Tuesday, May 16, 2006

First Overall

by Will Young

With the first pick in the draft, the Calvin Griffith selects….a mess.

Twins fans are treated nightly to watching Joe Mauer. He’s young, talented and was destined for greatness ever since his selection as the first overall pick in 2001’s amateur draft. But the Twins haven’t always had such luck with the first overall pick.

After finishing with a 60-102 record in 1982, the Minnesota Twins “earned” the first choice in the 1983 June Amateur Draft. Unfortunately, Farm Director George Brophy lamented that the draft did not contain a clear top player and the overall talent level was below-average. The Twins’ brain trust compiled a list of their top six players, but pitcher Tim Belcher, from tiny Mount Vernon Nazarene College in Ohio, seemed to be the likely selection. Both Brophy and Owner Calvin Griffith agreed that they would choose a player regardless of his money demands. Of course, the notoriously frugal Griffith added that he preferred to not spend more than $100,000 to sign the pick.

The day before the draft, Griffith and the Twins had named Belcher their top target with shortstop Jeff Kunkel their alternate. Storm clouds were already gathering when Belcher said, “I’m just a junior. If they [the Twins] draft me, I could just go back to college for senior year.” As the draft loomed, the team’s first negotiating tactic was made clear: the Twins would try to convince Belcher to sign for less money than he could receive from other teams because he would be moving to the majors more quickly with the Twins.

On June 6, the Twins officially selected Belcher who promptly told the public all the right things. “I want to sign right now and get on with my baseball career,” Belcher explained. When asked about a signing bonus, Belcher added, “I’m thinking in terms of six-figures.” Twins fans who may have been nervous about selecting a pitcher from such a small school were likely relieved to hear that Baseball America’s scouting report named Belcher “the only pitcher in the draft who can really throw the ball by a hitter”.

During the next week, neither party made an effort to start serious negotiations. Belcher still did not expect to have any trouble reaching an agreement, but was confused about the delayed offer from the Twins. Brophy explained that the Twins were merely waiting for Belcher to finish arranging his legal counsel. On June 10, the Twins first began speaking with Belcher’s legal adviser, a young Chicago attorney by the name of Scott Boras. At this point, Boras was just establishing himself as a baseball agent, and was not the fearful figure he evolved into over the span of twenty years.

A week after the draft, the two parties were still offering compliments. Floyd Baker, the Twins’ scout who recommended Belcher, told Sid Hartman that Belcher was the “best pitcher I have seen in the last ten years”. Griffith announced that he was ready to pay Belcher a bonus in the area of $100,000. However, the Twins would not start negotiations with Belcher because, as Brophy explained, “We cannot get confirmation that [Scott] Boras is his agent.” Their interest in Boras’ exact arrangement with Belcher was made clear later as negotiations turned sour.

While the Twins kept publicly repeating their $100,000 offer, Belcher finally struck back. “The Twins knew what it would take to sign me before the draft,” Belcher said, “I told them I wouldn’t sign for under six-figures.” He then clarified his position when he added, “I don’t want to be the highest paid player ever picked first in the draft, but I want something between $125,000 and $160,000 – someplace in the middle.” In fact, Belcher further complained that the Twins had privately offered him just $90,000 despite having a pre-draft conversation to learn his expectations.

The front office portrayed Belcher as unfamiliar with the historic principles of the organization. Like, say, frugality. Brophy noted that Belcher had turned down more money than the Twins had ever offered another draft pick. Of course, he failed to mention that no other Twins draft pick had ever been selected first overall, and that inflation had steadily increased players’ salaries.

A month after the draft, the two sides were maintaining their initial demands. Belcher still wanted between $130,000 and $165,000 (notice the $5,000 increase in the high- and low-points of the range) while the Twins were offering just $80,000 in addition to $4,000 for him to finish his education. Belcher said that Baker, the scout, had promised an initial offer of $90,000 and they had not even fulfilled that promise. Anger began to seep into Belcher’s words as he complained, “They shouldn’t have drafted me if they didn’t want to pay what they knew I wanted to sign.”

Finally, after a month, the Twins blinked first. Both parties mutually confirmed that the Twins offer to Belcher had been increased to $110,000. Belcher still was not satisfied and said he would still wait for between $130,000 and $160,000. He also unfurled his greatest negotiating weapon – the imposition of a deadline. Belcher announced that he had begun making plans to return to college in case he did not sign within the next few days.

At the next meeting between Brophy and Boras, the Twins tried to turn the tables. They withdrew their $110,000 offer and tried to use Belcher’s deadline to their advantage. Boras told Sid Hartman that the Twins were not “going to make an offer until August 28 in order to give Belcher just three days to decide whether to accept before needing to go back to school.” Rather than blink, Boras warned the Twins that by waiting for the January draft, Belcher would have no trouble getting the money he was seeking. After all, the fourth pick from June, Eddie Williams of the Mets, had just signed for $155,000.

Next, the Twins attempted to squash Belcher’s threat of returning to school. George Brophy asserted that Belcher “may have made himself ineligible for the NCAA by hiring Boras”. Boras refuted this claim when he announced, “I am following NCAA rules as a legal adviser.” Calvin Griffith led the next attack when he announced, “I’m not going to give him big money to come down with a sore arm.” The Twins were grasping at straws to convince the public that Belcher was unreasonable. Sid Hartman pondered “One wonders why the Twins drafted him, if they weren’t going to sign him.”

As the September 1 deadline approached, both sides stood firm. Belcher maintained his desire to sign with the Twins, but was becoming more and more exasperated. Every other first round pick had signed and several had received much more than the $110,000 he was being offered. “If Griffith refuses to make an offer between $100,000 and $160,000, then we may have a stalemate,” he lamented.

Belcher postponed enrolling in classes and extended his deadline to September 5. At this point, another potential stumbling block appeared as the two parties began arguing over the method of any bonus payment – provided a bonus could be agree upon. The Twins wanted to split the bonus into thirds and offer the first third at the signing, another third in January, and the final third in November 1984. Belcher countered by asking for half upon signing and the other half early in 1984. Griffith, openly trying to sell the team at this point, was looking for any way to defer the costs to the next owner. Even Sid Hartman publicly criticized the team complaining, “It would be a serious public relations blunder if the Twins didn’t sign a player their scouts designated as the best available in the draft.”

In a last ditch effort, the Twins tried to drive Belcher away from Scott Boras. “If Belcher actually wants to sign, let him call me and tell me so. Otherwise, we just won’t sign him”, Griffith said. Belcher held his ground, continually referred the team to Boras, and refused to accept the Twins offer which steadily increased to $120,500. In a ceremonial gesture, Griffith cut the offer to $60,000 on September 15. Deciding that their situation was hopeless, the Twins proceeded to throw stones at Belcher from afar. They insinuated that his holdout was going to harm him financially because players in the January supplemental draft historically received smaller salaries than their June counterparts.

The Twins refusal to meet Belcher’s demands did not preclude at least five other teams from asking the Commissioner’s Office about the legality of trading for his rights. Seeing that other teams were salivating at the thought of picking Belcher in the January draft, Griffith attempted to prevent Belcher from entering it.

The Twins encouraged the Commissioner to investigate whether or not Belcher had begun taking fall classes. If he had, according to NCAA rules, Belcher would not be eligible to be drafted for another 120 days or well after the January date. Scott Boras vehemently denied that Belcher had taken a class. Furthermore, Boras maintained that since Mount Vernon Nazarene College was an NAIA school, he did not need to follow the NCAA rules. Sid Hartman cut to the heart of the story when he wrote, “Most Major League teams would fight to sign the number one pick in the country. The Twins, not wanting to spend the money, try to get off the hook by making him ineligible.” After some investigating, Belcher was allowed to enter the January 1984 draft, and the Twins were left empty-handed.


Belcher was chosen by the New York Yankees in the January draft. He finished with a 146-140 record and an ERA just two percent better than the league average, but he also pitched for 14 years in the majors, and earned over $26 million. Scott Boras refined his negotiating skills and draft strategy until he perfected the technique with J.D. Drew. Less than a year after the negotiations, Calvin Griffith sold the Twins to Carl Pohlad, citing the rising costs of running a franchise as a reason to exit the sport. George Brophy admitted that fall that the Twins should have selected their other choice – University of Oklahoma pitcher Roger Hayward (whose entire major league career consisted of 78.2 innings and a 4-8 career record).

Finally, eighteen picks after Tim Belcher, the Boston Red Sox drafted Roger Clemens.

After growing up in Richfield, Will Young currently lives in Washington, DC where he a Master's Degree candidate in Sport Management at the George Washington University and blogs about the Twins at www.wyoung.net/twins.

The previous story is in the May issue of GameDay

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