By Mark Newman / MLB.com
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Welcome to Disney World, where dreams come true.
The 2008 First-Year Player Draft is back today, bigger than before. It all begins with a poignant and historic Negro Leagues Player Draft at 1 p.m. ET — followed by the Rays’ first selection to start the 2 p.m. annual Draft of top high school and collegiate talent.
You’ll want to see as much as you can, so here is your map to the kingdom:
Try to imagine what it was like during a rugged time in America, when there was no opportunity to play Major League Baseball if you were African-American or Latin. Think of those who forged on courageously and just played amongst themselves in the face of hate before Jackie Robinson came along in 1947 to tear down the wall.
You are in the land of some very special people. They will be recognized in a special one-round Negro Leagues Player Draft. Every present Major League club will draft one person who played in the Negro Leagues, and you can expect plenty of emotion as those once overlooked are introduced as selections at the Milk House at Disney’s Wide World of Sports.
“We’ve had a lot more initiatives spotlighting African-Americans recently, and we are really trying to focus on that,” said Silvia Lind, director of Minor League operations for MLB — referring to such initiatives as the annual Civil Rights Game and the 2006 induction of 17 Negro League players and executives into the Baseball Hall of Fame. “We’ve always said that to focus on your future, you have to remember your past. The Negro Leagues are so important. To get 30 people, recognized for what they contributed not just as players but also to society, it’s so important. When we first took this initiative to the Commissioner, [Bud Selig], he was so excited, and right away he wanted to do it.”
Hall of Famer Dave Winfield had the initial idea, and it grew into reality. Fans will see Negro Leaguers like Joe Scott, Neale “Bobo” Henderson, Cecil “Minute Man” Kaiser, Emilio “Millito” Navarro, John “Mule” Miles and Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, a female pitcher, honored.
“They are so honored,” Lind said. “All of them, to a person, they are so grateful to be a part of this, to be here and to be recognized in this way. To be interviewed, to be on the Internet, they’re very moved. I think it is going to be a very moving experience.”
Lind is especially looking forward to seeing Navarro. He is 102 years old — the oldest-surviving professional baseball player.
“When I had originally talked to his son, his son said [Navarro] gets up early every day and exercises,” Lind said. “We said, ‘Do you need wheelchair assistance here?’ He said, ‘Absolutely not.’
“I think it’s going to be very moving.”
The First-Year Player Draft originated in 1965, and it has evolved into something bearing little resemblance to its longtime iteration. Today, the first round is live on MLB.com and ESPN2, and then all of the remaining rounds are exclusive on MLB.com, with the usual storm of family, friends and community members all abuzz over their own prospects and feverishly checking the MLB.com DraftTracker from start to finish.
One thing hasn’t changed: It is the continuity of focusing on tomorrow. You see it every day. Suddenly, Jay Bruce is no longer a prospect but a sensation in Cincinnati. It happened when Ryan Braun came up last season with Milwaukee and burst upon the scene. It happens everywhere and it happens all the time, the inexorable infusion.
Now come the next names of tomorrow. Tampa Bay is on the clock, and the Rays will be bringing over a bus full of fans as everyone awaits their top overall selection. Five players being considered by the club are Georgia high school shortstop Tim Beckham, Florida State catcher Buster Posey, Vanderbilt third baseman Pedro Alvarez, San Diego left-hander Brian Matusz and California high school catcher Kyle Skipworth.
The Draft moved to a live event last year in this setting, which is named “The Milk House,” because Milk sponsors the 70,000-square-foot athletic facility. Selig will fly in, announce each of the No. 1 picks and then depart after that round is over. It is an Internet event after the first round, and a combination of Internet and TV in the first.
“I think what we learned from last year was that this was an event that was ready for its closeup,” Joe Garagiola Jr., MLB’s senior vice president of baseball operations, said during Wednesday’s rehearsal at The Milk House. “It translated very well to a televised event, and we were very pleased. The new wrinkle this time is the Negro League event. It will be very fun. It’ll be a great television event again, and I’m just so pleased that we can add this element to bring important information to fans.
“This is Christmas morning for scouting directors and their departments. After all their work around the year, it’s when you get to open all the presents. All the work that went into it is realized.”
Each club’s tomorrow will be partially decided today. Each club will stock up on the best and brightest. It happens every year. It is just a lot more visible now.
It’s time for Harold Reynolds’ big adventure.
The popular MLB.com on-air personality will be sitting at the Mariners’ table on the main Draft floor throughout the event, designated as the honorary heritage representative by Seattle. Each franchise does the same thing, and it is one of the highlights of the new-and-improved First-Year Player Draft. Al Kaline will be at the Tigers’ table; Billy Williams will be there for the Cubs; and the list goes on.
Reynolds said he was floored by that honor. He spent all or parts of 12 seasons in the bigs from 1983-94, and the first 10 of those years were with Seattle.
“To be asked back with the organization and to be able to do this is phenomenal, an incredible honor,” Reynolds said on Wednesday, looking at the mostly empty room and imagining what it will be like live. “[Mariners vice president] Lee Pelekoudas called me and said they would love to be the dignitary for the Mariners and represent them for the Draft. I had to pause for a second — ‘What’d you say?’ This is really a big thing. I look at all the people they could have asked who have come through the Mariners family, and to be the guy they asked to do this is incredible. I thought for sure Mr. Mariner Alvin Davis would be the guy.”
What does his role entail exactly?
“I’m waiting for them to call me and tell me who we have decided to pick,” Reynolds said. “I keep joking with them that if you pick somebody I don’t like, I’ll say my own name. I’ll give them ‘George Windham from Corvallis High School’ — a guy I went to high school with.”
Reynolds said this live-event version of the Draft is “something baseball should have done years ago.” Now he comes with what seems like a pretty decent idea, at least on the face of it: “Rotate it to each city each year. You’re going to get the card shows, you put the FanFest on, you do all those things just like you would the All-Star Game. The timing’s fine. There are enough Major League cities and buzz to do it in that city, so its home team can turn it into a huge event. Put it in Seattle on the day of a Mariners game. If I was a fan, I would go to the Draft and then watch my Major League team play. I’d go to the ballpark early to watch the Draft first.”
This is mostly about the 3,000 kids eligible for the Draft, from the expected first-round picks all the way to the 50th-round guys. This is about the dream of athletes who grew up on youth teams and worked their way into this opportunity, and maybe someone will be that next Mike Piazza — who recently retired after a 16-year Hall of Fame career that came after he was drafted in the 62nd round in 1988.
That is the meat of this Draft. The glitz and the glamour is today’s first round and the live, televised presentation. The real guts of it is that endurance test of a prospect’s hopes as all those players wait and follow the MLB.com DraftTracker with their entourages — the pride of towns large and small. This is their fantasy.
Reynolds said one noticeable change in the past 20 years is the greater accuracy in projection of talent — or at the very least the chance to prove it at the Majors instead of a Double-A flameout.
“Twenty years ago, you might draft a guy and you don’t know if you’ll ever see this guy again,” Reynolds said. “Now just look at the 2005 Draft — I think that of the first 10 picks, eight are in the big leagues. You’ve got guys who are there by the end of summer. You don’t have to wait five or six years.
“[Organizations] are not missing because of the amount of money you have to pay these kids — they do an extensive job year-round following these kids and make sure he’s the right pick. You can’t miss with the type of investment clubs are putting in. … It’s no surprise Tampa Bay and Arizona are doing what they’re doing — look at their Draft picks
“He won’t bust in the Minors, he’ll bust in the big leagues. He’s going to get there. When I was coming up, the thought was, if a club invests money in you, you’re going to be all right through that 0-for-10 in A-ball. Now if the club invests money in you, it’ll be 0-for-10 in the big leagues.”
Main Street, USA
You know that feeling when you walk right into the Magic Kingdom and you are just glued to Main Street for a while? Well, it’s going to be like that at MLB.com today, and we aren’t even talking about the nitty-gritty of an amazing MLB regular-season schedule. Here is the Draft programming (all times ET):
12 p.m. — 2008 Draft Preview Show: MLB.com Draft expert Jonathan Mayo will join host Vinny Micucci to provide analysis into this year’s crop of Draft prospects. The program includes an interview with Nationals pitcher Ross Detwiler, a 2007 first-round pick.
1 p.m. — Negro Leagues Player Draft: MLB.com will provide an exclusive, live video stream of the announcement of the preassigned selections to honor each Negro League alumnus.
1:30 p.m. — MLB.com live from Orlando: Host Seth Everett will take fans right up to ESPN2’s broadcast of the first pick with the latest news and information from The Milk House.
2 p.m. — First-Year Player Draft Live: MLB.com will provide a live video stream of ESPN2’s coverage of the first and compensation rounds on BaseballChannel.TV.
6 p.m. — MLB.com live from Orlando: MLB.com will stream every choice live from the podium until the final selection of the day. Micucci, Mayo and MLB Scouting Bureau director Frank Marcos will provide insight and interviews.
Then comes Friday, and at 11:30 a.m., it’s the First-Year Player Draft Live. MLB.com will stream every pick through the conclusion of the Draft live as it is announced by each Major League club.
What’s even better than the Haunted Mansion or the Hall of Presidents? Walking in for free and getting a goodie bag and watching the live baseball events at The Milk House. Kaline, the former Tigers great, will be among those appearing at an autograph session in conjunction with the Draft. It’s a coup for fans.
“We think there will be more fans this time,” Garagiola said, comparing it to last year’s debut that drew a smattering of spectators. “The Rays are bringing a bus again. The Disney people said there will be more people in the building than last year.
“For any baseball fan who’s in the area, it’s pretty cool. Everybody will get a gift bag with a shirt, cap and pin. There are a lot of fan-friendly elements — autographs sessions with former Major Leaguers, including Hall of Famers. You can have quite a day here.”
On top of that, there will be a raffle of a jersey from every club, so your chances of winning something will be pretty high.
Mickey’s Toontown Fair
It’s just fun.
That’s the best thing you can say about baseball, which is headed for its fifth consecutive year of overall record attendance in the Majors. It’s fun to see what happens next, whether it’s a Junior Griffey 600th homer or a Rays bust-out season or the sight of the Cubs streaking toward what they hope is finally Next Year Now.
It’s just fun to watch the new players come into the game. This is how we do it. Drink lots of fluid, see as much as you can and wait around for some fireworks and a parade.