Van Poppel’s demands set up Jones’ career

September 4, 2012 

When we were treated to the unbelievable comeback by the Atlanta Braves on Sunday, I had a name that kept coming to my mind.

Todd Van Poppel.

Yes, Chipper Jones hit the dramatic home run to continue his magical final season. But if not for Van Poppel, Jones would have never hit that home run Sunday, or given us a tremendous 19-year run of outstanding play at third base for the Braves.

We have to go back to the 1990 MLB draft. Van Poppel was the consensus top pick. He was a tall, right-handed pitcher from a high school in Texas. Whenever a tall, right-handed pitcher out of a high school in Texas is a top prospect, they are inevitably compared to Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens.

Van Poppel had it all -- size, stuff, mound presence, success. He was billed as a star even before he graduated from high school. Every scout that saw him that spring knew Van Poppel was going to be an ace pitcher. That’s why everyone knew he had to be the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Atlanta had the top pick that year, thanks to the awful 1989 season. They were in a rebuilding mode, as then-general manager Bobby Cox was trying to create a franchise that was all about pitching -- instead of the emphasis on hitting that had obviously not worked.

Cox had accumulated a lot of great pitching talent: Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Derek Lilliquist, Pete Smith, Steve Avery and Tommy Greene. There was one school of thought that they had enough pitching and needed to instead use the top pick to get a big hitting prospect. But most believed there was no way Atlanta could pass on Van Poppel.

He was that special.

But there was one problem. Van Poppel said he didn’t want to play pro ball. He told everyone he wanted to play baseball at the University of Texas, which is important to high school kids in that state. Most believed he just didn’t want to play for the Braves, a franchise at that point that didn’t demand much respect. Some thought it might have just been posturing, trying to get the Braves to pay the highest bonus ever to a high school player.

Either way, it was a tough decision. If the Braves took Van Poppel and then he went to Texas, they would lose a big chance to help the organization. But then, if they passed on him and another team drafted Van Poppel, and then he became a star, the Braves may have been laughed at for decades for ­passing on a special pitcher when they desperately needed special players.

Cox flew out to Texas to see Van Poppel, who continued to tell the Braves he wanted to pitch in college. There was no doubt in Cox’s mind that Van Poppel was a special prospect, but he just couldn’t afford to take a player with the top pick in the draft and have the player not sign.

The Braves had nine scouts that saw both Van Poppel and their second favorite for the pick, a high school shortstop from Bolles in Jacksonville. Former Atlanta scouting director Paul Snyder told me several years ago that when the scouts voted on which player they believed the Braves should take, “the vote was 5-4.”

Thankfully, the player that won the vote was the same player Cox knew they had to draft.

So here we are, 22 years later. Jones is close to finishing out a career that will land him in Cooperstown. And Van Poppel? Well, he was drafted by the Oakland A’s with the 14th pick of the first round that year. Oakland had just won the World Series, so it was an attractive team (that and the money) for Van Poppel to go against his desire to play at Texas.

Van Poppel struggled with injuries, and then he just struggled in general. He pitched for the A’s, Detroit, Texas, Pittsburgh, the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati. His career stats: 40 wins, 52 losses and a 5.58 ERA in 359 games (mostly as a reliever).

So during the next couple of weeks, as Jones gives us more thrills, and as we salute his remarkable career, don’t forget to utter one more sentence of appreciation.

“Thank you, Todd Van Poppel.”

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill on Twitter@yahoo.com.

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