When Jim Thome told kids never to stop dreaming big and working hard, he wasn’t just saying the things you’d expect to hear in a Hall of Fame speech. He was speaking from tireless experience. He had been a 13th-round draft pick, which is to glamor what a turnip is to a precious gem.
Thome not only made it to the big leagues from that middling beginning, but he ended up hitting 612 home runs, the eighth-most in history.
One of the cool things about baseball is that as long as you have talent, desire and a dogged work ethic, you can break free from the constraints of your draft position. Not always, but often enough to make a prospect stick with it. If that was ever in doubt, Sunday ended the discussion once and for all.
David Bote, the Cubs’ 18th-round pick in the 2012 draft, hit a pinch-hit, walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Nationals. The baseball world still was buzzing about it days afterward.
Adam Engel, the White Sox’ 19th-round pick in the 2013 draft, made a leaping catch to rob the Indians’ Yonder Alonso of a homer. It was his third such rob-job in a week.
Bote was the 554th player taken in 2012 and Engel the 573rd player taken the next year. If that wouldn’t make you feel like a number, nothing would. But this is baseball, and anything is possible — or at least more possible than in the other major sports. It certainly isn’t the NBA, where getting drafted in the second round of the two-round draft often means a life on the end of the bench or in the G League. In the NFL, Tom Brady is the ultimate rags-to-riches story, and he was a sixth-round pick.
If David Bote had introduced himself to Cubs fans on the street a year ago, they would have said, ‘‘I loved you in your Ziggy Stardust phase’’ or ‘‘I thought you were dead.’’ Now the rookie is hitting .333 after 35 major-league games, and some fans think there’s a good chance he’s Kris Bryant’s long-lost brother.
Sometimes teams will draft a player in a low round, hoping he’ll take the bait instead of going to or returning to college. Many times, however, teams just don’t know what they have in a player. Drafting is still an inexact science, despite the all-out analytical effort to quantify potential. And even though the 18th and 19th rounds look like flyover territory, they’re not. Engel was considered a good prospect at Louisville because of his speed and fielding, but he struggled at the plate for most of his junior year. Hence, his low draft position.
First-round picks usually get the benefit of the doubt on their journey because organizations have invested a lot of money in them. But teams also will stick with an 18th-round pick if they see potential and progress. Bote’s early minor-league career didn’t give much of an indication that his Cubs teammates someday would be mobbing him after a game-winning grand slam with two outs in the bottom of the ninth at Wrigley Field.
He hit .232 in rookie ball in 2012, .227 in three Class A stops in 2013, .235 mostly in Class A ball in 2014 and .251 for the Cubs’ Class A affiliate in South Bend in 2015. He finally broke through in 2016, hitting .337 in 72 games for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans in advanced Class A ball.
You wouldn’t think someone with that record would be deemed major-league material. But he did fairly well in 2017 at Class AA Tennessee (.272, 14 home runs and 59 RBI), and Bryant’s shoulder problems this season meant the Cubs needed someone who could play third base.
It’s a sport that rewards talent but also rewards people with the resolve to stick with the tedious life of being a minor-league ballplayer.
There are 40 rounds in the draft, a lot of minor-league rosters to fill and, if a player is lucky, enough time to develop and catch someone’s eye. It’s why Mark Buehrle could be taken in the 38th round in 1998 yet win 214 major-league games, a total that included a perfect game and a no-hitter. The Cubs’ Ryne Sandberg was a 20th-round pick (of the Phillies) and is in the Hall of Fame. Mark Grace was the Cubs’ 24th-round pick in 1985.
There used to be 75 rounds in the draft, which is how the Dodgers could take future Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza in the 62nd round in 1988.
You never know.
‘‘I still can’t believe this has happened to me, a 13th-round draft pick out of central Illinois,’’ Thome said last month in Cooperstown, New York. ‘‘To every kid that is dreaming of standing here one day, take it one moment at a time. Don’t sail too high or sink too low. Learn to be good at handling failure. Be the first one to the ballpark. Be the last one to leave. Work hard, don’t complain, be a great teammate.’’
Because you never know — and you really never know in baseball.