Better than you remember: J.D. Drew

April 18th, 2020

While we’re waiting for baseball to come back, we are making do. So once a week, inspired by the late Deadspin’s “Let’s Remember Some Guys” series, we will take a look at one player in baseball history, why he was great, why he mattered, why we should hang on to him. Send me your suggestions at [email protected]

Previously in the series: Wally Joyner | Darrell Porter | Ruben Sierra | Jason Varitek

Player: J.D. Drew
Career: STL 1998-2003, ATL 2004, LAD 2005-06, BOS 2007-11
Accolades: 2008 All-Star

J.D. Drew is the only Major League Baseball player of my lifetime who was one of the least popular players in the sport before he ever played a game. It is one thing to be one of those rookies whom old-school baseball guys and cranky fans all go after; everyone likes to try to put a young kid in his place. But it’s quite something else when they all seem to dislike him before he has ever worn an MLB uniform.

J.D. Drew was one of the greatest collegiate baseball players of all time. At Florida State he was a two-time All-American and the 1997 winner of the Golden Spikes Trophy, awarded to the best amateur player in the country. That 1997 season was absolutely absurd: Drew hit .455, with 31 homers, 100 RBIs, a .604 on-base percentage, a .961 slugging percentage and 32 stolen bases, becoming college baseball's first 30-30 player. He did all this in 67 games. It was no surprise, then, that he was the top collegiate prospect heading into the 1997 MLB Draft, with a sweet, nearly perfect left-handed swing and all the talent on the planet. So he did what any kid sitting on millions of dollars of talent might have done: He hired Scott Boras as his agent.

This was in an age before the slotting system in the Draft, with finite signing bonus pools, and Boras made it clear, from the get-go, that any team that drafted Drew would have to pay the market rate. Specifically, $10 million, what Travis Lee had gotten from the D-backs the year prior after Boras (on behalf of client Bobby Seay) discovered a since-closed loophole in the Draft rules that made Lee, Seay -- and a couple of other amateur prospects that year -- free agents. If a team wasn’t willing to pay Boras that, he said, it shouldn’t draft him.

Meanwhile, the Phillies, just three years removed from that glorious 1993 National League pennant-winning team, had won just 67 games in 1996, giving them the No. 2 pick in the Draft. The Tigers, who held the top pick, were scared off by Drew’s bonus demands and took Rice right-hander Matt Anderson and signed him for $2.5 million, a quarter of Drew’s asking price.

The Phillies, however, were undeterred, and they used the No. 2 pick on Drew, assuming that he would ultimately have no choice to sign with the team at the $3 million they wanted him to take. Boras tried all sorts of ways to break Drew free, even trying and failing to get him classified as a free agent, but it didn’t work. The Phillies were confident they’d wait Drew out. After all, where else was he going to play?

The answer? The independent St. Paul Saints. Drew signed with the club for the 1997 season three months after the Draft -- and two months after he told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “I don't want to end up playing in a Phillies uniform at half my market value. … Other teams came in and put the money on the table, and the Phillies' offer is one-third or half of that. It's hard to play for a club that shoves something down your throat to get you to play for them.”

The Saints were an unaffiliated team. This gave unsigned players a chance to show off their skills for Major League teams -- Drew was briefly teammates with Ila Borders, the first woman to play professional baseball in men’s leagues -- but also led to publicity stunts, like Minnie Minoso playing for the team at the age of 77. Drew destroyed the Independent League, putting up a .341/.433/.706 slash line in 43 games while waiting to be reclassified in the 1998 MLB Draft.

The Phillies ended up losing those 95 games in 1996 for nothing, and they would never let Drew, and his quote about a team that "shoves something down your throat,” forget it.

The Cardinals, who had the fifth pick in the 1998 MLB Draft, ended up selecting Drew the next time around, and after 30 more games in St. Paul, they got him signed. Drew and Boras ended up settling for a $7 million deal; it helped the Cardinals that they’d just dealt with Boras a year earlier with another of his top-shelf clients, Rick Ankiel, a second-round pick in 1997.

The uproar in Philadelphia was overwhelming; Inquirer baseball writer Jayson Stark called Boras the “sports world’s top-ranked terrorist," and the Philadelphia Daily News encouraged the Phillies to have a “Boo J.D. Drew Night” when the Cardinals came to town.

Drew instantly became baseball’s Public Enemy No. 1. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa was so concerned about the pressure on Drew that he picked the one night for Drew's debut that no one would be paying attention: The night Mark McGwire was going for -- and hit -- his 62nd homer, against Sammy Sosa and the Chicago Cubs. (Drew went 0-for-2, not that anyone noticed.)

Drew ended up hitting .417 with five homers in 14 games for the Cardinals down the stretch, setting expectations for his 1999 season sky high. Too high, as it turned out: Drew, in an omen of what was to come, struggled with injuries and played only 104 games, hitting .242. He was a regular in 2000, and better, but by then La Russa was starting to lose patience with him, telling author Buzz Bissinger in Bissinger's book "Three Nights in August" that Drew “settled for 75 percent” of his talent, blaming Boras and the salary holdout for it.

Oh, and Drew eventually made that trip to Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. He actually wore a different player’s jersey for batting practice to try to hide, but it didn’t work; people threw stuff at him anyway.

As usual, Drew did his best work when fewer people were paying attention to him. In 2001, overshadowed by a much-less-hyped rookie named Albert Pujols who put together a historic season that would kick off a Hall of Fame career, Drew hit .323/.414/.613 for a team that fell just short against eventual champion Arizona in the National League Division Series. He went 2-for-13 in the series, and Cardinals fans mostly complained that he didn’t hustle enough.

Ultimately, La Russa got his wish and traded Drew in what turned out to be one of the most important trades in Cardinals history: Following the 2003 season, the team shipped Drew and catcher Eli Marrero to the Braves for reliever Ray King, starter Jason Marquis and a little-known tall Georgia right-hander named Adam Wainwright.

Drew had the best year of his career in 2004, hitting .305 with 31 homers and a .436 OBP, just in time to hit free agency. He signed a five-year, $55 million deal with the Dodgers but opted out after two years, leading to more bad feelings from Los Angeles, which had thought he was going to stay.

He ended up signing with the Red Sox on another five-year deal, this one worth $70 million, and his grand slam in Game 6 of the 2007 American League Championship Series helped lead the Red Sox to a World Series they would win. He was excellent for the Red Sox when healthy -- he made his first and only All-Star Game in 2008 -- but, as usual, he couldn’t stay healthy. When his deal ran out after 2011, he retired, at the age of 35. His final game was that Red Sox loss on the crazy final day of the 2011 season, when the Red Sox blew a lead in the bottom of the ninth, costing them a trip to the playoffs.

J.D. Drew had an excellent baseball career. He had a career .873 OPS -- higher than Cal Ripken’s -- his teams reached the playoffs eight of his 14 seasons and he is one of the top 300 home run hitters of all time. He could field, he could run and he had that gorgeous, yet compact, swing. His 44.9 career WAR has him ahead of Matt Holliday (44.4), Carlos Delgado (44.4) and Darryl Strawberry (42.2), just to name a few. Teams were never worse for having J.D. Drew on them.

And yet if you say his name today to a fan who followed his career, you’ll likely see that fan’s face pucker. He was never embraced by fans of the Cardinals, Braves, Dodgers or Red Sox, and Phillies fans still detest him with the passion of a thousand suns. He is known not for his ability but for following the only path that would get him the highest possible salary. Following that path is a lot more acceptable today than it was 20 years ago; fans and media are a lot more supportive than they used to be of players, in all sports, maximizing their income.

But that time came too late for Drew, a player who, by all accounts, is modest and quiet and even shy off the field, a devout Christian who always seemed a little bewildered by everyone around him screaming at him. J.D. Drew was a terrific baseball player hiding in plain sight, but he was never as good as everyone wanted, or demanded, that he be. And as angry as everyone always was at him, it seems likely it would have been impossible for him to be.

I remember once, when my family was visiting me in New York for a Cardinals-Mets series in 2000, Drew passed by all four of us walking through Times Square. We had no animosity toward him: He was a Cardinal, after all. My sister yelled, “Hey, it’s J.D. Drew! We love you!” Drew stopped, alarmed at first, but then realized he was, for once, among people who liked him. He gave us a huge smile. Someone saw him and cheered him. He looked happy. He looked relieved. He looked grateful.