When collectors began sizing-up this year's crop of potentially lucrative rookie baseball cards at the start of spring training, there was one face that "drew" all of the attention.
St. Louis Cardinals poster boy J.D. Drew was considered a can't-miss hit as the rookie-of-the-year in major league baseball, and his card attracted the most interest from fans and collectors alike. And why not?
Drew had a spectacular career as a collegian at Florida State and was a first round draft pick of the Philadelphia Phillies two years ago. Trouble was, Drew didn't want to play with the Phillies and opted not to sign with the National League club. His boycott of Philadelphia earned him national attention - and not always positive media coverage. He elected to sign an independent minor league contract with St. Paul, where he sharpened his skills and awaited another chance to enter the major league draft.
Which is what he did, and he got his wish. The Cardinals used their first-round pick to select Drew and, more importantly, were able to convince his agent, Scott Boras, to accept a $10 million multi-year contract -- almost unheard of for a player who had yet to get even a bunt single in the major leagues. Drew didn't disappoint. He lit up the minor leagues last summer, and when he drew a September visit with the Cardinals, he batted well over .300 as a starter and banged out 5 home runs. Of course, those 5 round-trippers were generally overlooked, because a fellow that collectors know much better, Mark McGwire, was continuing his assault on 70 home runs.
But Drew's performance made him a can't-miss prospect in the always risky venture of rookie baseball cards. Risky, because minor league statistics can often by misleading - a player who hits homers and drives-in runs in the more cramped ballparks of the minors can often find the more spacious surroundings in the majors a more difficult arena. Also, as bad as major league pitching has been over the past several years, it is still better than what even the best minor leaguers face on a day-to-day basis.
Still, collectors could take heart in Drew's performance in spring training when he batted well over .400 for the first several weeks of the season. Why not try to land a Drew card, knowing it was the first step toward a big investment?
However, something happened on the way to Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame for Drew this year. He fell victim to what happens to many rookies: He couldn't hit. He languished under .200, the well-known "Mendoza" line of baseball, and couldn't muster much power. An opening-day starter, Drew began to be platooned so he wouldn't have to face left-handed pitching. Then a shoulder injury sidelined him in mid-May, and he went on the disabled list.
Drew may still be able to turn it around this year, catch fire, and make those who invested in him breathe a sigh of relief. Ironically, the best investment for collectors in rookie cards may be also wearing St. Louis colors.
Joe McEwing, a six-year veteran of the minor leagues who was considered a long-shot to make the Cardinals' roster, was as hot as Drew was cold in the first two months of the season. He was among the league leaders in hitting until a couple of weeks ago, but his .320 average at the start of the week still made him the rookie with the highest average in the National League. A McEwing card - if anyone was able to find it - could be a real collector's item if the second baseman continues to perform on this level.
Unfortunately, it is a generally mediocre year for rookies in the majors thus far, which is good and bad news for collectors. Good news, if you were able to find the card (or autograph or memorabilia) of an untested and generally unheralded player like McEwing at the start of the season; bad news, if you went out and bought up rookie cards of players who were supposed to perform in their first year like Drew.
In the American League, outfielder Trot Nixon of the Red Sox has been up and down on a surprisingly good Boston team. Gabe Kapler of Detroit came into the season with Drew-like credentials, but started the season in the minors and has struggled since being recalled by the Tigers. Carlos Guillen, considered the top rookie in the AL this year, was hurt in the first month of the season - also a drawback for rookie card collectors - and may not return this season.
In the National League, pitcher Matt Clement of the defending NL champion San Diego Padres was supposed to be the top rookie pitcher of the league; the first two months he had just one win. Same for Atlanta hurler Bruce Chen, who was supposed to join the Braves' great stable of starters, only to start the season in the minors.
But there have been some surprises along with McEwing. Tampa Bay pitcher Mike Duvall and Cincinnati's Scott Williamson have been among the most consistent pitchers out of the bullpen. Both the White Sox and Kansas City Royals have produced potentially outstanding rookies in the Sox's Carlos Lee and the Royals' tandem of second baseman Carlos Feebles and outfielder Carlos Beltran.
It's still early, and some other surprises could develop. But rookies, like their cards, can often appreciate over the years. After all, Ken Griffey, Jr., Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Greg Maddux and Tony Gwynn may all be headed toward the Hall of Fame after they retire - and none ever earned rookie-of-the-year honors.
Randy Minkoff is a former reporter, writer, editor and author, with more than three decades of journalism experience and a unique combination of both print and broadcasting. As a writer, Minkoff is a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, and Crain's Chicago Business. He has been syndicated nationally as a radio/TV critic and has also written a weekly column for the Daily Herald. He is the author of Ron Santo; For Love of Ivy, the biography of the former Cub third baseman and his battle against diabetes. A native of St. Louis, Mo., he is a graduate of Drake University School of Journalism.