NEW YORK -- Tomorrow can wait.
Several stars of yesteryear took center stage at Major League Baseball's headquarters Thursday, as the league held its annual luncheon prior to the First-Year Player Draft. Hall of Famer Jim Bunning headlined a contingent of familiar faces that would later represent their respective teams at the Draft.
Former All-Stars Kerry Wood, Fred McGriff, Frank Thomas and Will Clark were among those present, and they each spoke briefly about the event. Wood, the fourth overall selection in the 1995 Draft, turned introspective when asked for advice to give draftees.
"I would say, first of all, enjoy the process of the Draft. And congratulations," said Wood. "You're a professional now, so you have to carry yourself on the field and off the field as a professional. Your hard work is just getting started. You've worked hard to get to that point, but now the real work comes in where you're going to stay late and just keep going and going until you figure things out.
"You're going to be surrounded by other kids that are your age and just went through the same process. You guys all have the same goal in mind and that's to get to the big leagues. Getting drafted obviously gets you one step closer to achieving your dream. For young kids just getting drafted, I'd say, 'Just keep your eyes and ears open, and learn as much as you can as fast as you can.'"
And if any draftees are listening, they'd be hard pressed to find a better role model. Wood, the 1998 National League Rookie of the Year Award winner and a two-time All-Star, led the NL in strikeouts in 2003. Later in his career, he overcame numerous injuries to reinvent himself as a reliever and saved 34 games in 2008.
Now, at age 35, Wood has come full circle. The right-hander returned to the Cubs and retired during the 2012 campaign, and now spends his time running a charitable foundation and coaching his son's Little League team. Still, Wood can easily look back 18 years to his own experience.
"For me, it was more of a shock just leaving home. It was the first time," he said of turning pro. "I had never gone to college, so I had never had my own place. You go off with other 18-year-olds and you get a place together, and that's where responsibility comes in. If you've got four or five 18-year-olds living together in a condo in Daytona Beach, one of you has to have a good head on their shoulders. That's when you find out about being professional and what the MLB logo really means."
Bunning, who played before the Draft era and later went on to a successful post-playing career in the House of Representatives and Senate representing his home state of Kentucky, said he was thrilled to represent the Phillies at Thursday's Draft. Bunning, who made his big league debut in 1955 and left the Senate in 2011, said that the process may be different, but that he still sees similarities to his era.
"It's the same thing it was when I was taken as a free agent," he said. "They had limits on the amount of money you could get or you got placed at a certain level of play. If you got $6,000 as a bonus when I signed, you had to stay at the Major League level for a full year. I signed a high [Class] A contract, and they optioned me to Class D. They used up three of my options my first three years in baseball. And they had three more Major League options. In my first full season in the Majors, I won 20 games. I think I was ready, but nobody would hand me the ball. That was the biggest problem."
For Thomas, the Draft is where it all began. The five-time All-Star and two-time American League Most Valuable Player Award winner said he can remember everything stopping in his world for a week before the Draft. Now, he's representing the White Sox and potentially waiting for a summons to Cooperstown.
Thomas, who ranks 18th all-time with 521 career home runs, said he doesn't think much about the Hall of Fame, but acknowledged it's a popular topic around the game. The Draft, however, is a different story, and Thomas was happy to talk about it.
"Being drafted is everything. I don't care where you go," said Thomas, the seventh overall pick in 1989. "It's all about being drafted and getting your name called. All of the kids want to be a first-rounder, but everybody isn't going to be a first-rounder. Just expect that if you do get drafted, you'll be taken care of comfortably and you'll get a chance to pursue your dream."
Clark, the second overall pick in 1985, said things have changed demonstrably since his era. Clark, a six-time All-Star, said he was drafted the morning of a College World Series game and celebrated by going 3-for-4 with a home run for Mississippi State.
The former first baseman now works as a special assistant for the Giants, and he'll spend some time scouting the team's low Class A affiliates after the Draft. But when it comes to advice for draftees, said Clark, it's easy: Just keep working as hard as you did to get to this point.
"Whoever moves up the ladder the quickest is the guy that put the work in on the field and makes the adjustments on the field the quickest," said Clark, an NL Gold Glove winner in 1991. "That would be my big advice: Get it done on the field. Do what you need to do in order to get it done out there."
And lest you think the Draft is all about the early picks, there's the saga of David Eckstein. Eckstein, a 19th-round selection out of the University of Florida in 1997, got everything out of his ability and was later named the MVP of the 2006 World Series. Eckstein said he was working out when he got drafted, and that he was thrilled to hear the news from a Boston scout.
"I was just so thrilled because I wasn't sure if I was going to be drafted," said Eckstein. "This game allows the person who goes out there and plays the hardest a chance to play."
Most of these players came by their perspective the hard way -- through time and separation from the glory years of their life. The recently-retired Wood said that everything means more as your career begins to wind down, and he said he'll never forget the people who helped him reach his peak.
"I think you look back and you appreciate all the opportunities you were given and all the things you were able to do in the game," said Wood. "You appreciate the process you went through to getting to the big leagues and all of that stuff.
"I was fortunate to have Lester Strode as my bullpen coach the last five or six years, and he'd been in our organization forever. We had battles in [Class] A ball and Double-A over fixing mechanics, but we put the work in. And he put in time away from his family. You appreciate the process of what other guys went through. It was nice full circle, for me to be able to shake his hand before I went in for my last game. We put in a good run, 17 years."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com.