth it.
Raul Ibanez is having one of the best seasons in baseball right now. Getting him from Seattle meant the Phillies had to wait that long.
"That's a pretty good tradeoff. I'll take that one any day," Green said. "Young people are obviously the backbone of what we're doing, but this guy has done wonderfully."
Robert Brooking is a Braves fan and an adjunct professor at Kennesaw (Ga.) State, which just produced Blue Jays first-round pick and 20th overall selection Chad Jenkins, a right-handed pitcher. Brooking was among the multitude of fans who played a new role in this Draft by "tweeting" their Draft comments in the Twitter app on MLB.com -- something so popular that "mlbdraft" rose at one point to the fifth most popular Trending Topic on Twitter.
"I've thoroughly enjoyed the league's expanded coverage of the Draft, especially via Twitter," Brooking said in an e-mail to MLB.com immediately after the first round. "I've received every pick via text and love it! Draft day coverage is no longer an NFL treat. Now baseball fans have their appetites satiated."
Ben Cook, a Cardinals fan who maintains an MLB rumors blog, called this a breakthrough event for MLB and its fans.
"Broadcasting the Draft on MLB.com was a nice step to open it up to new fans like myself who hadn't paid much attention to the Draft in previous years," Cook said. "But incorporating Twitter took fan interaction to an all new level, allowing instant feedback and some great conversations to happen.
"The NFL Draft may be more popular, but it's a purely spectator event. MLB figured out a way to bring fans into the process and let us feel like we're part of the event."
One of the entertaining new wrinkles at this year's Draft was the sight of the club reps going to the podium to announce their own teams' picks in the second round. Tommy Lasorda, the Hall of Fame former manager of the Dodgers, surprised everyone by coming out to announce the 96th overall pick, during the third round, whose emcee duties belonged to Major League Baseball's Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Jimmie Lee Solomon. The name Lasorda read was the son of his own former Dodgers player, Tim Wallach.
"Hey, everybody, this pick is very special to me. I knew this pick when he was a baby," Lasorda said at the microphone. "His father was one of the greatest players of our generation. We select Brett Wallach, a pitcher from Orange Coast Junior College in Costa Mesa, Calif."
Eric Davis represented the Reds, who he led to their last World Series title in 1990. He said the enhanced Draft will infuse more interest among youngsters.
"I feel good about my responsibility here and what we are all doing," Davis said, resplendent in a plum pinstriped suit. "The atmosphere is great for the game. It creates an excitement and gets the attention of kids around the country. We've taken a backseat to other major sports for too long.
"It's not been any excitement. The kids today go by what they see. If we create the results like other sports, we're going to get more excitement and bring them into the game."
John Franco, the former Mets closer representing his old club, saw Davis and said, "All the old-timers are here!" Directly above them, against the bricks of "MLB PARK," was a banner that read: "MLB Network: Our National Pastime Goes Full Time."
Indeed. The national pastime now has a Draft that seems to be everywhere. It was memorable, and it's not over.
"In baseball, the players in high school and college aren't publicized like basketball and football," said Kaline, the Hall of Famer who spent his whole career with the Tigers and now was back representing them at their Draft table for the third straight year. "You didn't think there would be a media for something like this back when I played. It's a natural with today's technology. It's kind of exciting for the kids. I never visualized anything like this."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.