NEW YORK -- An extra few dollars here, a scheduling conflict there -- the history of Major League Baseball's Draft is littered with players whose careers and lives might have turned out differently if not for seemingly minor twists of fate.
For the Mets, that was perhaps no truer than in 1986, a year famous in franchise history for wholly different reasons than amateur scouting. But months before Bill Buckner became a household name, then-Mets general manager Frank Cashen put together one of the more interesting drafts the Mets have had.
There were no Darryl Strawberrys nor Dwight Goodens up top. In fact, the Mets whiffed on each of their first three picks, selecting a trio of players who never appeared in the big leagues.
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Only later did the Mets hit on four players who would go on to significant big league careers: pitcher Cal Eldred in the 26th round, first baseman John Olerud in the 27th, and pitchers Scott Erickson and Todd Jones in the 36th and 41st. None of them signed.
"That's probably a good thing I didn't," Eldred recalled. "I wasn't ready to go play [pro] baseball."
Committed to play at the University of Iowa, Eldred, an 18-year-old Iowan who dreamed of pitching at the state university, seriously considered the Mets' offer. If it hit six figures, Eldred said, even his college coach would have encouraged him to take it.
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As it was, the Mets invited Eldred out to throw a bullpen session at Shea Stadium and take in a game from the dugout alongside Strawberry, Gary Carter and all the other legends of that team. Had it not interfered with one of his American Legion playoff games, Eldred would have taken the Mets up on the offer. Perhaps the team would have wooed him to sign.
Instead, Eldred went to Iowa, and he blossomed into a first-round Draft pick three years later.
"I'm not real smart, but I know that was better than the 26th," quipped Eldred, who went on to win 86 games over 14 seasons with the Brewers, Cardinals and White Sox.
Eldred, of course, was far from the Mets' only missed opportunity that Draft. A round later, the team selected Olerud, who spent three years at Washington State University instead of signing. Like Eldred, Olerud benefited greatly from those college seasons, bumping up to the third round when the Blue Jays took him three years later.
Fate interfered in a different way this time, significantly later down the road: Following the 1996 season, the Mets traded for Olerud, who spent three seasons in Flushing. To this day, Olerud remains the Mets' franchise leader with a career .315 average, .425 on-base percentage and .926 OPS with the team.
Nine rounds after picking Olerud, the Mets hit again on Erickson, who was subsequently drafted twice more out of a local community college. Erickson eventually transferred to the University of Arizona, where he caught the eyes of the Twins, who took him in the fourth round in 1989. Playing 5 1/2 seasons in Minnesota, Erickson went on to spend the most significant portion of his 142-win career in Baltimore.
Even then, the Mets weren't done, taking Jones in the 41st round (which no longer exists). Like the others, Jones had an offer on the table to go to college -- his from Jacksonville State. He thought about spurning it to turn pro, but fate had other plans. The scout who was to make him an offer, Julian Morgan, never showed up to watch him pitch.
"I would have signed if he'd have offered," said Jones, who became a first-round pick of the Astros, saving 319 games over 16 big league seasons. "God took care of that and protected me from myself. Had I have signed out of high school, I'd not met my wife in college.
"Thank God for unanswered prayers."