Glory Days

The Sad Case of JD Drew

I struggle to find a more polarising baseball figure than one David Jonathan Drew. The former All-Star right-fielder, better known as JD, spent his entire career amid a dichotomy of public opinion. To the majority, JD Drew was a sensitive, selfish, injury-prone bust whose sole motivation was financial. He disliked baseball; he lacked passion; he was soft. The minority, of which I’m pleased to be a part, see an immensely-talented World Series champion robbed by injury and media vilification of the opportunity to ever fulfill his true potential. He was meticulous rather than flashy; he was a five-tool contributor; he was exciting. JD Drew was the most misunderstood and under-appreciated star in recent baseball history.

In a fourteen year Major League career spent with four elite franchises, JD Drew hit more home runs than Hall of Famers Roy Campanella, Paul Molitor and Roberto Clemente, won a World Series ring with the Boston Red Sox, and produced statistics comparable to media darlings such as Rick Monday and Rick Monday. However, he was rarely afforded the same praise and acceptance as those aforementioned players. On the contrary, JD Drew was vilified by members of the media who were made to look foolish as the outfielder failed to live up to the ludicrous expectations which they helped to create. In Drew, many writers saw a precocious stud who had ripped the collegiate record books apart. Therefore, the outfielder made for great copy, with writers almost mythologizing his skills and stoking the fires of expectation. When Drew performed only at a solid Major League standard, rather than to the Mantle-esque proportions which many commentators had promised, he was effectively blacklisted. The experts felt that Drew had made them look foolish. In return, the blonde-haired phenom was given little room for failure, with his image and legacy always judged against an unfair backdrop of what JD Drew should have been.

Even though Drew was a Dodger when I first began casually watching baseball in 2005, it was as a Red Sock that I remember him fondly. I recall watching games, yearning for JD Drew to bust open and let all of his immense talent pour forth without care. It always seemed like the handbrake was on, with a barrier preventing Drew from just unleashing a full-on assault at the baseball history books. In my mind, he undoubtedly had the potential to join the 40-40 club. He relied on sound hitting mechanics and a keen batting eye rather than brute strength and androstenedione; a key factor in my immense respect for JD Drew. I always believed that he would, at some point, finally crack the code and join the elite echelon for which he always appeared destined. In retrospect, it’s kind of strange that I never doubted JD Drew, even as millions of people all over the world did. I was always supportive of him, always on his side, always hoping that he would succeed. At times, he did appear distant and languid, but this didn’t register as a negative in my mind. On the contrary, I thought it was fascinating, with Drew preserving such an even-keeled approach. In his steely blue eyes, there was always an alertness and intensity which told me that this did matter to him. It’s a shame that more people couldn’t just appreciate his performance without juxtaposing it with the over-inflated, media-wrought expectations.

JD Drew was a lifetime .276 Major League hitter, with 242 home runs and a .384 OBP. After infamously rejecting to sign with the Phillies after being drafted in 1997, Drew eventually progressed through the Cardinals organisation and became a very productive player in St Louis. In time, the Georgia native would also play for his hometown Braves and the Dodgers before winning a World Series with the Red Sox in 2007. Drew came up clutch in that postseason, launching a Grand Slam in Game 6 of the ALCS with Boston facing elimination. He was also the All-Star Game MVP in 2008.

However, these accomplishments are easily forgotten by those who personally dislike JD Drew. The oral history of baseball overlooks these achievements and simply condemns JD Drew as injury-prone. Sure, we can all state the obvious: this is a guy who was beat-up a lot during his career. Drew never played more than 146 games in a season, enduring numerous spells on the disabled list with nagging shoulder and hamstring ailments in addition to bizarre fractures and contusions. It’s true that, combined, he missed almost four complete seasons of baseball through injury. There is no other way to spin it: JD Drew was injury-prone. However, I take umbrage with the common assessment that Drew was soft and didn’t care about missing time. The perception of JD Drew in Boston is that of a cry-baby, who took himself out of games at the merest twinge or innocuously swollen eyelid. In certain instances, this may have been true, but so it is of many players. When it mattered the most, during the 2007 postseason, JD Drew produced, a fact which is all too often forgotten. Further, many argue that he hustled and gave his all in contract years, when the allure of big off-season money became bright. Again, every impending free agent is guilty of this but, because it’s the blonde recluse in right field, things need to get personal and vindictive. It’s deeply unfair.

The roots of this career-long character assassination lie in Drew’s aforementioned collegiate success. In concise terms, JD Drew was the most-hyped player in the history of baseball’s MLB Draft. After discovering baseball whilst playing with siblings and neighbours in the cow pastures of his small Georgia town of Hahira, Drew wound up under the tutelage of Mike Martin at Florida State University, where he re-wrote the annals of history. A phenomenal 1997 season was unlike anything the University circuit had ever seen; Drew becoming the first player in College baseball history to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same season, whilst batting a record .455 and getting on base at a mesmeric .604 clip through 233 at-bats. Drew also became just the third player to record a triple-100 college season, with 100 hits, runs and RBI. As his mythical reputation grew, Drew established seventeen Florida State and ACC records, whilst being named 1997 Player of the Year by Baseball America, Collegiate Baseball, The Sporting News, and the ACC, in addition to receiving the illustrious Dick Howser and Golden Spikes Awards.

Accordingly, Scott Boras came calling. The super agent helped harness Drew’s precocious talent and assign it a dollar valuation. It was decided that the prized outfielder would not sign for less than $10m through the 1997 Draft, an unprecedented figure for that age. The Detroit Tigers were sufficiently worried, selecting pitcher Matt Anderson with the overall pick and avoiding confrontational negotiations. In a similar vein, the Phillies had no intentions of splashing out such an exorbitant sum, no matter Drew’s college acumen. Nonetheless, Philadelphia drafted the outfielder second overall, in a bid to call Boras’ bluff. When the Phillies offered little over $3m, Drew was steadfast, electing to join the independent St Paul Saints rather than return to FSU or accept Philadelphia’s offer. It was the first step on a map of controversy, and one which made Drew the recipient of taunts and thrown projectiles in Philadelphia throughout his career.

The mythology accompanying JD Drew’s ability grew only bigger with the Saints; his impressive .341/.433/.706 slash line with 18 home runs and 50 RBI in just 44 games raising yet more executive eyebrows and making people believe that he may be worth Boras money after all. In 1998, Drew joined a select group of players drafted twice in the First Round, when the Cardinals selected him fifth overall. A $7m deal saw Drew finally turn professional, amid much fanfare and giddy comparisons to Mickey Mantle.

After a brief tune-up at Triple A, during which time he hit .316 through 26 games, Drew made his Major League debut as Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris’ single-season home run record. It was perhaps the only time he would be afforded shelter from the glaring spotlight of fan and media interest for the next fourteen years.

In truth, JD Drew’s main problem was generational. Yes, he was often injured. Yes, he struggled to live up to the hype. Yes, he sometimes flattered to deceive. However, he was the quintessential Moneyball player, back when that was more barb than complement. Drew got on base at a tremendous rate, as his career .384 OBP demonstrates. He played flawless defense with exceptional range at all outfield positions. He worked the count, drew walks, made solid contact. In short, he was Billy Beane’s dream player years before Billy Beane and the sabermetricians even knew it.

Therefore, JD Drew was perpetually undervalued. In St Louis, he averaged 18 home runs, 53 RBI and a .280/.375/.491 slash line over five full seasons. At various points, Drew came close to appeasing the critics, with as many as 27 home runs and a 1.027 OPS. However, a frustrating relationship with Tony La Russa hinged on Drew’s inability to play a full season and show a necessary level of passion. As the Pujols-Rolen-Edmonds core grew into the ascendancy in St Louis, Drew became expendable. In the December 2003, he was packaged with catcher Eli Marrero and sent to the Braves for Jason Marquis, Ray King and Adam Wainwright.

Atlanta got an entire season of the JD Drew many expected whilst he tore College baseball apart. Drew finally managed to stay healthy, playing in 145 games for Bobby Cox. He honed an impressive .305/.436/.569 slash line with a 1.006 OPS, in addition to 31 home runs and 93 RBI. JD Drew had finally arrived.

No sooner had Drew unleashed his considerable talent on the baseball world, then injury shot him down. After signing a lucrative five-year free agent contract with the Dodgers, Drew’s 2005 season was halted after just seventy-two games, a pitched ball off his wrist thwarting what appeared to be another promising campaign. Drew performed adequately in his second year with Los Angeles, reaching the 100 RBI plateau for the first time in his career and slugging twenty home runs before controversially exercising an escape clause in his contract to become a free agent. I believe this is where the perception of JD Drew as a mercenary was derived. In his choosing to elect free agency, Drew had alienated many fans and opened himself to a new world of criticism. Now, in addition to being injury-prone, Drew was also over-paid.

Except, he wasn’t. JD Drew never ranked amongst the top ten best-paid players in baseball. JD Drew outperformed his market-value Dodgers contract. JD Drew only twice in fourteen years ranked as the highest paid player on his own team. Again, he is the victim of lazy analysis and general dislike amongst the baseball-watching public.

Whilst many a Bostonian uses JD Drew as a human dartboard, conveniently forgetting his many invaluable contributions to championship-calibre ballclubs, I cherish many happy memories of watching him play. I vividly recall his oxymoronic swing connecting for the second of four straight Red Sox home runs against the Yankees in 2007, and the bedlam which engulfed Fenway Park. It was the second time Drew had been part of a four-straight set of home runs, having turned the trick with LA a year earlier. I also remember Drew launching a 500-foot home run, the third longest blast in Fenway history. He hit many dingers over 500 feet, in St Louis, LA and Boston, but nobody cares to remember those. My crowning JD Drew memory, however, would have to be his Grand Slam in Game Six of the 2007 ALCS against the Cleveland Indians. With the Red Sox facing elimination, Drew came to the plate amid a cauldron of noise and expectation. It was a perfect microcosm of his career. However, this time, just for once, JD Drew morphed into the picture-book superstar everybody said he would be. As he pounced on a hanging Fausto Carmona pitch right down the middle and drove it 415 foot out to centre field at Fenway Park, JD Drew was on top of the world. He was back at FSU for a moment, with the universe rotating around his skill. After years of battling to reach the summit of expectation, JD had finally conquered it. Even if it was for just three small minutes.

After the Sox went on to win the World Series against Colorado, Drew had checked another item off the list. He stormed the All-Star Game the following year, with a seventh-inning, two-run jack earning him MVP honours. In all honesty, JD Drew put up some of his most consistent seasons at a Red Sock, with some very good numbers. If we rule out his sad and complicated 2011 season, Drew averaged a .271/.378/.479 slash line, with 19 home runs and 66 RBI. Whilst he was no David Ortiz, he was also no Alex Cora. On a baseball field, Drew was good at everything, but great at nothing. When viewed in the context of the crippling hype which only intensified throughout his career, and the financial outlay of various Front Offices, those results don’t look particularly awesome. When viewed in isolation, without any oppressive influence, it becomes apparent that JD Drew was a pretty good ballplayer.

The disrespectful malaise which greeted Drew’s retirement in 2011 was par for the course. In the end, very few people liked JD. However, a few facts single him out and raise his legacy in my estimation. A career WAR of 44.8 ranks Drew 240th all-time, better than Nomar Garciaparra, David Ortiz and Jimmy Rollins; Jose Canseco, Andy Van Slyke and Tony Oliva; Don Mattingly, Red Schoendienst and Rocky Colavito. In fact, Drew’s career WAR is better than at least 30 Hall of Famers. At .384, JD currently has the same career On-base Percentage as Alex Rodriguez, good for 143rd all-time and better than Derek Jeter, David Wright and Bernie Williams; Mike Schmidt, Carl Yastrzemski and Nap Lajoie; Vladimir Guerrero, Mike Piazza and Hank Aaron. I could go on and on and on. These rankings, in accordance with his World Series ring, All-Star Game MVP Award, Postseason Grand Slam, and occasional feats of prodigious power make JD Drew a borderline Hall of Famer. The mainstream will make sure he never gets there, but I’m leading the campaign.

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