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  • Thursday, June 3, 1999

    Expos have a sixth-sense about Girdley

    By JON COOK -- SLAM! Sports
     While the Montreal Expos usually get their man with their first-round pick in the annual June Draft, signing him has always proved much harder. In the past first-rounders Charles Johnson(1989) and Pete Incaviglia(1985) refused to sign because they didn't want to play in Montreal and for Canadian dollars. As recent as 1996 the Expos were unable to come to terms with pitcher John Patterson, their first-round (5th overall) pick.
     It was rumored that the Expos chose National League rookie-of-the-year candidate Michael Barret with the first pick (28th overall) in 1995, because they knew they could sign him as they did with their first-rounder from last year, shortstop Josh McKinley. McKinley was all but signed before the club picked him 11th overall. McKinley came around to Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia to say hello to the Expos two days later, contract signed and $1.25-million signing bonus sealed.
     The Expos director of scouting, Jim Fleming, rejected the notion that teams take players who they think they can sign in the first round in order to get something for their top pick. "The whole draft there are so many factors's not like football or basketball where the players are expected to walk right in and play every day. We go for the best player available - period," said Fleming.
     Yesterday, the Expos selected left-handed pitcher Josh Girdley of Jasper, Tex. with the sixth pick in the first round and early buzz has the club and Girdley's representative, Alan Hendricks of the famous Roger Clemens-handling
     Hendricks brothers, already agreeing to a signing bonus in the neighbourhood of $1.7 million U.S. That figure is about $500,000 short of what a top 10 pick has been accustomed to in recent years, but Girdley wasn't expected to go as early as he did. Baseball America prognosticators had Girdley, a 6-foot-4, 185-pounder who drew national attention this year by striking out 29 batters in one game, going as the 27th overall pick to the New York Yankees.
     Girdley, who told the Montreal Gazette he "has some awareness" of the signing process, has a bargaining chip in the form of a letter of intent to pitch for Texas A&M he signed during an early-signing week last November.
     Expos GM Jim Beattie said he took a chance on Girdley, despite the low ranking, after the kid impressed him in a meeting with his parents. "Usually, when you go in to interview a kid, the parents interject," said Beattie. "Josh was always the one who stood up and handled things himself. That impressed us. You see things like that with a guy like Michael Barrett (the Expos' 1995 first-rounder, now their catcher). A kid's make-up is a big part of our evaluation."
     Girdley, who followed the draft on the Internet, was surprised to find himself at No. 6, but told The Gazette he thought the Expos got a good pick in him. Girdley certainly upped his value with a solid senior year at Jasper High School, going 8-2 with an 0.44 ERA, striking out 178 batters in 17 games (11 starts).
     With finances being the key component to any Expos' signing, the club saved itself some money by drafting the lanky lefty early as opposed to going with a higher-rated pick, who would likely have demanded more money and been tougher to sign.
     Much has been written already about the size of Tampa Bay Devil Rays first overall pick Josh Hamilton's feet. The 6-foot-4, 200-pound 18-year-old from Athens Drive High in Raleigh, N.C. sports size-18 shoes and could rival NBA giant Shaquille O'Neal's size-22s by the time he stops growing.
     Hamilton payed the price for his current monster frame as a 15-year-old. Joey Bell, Hamilton's assistant coach with his high school team, told Sports Illustrated the kid suffered such intense growing pains as a teenager that his whole body felt as if it were coming apart. He was in such pain that it hurt to even swing a bat or throw a pitch, that is until his team made it to the playoffs.
     "The kid threw four shutout innings without having thrown all year," says Bell. "That doesn't happen. It just ain't supposed to be."
     If Hamilton experiences different growing pains adjusting to the major-league level he will always have his good childhood friend and fellow No. 1 Rays' draft pick, Paul Wilder, to help him out. Wilder knows what it's like to be perceived as the cornerstone of a young organization. The Devil Rays made the big outfielder from Cary, N.C., the first draft pick in franchise history in 1996. Hamilton's father, Tony, coached his son and Wilder on that Little League team in Raleigh 11 years ago. Josh was a precocious 7-year-old who played center field and wondered aloud why Dad would bat him ninth. Wilder was a husky 11-year-old who even then could pound the cover off the ball. A series of injuries has hampered his development, making his career so far a lesson in the danger of high expectations.
     Hamilton, a well-honed outfielder (he batted .529 with 13 homers as a senior at Athens High) and successful high school pitcher (7-1 with a 2.50 ERA and 91 strikeouts in 56 innings as a senior), will likely receive a $4 million signing bonus from the Devil Rays.
     The Arizona Diamondbacks pulled off the biggest surprise in the first round of yesterday's baseball draft, selecting local boy Corey Myers of Ahwatukee with the fourth overall pick. Myers was drafted higher than any other Arizona player straight out of high school, beating out Tucson Sahuaro shortstop Sammy Khalifa (No. 7 to Pittsburgh in 1982). Glendale Apollo's Bob Horner was the top pick in 1978 after playing at Arizona State.
     The high pick wowed the Desert Vista High School shortstop after Baseball America had tabbed him as the No. 100 prospect.
     "I never thought it would happen at Number 4," Myers told The Arizona Republic. "No team really expressed that kind of interest in the first round. It's amazing to me. I'm excited that it's the hometown team that happens to believe in me."
     Apparently D-Backs scouts changed their minds about the 6-foot-3, 210-pounder after seeing him take batting practice at Bank One Ballpark on Monday. Using a wood bat, Myers put the first pitch he saw into the right-field bullpen as General Manager Joe Garagiola Jr., director of scouting Don Mitchell and more than a dozen scouts circled around the batting cage.
     "It confirmed he has a tremendous amount of poise," Garagiola told The Republic.
     Myers put six of 30 cuts over the wall, the farthest landing in the center field grandstand seats. "I probably had one of my best BP sessions and it must have opened some eyes," Myers said. "I had a nice feeling that this is my dream. It couldn't have happened any better way."
     The Chicago Cubs think the potential payoff with controversial Wichita State righthander Ben Christensen was worth the gamble of selecting him with their first-round (26th overall) pick. The 21-year-old, 6-4 185-pounder hasn't pitched in a game since he beaned Evansville second baseman Anthony Molina with a warmup pitch before a game on April 23. The ball hit Molina in the left eye, ending his season and damaging his vision. The Missouri Valley Conference suspended Christensen for the rest of the season, including regionals, a suspension the NCAA upheld. Christensen could face legal action as a result of the incident. Wichita State university police were still investigating a criminal complaint filed by Molina the day after the beaning. Molina also could pursue civil litigation.
     The Cubs think Christensen, who fashioned a 21-1 college record with a low- to mid-90s fastball, good breaking ball and excellent command, could be a steal. But others believe Christensen could be a time bomb. One of Christensen's assets was the respect the scouting community has for his coach Gene Stephenson's program, which produced 10 players who were in the big leagues in 1998. Stephenson has made major-leaguers out of Pat Meares, Braden Looper and Darren Dreifort.
     Christensen said he threw the errant "warning" pitch at Molina, because he was standing too close to the batter's box while taking his practice swings, interfering with the pitcher's warmup. The college rule states that the batter must stay in the on-deck circle until the pitcher has finished his allotted warmups. To be so concerned about a player who was 24 feet away that you had to inforce your will on him with a 95 m.p.h. brushbacker, may show some serious psychological problems on Christensen's part.
     When Christensen was interviewed soon after hitting Molina, the pitcher was so upset he barely could talk through the tears. Christensen told the Wichita Eagle : "I didn't mean to hit him. . . . I feel so bad for him. It's not like he saw it coming. All I could think about was if that ball would have been a little bit to the left, or a little bit to the right, I could have killed him."
     Yet "gentle Ben" didn't appear nearly as contrite when he was ejected by the umpire after hitting Molina. Christensen's response--cursing and throwing his glove--was reminiscent of when he occasionally yelled at teammates for making errors in high school. According to a story in the Chicago Tribune, Christensen was also known for redoing school assignments, even if the answers were correct, if he didn't like his penmanship. Christensen was even reported to have criticized himself for surrendering five hits in a five-hit shutout.
     Christensen also has a reputation for being a little nasty while on the mound, glaring at hitters and backing them off the plate with purpose pitches. That's part of why Cubs scouts were so high on him.
     Perhaps he'll mature and mellow under pro baseball's eye-for-an-eye code. As Cleveland Indians Jaret Wright has discovered, 'headhunting' is not tolerated in the big-leagues.
     Here are the results of a poll conducted by the website for The Chicago Tribune:
     Q: Should the Cubs have drafted beanballer Ben Christensen?
     54% voted "No, he's damaged goods."
     45% voted "Yes, he deserves a chance."
     244 total votes starting Jun 3, 1999
     Toronto Blue Jays catcher Darrin Fletcher hit two home runs in his first game back from an eye injury to help the Blue Jays beat the Chicago White Sox 9-7 Wednesday night. Fletcher, hit in the right eye by a ricocheting baseball while he was in a batting cage on May 1 in Seattle, hit the first pitch he saw in the second inning for a home run.
     In 1978 -- Dave Johnson became the first major leaguer to hit two pinch-hit grand slams in a season. His grand slam in the ninth inning gave the Philadelphia Phillies a 5-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
     "I was sitting at home, I turned on the internet and there I was -- sixth overall. Wow, that was great."
     -- Montreal Expos' first round (6th overall) pick Josh Girdley on how he found out he had been drafted.
     Here's a little stats pack we'll be keeping as the season goes along.
     Countdown to new Expos' single-season attendance record:
     2,050,379 - (275,627)
     Countdown to 3000 hits:
     Tony Gwynn, SD - 25 (2975)
     Wade Boggs, TB - 49 (2951)
     Cal Ripken Jr., BAL - 95 (2905)
     Countdown to 71 home runs:
     Ken Griffey Jr., SEA - 51HR
     Jose Canseco, TB - 51HR
     Raul Mondesi, LA - 53HR
     Sammy Sosa, CHI - 53HR
     Mark McGwire, STL - 55HR
     Matt Williams, ARI - 55HR
     Jeff Bagwell, HOU - 56HR
     Rafael Palmeiro, TEX - 56HR
     Shawn Green, TOR - 56HR
     Jay Bell, ARI - 56HR
     Russ Davis, SEA - 57HR
     Manny Ramirez, CLE - 57HR
     Fernando Tatis, STL - 57HR
     Fred Mcgriff, TB - 57HR
     Steve Finley, ARI - 58HR
     Carlos Delgado, TOR - 58HR
     Juan Gonzalez, TEX - 58HR
     David Bell, SEA - 58HR
     Mo Vaughn, ANA - 58HR
     Chipper Jones, ATL - 58HR
     Preston Wilson, FLA - 59HR
     Brian Jordan, ATL - 59HR
     Garret Anderson, ANA - 59HR
     Vladimir Guerrero, MTL - 59HR
     Brian Giles, PIT - 59HR
     Greg Vaughn, CIN - 60HR
     Gary Sheffield, LA - 60HR
     Luis Gonzalez, ARI - 60HR
     Matt Stairs, OAK - 60HR
     Harold Baines, BAL - 60HR
     Jermaine Dye, KC - 60HR
     Dean Palmer, DET - 60HR
     Countdown to the wild card:
     Montreal Expos - 19W 31L (9.5 gm back of Chicago Cubs for NL wild card)
     Toronto Blue Jays - 25W 29L (6.5 gm back of N.Y. Yankees for AL wild card)

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