As baseball draft approaches, former HS picks look back Print
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Wednesday, 06 June 2007 06:45
MLB Headline News

 CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) -In a cozy stadium nestled under the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, where sack races are held between innings and every foul ball has a fast-food sponsor, Ben Davis is trying to get back to the majors.
The second overall pick by San Diego in the 1995 draft, Davis was a high school player of the year at nearby Malvern Prep and a can't-miss catcher destined for the majors. He was an everyday major leaguer at the age of 22. Now, across the river and couple miles down the highway from a big league park in Philadelphia, he is trying to make his return.
``I'm still only 30 years old,'' Davis said. ``I have six years in the big leagues. There's a lot more I want to accomplish in this game and hopefully this will be a steppingstone for that.''
While many high schoolers selected in the first round - Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Joe Mauer, Ken Griffey Jr. and others - have gone on to become household names, others, like Davis, have not.
Just over 60 percent of high school players picked in the first round in the 1990s made the major leagues, according to Rany Jazayerli of Baseball Prospectus. This year's draftees may face slightly better odds, but some could end up like Davis: journeymen riding the bus, hoping for one more shot.
Davis and former schoolboy stars Josh McKinley and Matt White all had dreams out of high school of long careers in major league baseball. Even though they never turned into superstars, they all told The Associated Press they have no regrets about skipping college ball to take a shot at the big leagues.
Davis is the only one still playing baseball, in his first season for the Camden Riversharks of the independent Atlantic League. McKinley and White were both first-round picks but never made it to the majors. They played their final games as pros by the time they were 26.
It would be unfair to call Davis a bust. He spent six seasons with San Diego, Seattle and the Chicago White Sox, hitting .237 with 38 home runs and 204 RBIs in 486 career games. After injuring his arm in 2005 and undergoing Tommy John surgery, he is still hoping to catch on with a major league team.
White was drafted seventh overall in 1996 but became a free agent as a result of a contractual loophole and signed a lucrative deal with Tampa Bay. He retired last year after three shoulder surgeries robbed him of his once-overpowering fastball and went back to school. Today, he's working on his degree at Georgia and coaching high school ball.
McKinley, who graduated from Malvern Prep three years after Davis and was drafted 11th overall, bounced around Montreal's farm system and was traded twice before injury forced him to decide between demotion or retirement. A year away from a degree in international business at Florida Atlantic, he doesn't play at all anymore. Instead, he spends much of his free time surfing.
Their experiences show being a high draft pick is no guarantee of big league success - particularly when trying to make the jump from high school to the pros. Unlike the NFL or NBA, Major League Baseball has no restrictions against drafting high school players.
But even without any guarantee they'd ever make it, all three thought it was worth the risk.
``When you'd ask me when I was a kid in Little League, what are you going to be when you grow up, I said I'm going to be a baseball player,'' Davis said. ``I figured, why not start that right after high school?''
While Davis said he was prepared mentally for the rigors of moving away from home and being on the road for long stretches, it was still a shock.
``It was a big change, signing out of high school,'' Davis said. ``I went to a small school in Pennsylvania and going to professional baseball you've got college guys and all that kinds of stuff. It was a lot more difficult than I thought it was going to be.''
The hardest challenge Davis faced was lacking the physical maturity of his fellow players.
``Physically I wasn't there. I don't think physically I was there until two years ago,'' said Davis. ``I graduated high school at 6-2, 170. Now I'm 6-4, 240.''
At 18 years old, Davis was playing against grown men.
``They basically had a man's body and me being a tall, lanky kid it just took me a while to grow into my body and get that 'man strength.'''
McKinley faced similar physical obstacles - he would lose 10 to 15 pounds a year in his first few seasons because his body couldn't withstand the rigors of pro ball - but position changes and injuries were tough to handle.
McKinley, now 27, feels he could still be playing professionally, but decided to give up baseball and go back to school - a move he knew would become harder as he got older. He refused to be a journeyman.
``My first year in Double-A, I was 22 and there's guys who are 30, 32 years old,'' McKinley said. ``Right away I said that's not going to be me.''
At least McKinley was able to leave the game on his own terms. White, now 28, didn't have that option - his body made the decision for him.
Drafted seventh overall by San Francisco in 1996, White was granted free agency when the Giants didn't offer him a contract after 15 days. Suddenly on the open market, White signed a contract with the Devil Rays that included a signing bonus of more than $10 million.
In 2000, he felt a sharp tug in the back of his arm. Three surgeries later, his career was over. He retired last year.
``I had done everything I could to try to make it better and it still was breaking down,'' White said. ``I wanted to be able to play catch with my kids someday.
``If I kept going, you never know. I could have permanent-type damage. Those are the types of things that go through your head.''
Like McKinley, White also struggled with coaching - but for a different reason. Coaches overloaded him with advice, he thinks possibly because it would help their careers.
``Coaches kind of want to have their imprint on you,'' he said. ``A lot of coaches felt like if they got me pitching well, they could maybe advance their career.''
No matter where they've ended up, all three players view their experience positively. For White and McKinley, baseball provided them with financial security, the opportunity to make a living playing the game they love and a college education. Davis got the money, too, and has opted for another shot at the majors.
``This is my life. This is the profession I've chosen,'' said Davis, sitting in the dugout of the cozy stadium on the minor league side of the river. ``This is all I know and this is all I want to do.''
 

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