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Tonight for the first time in history the first round of Major League Baseball’s Amateur Free Agent Draft will be televised on the sport’s new MLB cable TV network. The consensus is that San Diego State righthander Stephen Strasburg will be the number one pick by the Washington Nationals even though super-agent Scott Boras is throwing around a $50 million price tag that would shatter the $10.5 record set by another right-hander Mark Prior in 2001. Computer addicts will be able to view the rounds after the first one on the TV link to mlb.com .

I suppose it is good for baseball that the event is attracting a lot of media attention even though baseball amateurs are nowhere near the finished products of football and basketball hopefuls who have the advantage of the far more organized farm system known as NCAA collegiate competition. My Orioles, who have resorted after one good recent home stand to becoming the Woerioles again, will be sending Ben McDonald, their 1989 number one draft pick in the nation, to represent them at the draft. It is a nice public relations touch but it also should serve as a cautionary note because McDonald never lived up to his can’t-miss reputation.

Ballyhooed as the Louisiana State University great who wrestled alligators for fun and could hold six or seven baseballs in one hand, McDonald had a decent career but retired after 1997 with a 78-70 lifetime record and a 3.91 ERA, nowhere near the superstardom predicted for him. Injuries and the inability to pitch out of jams in key situations plagued him. He also wasn’t helped by extra pressure placed on him by his first Baltimore manager Frank Robinson who said early in McDonald’s career that the team would go as far as the youngster would carry them.

Mark Prior was another can’t-miss prospect with supposed perfect mechanics that arrived in the majors one year after his draft. He had a great 2003 with a 18-6 record and a 2.43 ERA but was on the mound when the Cubs imploded in the eighth inning of game six in the National League Championship Series when Cubs fan Steve Bartman didn’t allow Moises Alou to catch a foul ball. Prior couldn’t pitch out of the inning and after that it was all downhill. Because of injuries Prior hasn’t pitched in the major leagues since 2006. Last I heard he had been shut down a few weeks ago in extended spring training for the San Diego Padres.

Always frank and incisive in his commentary, Joe Maddon repeated to our Columbia sport management students yesterday what he told a Sports Illustrated reporter before Sunday’s game at Yankee Stadium. “I don’t want to know who our number one draft pick will be,” he said. “There should be checks and balances in any good organization,” he noted, commenting that he wouldn’t want someone to tell him how to manage his team and he shouldn’t tell the team’s evaluators who they should pick. If asked for an opinion on a specific player he’d offer it, he continued, but he wouldn’t volunteer.

Part of me hopes that the Nationals will think outside the box and go for some other choice than Strasburg. But with the team already nearly 30 games under .500, they will probably go for the feel-good headlines and choose the consensus number one pick. Yet to repeat my earlier caveat, very few amateur baseball picks are truly can’t-misses. And good organizations will work extra hard to make as sure as possible that the player really wants to succeed and excel and is not just in the game for the fame and the money.

Near the end of his life in 1965 Branch Rickey endorsed the concept of the amateur draft as a way to cut down on the profligate spending on bonuses for unproven amateurs. He didn’t live to see the growth of the strong Players Association and the emergence of the particularly aggressive Scott Boras who said in the June 2009 Playboy interview that he wouldn’t want one of his clients and look back at the age of 50 and say, “I turned down $70 million dollars. I could have done more for my family, my community, my church.”

I like to believe that character and belief in the value of commiting oneself to an organization can trump avariciousness, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t bet the house on it.

More on possible alternatives to the draft and Joe Maddon’s memorable visit yesterday to the Columbia campus in future posts. Ciao for now!

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