I’m sorry, Chipper.
I kept repeating that when Chipper Jones was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He won’t care much I’m apologizing for something. He’s got other things on his mind – like an acceptance speech in Cooperstown this summer.
Being apologetic was a natural emotion considering I can now admit, now say out loud that I didn’t want the Atlanta Braves to draft Jones in 1990. As embarrassing as it is, I must come clean and admit it now and apologize.
Let me explain. Twenty-eight years ago, when the Braves had the No. 1 pick in the draft, there was a pitcher who was the consensus top talent in the draft. His name was Todd Van Poppel.
He was a 6-foot-5 right-handed pitcher from Martin High School in Arlington, Texas. Van Poppel threw hard, consistently around 98 mph, and he didn’t give up a run in 50 straight innings in high school. Big kids on the mound from Texas are compared to Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens, two tremendous pitchers from that state.
Everyone believed Van Poppel deserved to be the top pick. It was a slam dunk. He was the best player, and the Braves had the first pick. In 1990, the Braves were in year four of a rebuilding process, so they had to get the pick right.
Then-general manager Bobby Cox had focused on pitching in the rebuild. Cox had assembled a great nucleus of arms, including John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Pete Smith, Kent Mercker and Tommy Greene. Plus, the best prospect in baseball in 1990 was a pitcher named Steve Avery, who would make his MLB debut nine days after the MLB draft that summer.
The thought of adding Van Poppel, who was considered the best high school pitching prospect since Dwight Gooden, was exciting. I love pitching, so to pencil Van Poppel in the 1992 Braves rotation with Avery, Glavine, Smoltz and Mercker was like a dream for a team that had never had great pitching.
Remember now, this was the summer of 1990, the season before Braves baseball changed. It was the season before the Braves went on a 14-year run of winning division titles. The Braves were the laughingstock of baseball then, and they could ill-afford to not pick a pitcher being compared to future Hall of Famers.
There was a problem, however. Van Poppel told the Braves and everyone else he wanted to go to college and play for Texas, a baseball powerhouse. He wanted to be a Longhorn, or so he said. Many believed he just didn’t want to pitch for the Braves, and at that point it was easy to understand why. So, Van Poppel told the Braves to not draft him.
I was crushed. If this kid was the real deal, I thought, and the Braves pass on him, they’ll regret it forever. He could be the missing link, I believed, to making them a great team. We had no idea then that Glavine and Smoltz would become Hall of Famers, and at that time Avery would have been the better bet to become a great pitcher.
Well, the Braves were afraid to draft Van Poppel and waste a draft pick. If they had drafted him against his wishes, and then he would have really gone to college, they would have lost a valuable piece for the rebuild. They couldn’t afford that, so the Braves passed.
Turns out, Van Poppel liked the money the Oakland A’s offered him after they took him with the 14th pick in the first round. Van Poppel told me years later he really did want to go to college, that he was not spurning the Braves. But the money changed his mind, and the A’s were the defending World Series champs that year, so he wanted to play for a winner.
Instead of taking Van Poppel, the Braves took this infielder out of the Bolles School near Jacksonville. Some kid they called Chipper.
Van Poppel did not become the next Ryan or Clemens. He pitched in parts of 10 MLB seasons, but Van Poppel finished his career with a 40-52 record and a 5.58 ERA.
So, I’m sorry, Chipper. Let’s now refer to the day Jones was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame as “Todd Van Poppel Day,” since if the Braves had done what I wanted 28 summers ago, well, let’s not even think about it.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on “Middle Georgia’s ESPN” – 93.1 FM in Macon and 99.5 FM in Warner Robins. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.