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The Misinterpreted J.D. Drew

09.01.09 at 6:00 am ET
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You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone on a more even keel than J.D. Drew.

He’s not one for throwing his helmet in disgust after striking out, nor is he the kind of guy who’ll give a little fist pump after belting a homerun to deep right field.

No, Drew is more composed. He’s the guy who’ll hardly ever flash a smile, let alone celebrate an impressive play. Case in point:

August 7, 2009. The Red Sox and Yankees are each scoreless through 14 innings in the Bronx. It’s the second game of a crucial four-game series for these two AL East foes, and both teams are exhausted after playing over a game and a half’s worth of baseball. In the bottom of the 14th with runners on first and second, Yankees outfielder Eric Hinske crushes a 2-2 pitch to right. Just as it seems like New York is walking off with the victory, Drew sprints to the wall, fully extending every limb on his body, and swiftly snatches the ball from thin air before landing gracefully and tossing it back. Hinske’s out, the dance goes on.

Often misinterpreted and misjudged, J.D. Drew has been the victim of unwarranted criticism for years.

Often misinterpreted and misjudged, J.D. Drew has been the victim of unwarranted criticism for years.

One man single-handedly deflates an entire stadium.

As Hinske skulks backs to the dugout in disbelief, shaking his head and swearing like a sailor along the way, Drew remains in right field just chewing his bubble gum and looking as calm and collected as he did before.

“On the field he’s almost surgeon-like,” said Marty Scott, Drew’s coach with the independent Northern League St. Paul Saints in 1997. “He’s just meticulous in his play, but again, you’ll never see him upset and you’ll never see him overly happy.”

For Drew, making plays and scoring runs is all part of his job description, which is why he fails to see the need for celebration.

“As a player it’s your responsibility to do certain things,” Drew said. “So when you do them, it’s just kind of what you expect of yourself. There’s no reason to go crazy.”

But his no-nonsense stoicism has been the subject of much criticism over the years. He’s widely perceived as someone who not only lacks emotion, but someone who as a player doesn’t exert himself to his fullest potential – a guy who does the least with the most.

A recent Sports Illustrated Players Poll surveyed 380 MLB players on this very question: “Who gets the least out of the most talent?” Drew tied Elijah Dukes for third place with six percent of the vote.

“He has the Eddie Murray curse,” said former Red Sox teammate Curt Schilling. “He’s so gifted and such a great athlete that at times he looks like he’s moving at a slower pace, when he isn’t.

“Quiet country boy who never gets too high or too low. It’s a blessing and a curse in a town that cherishes players that wear their hearts on their sleeves, and is reviled by players that don’t shout and scream and show emotion.”

Drew has always been this way, according to former teammates and coaches. He’s just a good old South Georgia boy who doesn’t drink, smoke, cuss, or chase women. Never has, never will. A man of profound religious conviction, he loves Jesus, hunting, and above all else, his family.

Despite all of this, Drew is often vilified. Since his contract debacle with the Phillies following the 1997 draft, the mainstream media and fans have painted Drew as a soldier of fortune. Combine that with the perception that he doesn’t care about baseball, doesn’t make the most of his infinite talents, and is both soft and oft injured, and you get the common misconception that has become Drew’s prevalent reputation.

It’s not that he’s really any of these things – he’s simply been misjudged.

But what’s more is that Drew is an anomaly: He’s an upstanding citizen in a sporting culture that, of late, seems morally bankrupt. Be it Vick, Pitino, or just about any one of the admitted steroid-users – the world of sports has been recently marred by immense scandal and tainted for years to come.

Enter Drew.

He might not be the next Mother Theresa, but he certainly possesses the good-natured qualities any parent might want in an athlete their kid is emulating.

JUST A SMALL TOWN BOY

Millions of dollars and nationwide superstardom haven’t changed J.D. Drew all that much. He’s still the same unassuming, churchgoing kid from Hahira – the tiny Southern Georgia city with a population of just under 1700 people.

“J.D.’s town only has one fire truck,” said Mike Martin, head coach at Florida State University where he coached Drew from 1995-1997. “And that truck doesn’t even have wheels.”

Drew and his brothers Tim and Stephen are the unbridled pride of Hahira. All three have played Major League baseball (J.D. and Stephen are still playing), and they’re by far some of the most accomplished residents the little-known community has ever produced.

The three brothers even have their own section on the Hahira Official City Website, right up there with Medical Facilities, City Officials, and History.

“Hahira’s citizens are proud of the accomplishments of the Drew brothers and their hard working family’s contribution to our community and nation,” the town’s website states. “They are an example of the all American family that make our country great.”

The place is littered with signs that read “Hahira – Home to the Drew Brothers,” said Danny Redshaw, J.D.’s coach during his younger days in Little League.

According to Redshaw, Drew was that kid on every one of his Little League teams: The one who carried the rest and seemed always to shoulder the responsibility of winning, “a natural from the get-go.” But most importantly, Redshaw said, he was kindhearted.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard or seen him do anything that wasn’t part of his Christian character,” he said. “That’s just the way he’s always been.”

A few years later in high school, Drew continued to thrive on the field playing for Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Ga. It was during those formative years that he elected to pursue baseball as far as he could, which ultimately led to his decision to attend Florida State and play under Coach Mike Martin.

“Going to college, I didn’t plan to major in anything but baseball,” Drew joked.

THE NEXT MICKEY MANTLE

In college, Drew was a standout from the beginning.

“When he hit a ball, the ball just left his bat so differently than it did anybody else’s,” Martin said.

Though he enjoyed a successful campaign during his freshman year, Drew became a national standout during the College World Series in Omaha where he batted .636 and hit a record three homers in a single game against USC.

Then-teammate and longtime friend Brooks Badeaux likens Drew’s record-setting performance to that of Reggie Jackson when he hit three consecutive homeruns in Game Six of the 1977 World Series and “each one was a little more dramatic than the one before.” But above all else, Badeaux remembers Drew’s nonchalance in spite of his success.

“He was just sitting in the dugout flicking sunflower seeds,” Badeaux said. “Someone came up to him and said, ‘Do you know you’ve got two homeruns already?’ And he just said, ‘Get a few more guys on base and I’ll hit you another one.’ Sure enough, he did.

“He was just quietly confident. Everybody knew he was the best player on the team, but he never needed to talk about it or anything.”

Drew continued his impressive college baseball career through his junior year, when he hit .455 and became the first player in NCAA history to hit 30 homeruns and steal 30 bases in the same season. Moreover, the young slugger racked up numerous awards and accolades, including the Dick Howser Trophy, the Golden Spikes Award and College Baseball Player of the Year from both Collegiate Baseball and Baseball America. Coach Martin maintains that “what he did during his last year at Florida State will probably never again be matched.”

The comparisons to baseball legends of old seemed to be on the tip of anyone’s tongue whenever they mentioned Drew: Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, and most notably, Mickey Mantle.

Another small town boy who made it big, Mantle went on to become not only a Yankees legend but also one of the greatest hitters of all time.

“The Mantle comparisons when he first came into the league were, in my opinion, legitimate,” Schilling said.

Still, even with the weighty comparisons slapped on him, Drew never felt the pressure and remained humble throughout.

“I think it’s an incredible honor,” he said. “But I don’t think by any means that I’ve got 500 plus career homeruns in my arsenal, or the ability to switch-hit. I haven’t quite figured that one out yet.”

And with that, the quiet young star from the little town of Hahira went on to pursue bigger and better things in the Major Leagues. But the boy from humble Georgia beginnings and good Christian roots had no idea of the trials and tribulations he was about to encounter.

THE PROSECUTION OF J.D. DREW

Drafted with the second overall pick in the 1997 MLB draft, Drew was about to embark on his professional career with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Except there was one minor snag: the two sides couldn’t agree on a deal.

While Phillies management offered a signing bonus of over $2 million, Drew and super agent Scott Boras stuck to their guarantee that they would not sign for less than $10 million. The two sides were never able to meet in the middle, and just like that Drew went from college baseball legend to public enemy number one in Philadelphia. In a city known for its brotherly love, there was none to be spared for J.D. Drew.

Then-Phillies pitcher Curt Schilling was among the most vocal of the Drew bashers, stating that the next time Drew came to play in Philly, “they better issue him a helmet with double ear-flaps.”

“My criticism and issue had much more to do with Scott Boras than J.D.,” Schilling said. “Yes, I thought J.D. was old enough to be making his own decisions, but I think Scott advises his clients in a very bad way when it comes to the draft and starting their pro careers. I have always felt he does an immense disservice to drafted players in trying to bleed every last penny from teams.

“I spoke with J.D. when he was in St. Louis and I was in Arizona and apologized for any issues I might have added to his situation. It was hard on him in Philly and in many other cities, and I felt bad that I had some sort of hand in making it worse.”

Being a good friend of Drew’s, Badeaux said people were constantly asking him about the ordeal.

“I’d tell them this,” Badeaux said. “If you put $3 million on one table and $8 million on another, I don’t think I’d be wrong in assuming that every single American would go to the $8 million table. So now all of a sudden he’d become a bad person for getting what he’s worth.”

Though he wishes the events had unfolded differently, Drew looks at the positive outcomes of the botched contract negotiations.

“The whole thing was completely business-related,” Drew said. “We were upfront and honest with a bunch of teams, and Philly elected to choose me with their second pick knowing good and well what the number was out there. From one thing to the next, it was really a downward spiral.

“I would’ve preferred if we had gotten the deal done and I would’ve gone on playing, but I got to play for Marty Scott in St. Paul for the end of the season there and the beginning of the next, and it was really great. So it all worked out.”

Drew spent the next year with St. Paul of the independent Northern League. There, he was clearly unmatched as he hit 18 homers while batting .318 in only 44 games.

He reentered the draft in 1998, this time signing with the St. Louis Cardinals after they selected him with the fifth overall pick.

Just 45 minor-league games later, Drew had been called up to play with the big boys in St. Louis, and he answered the call in typical J.D. Drew fashion: In 14 games he batted .417 while jacking five homers and 13 RBIs. He had finally made it to the big leagues, but the euphoria didn’t last long.

In each of his next five seasons with the Cardinals, Drew wound up on the DL at least once. Manager Tony La Russa went from praising his young golden boy as “Mickey Mantle Jr.” to calling him out as just another spoiled ballplayer willing to “settle for 75 percent” of his talent due in large part to his multi-million dollar contract.

Then, of course, the mainstream media chimed in – the very same mainstream media who watched in awe as the shy college baseball superstar seemingly underwent a metamorphosis and became an extension of the unstoppable Scott Boras money-grubbing machine back in 1997. Their perceptions had changed, and their minds were made up.

Refusing to sign with Philly was one thing. Not playing your heart out was quite another.

Drew’s trademark tranquility became interpreted as apathy, and his all-too-frequent injuries prompted folks to slap another title on him: the boy who kept crying wolf. Or, as others sometimes called him: Nancy Drew.

“I don’t know much about his teammates’ perceptions or management,” Schilling said. “But as an opponent you wondered about his durability and getting him on the field.

“(As a teammate in 2007), sure like others I’d get frustrated at the last minute scratches, but as with any position player, from a pitcher’s perspective, you can’t imagine the grind they go through. My point was always this, even at 60 percent J.D. in that lineup makes me pitch this team differently than with him out. I don’t think many players see that.”

The perception clearly rankles the Red Sox outfielder. In a rare show of emotion, Drew strikes back at the notion that he does not care.

“I disagree,” he said sternly. “I always feel like I exert every effort I’ve got. There are times when you fight injuries and that affects things, and if that’s considered lack of effort then I don’t know what to say. I think (LaRussa’s) comments were highly unjustified. I think it was just him in the heat of the moment because no matter how many times I go out there and give quality at-bats, I’m not always going to come up with a hit. It seems like just because I’m patient at the plate and don’t do a whole lot of movements up there, or get aggravated and slam my helmet, some people say it’s a lack of effort. Well that’s by far not even close.”

IN DEFENSE OF A TRAGIC FIGURE

It’s somewhat tragic the way Drew’s career has gone. It’s not the fact that he was slated to be God’s next gift to baseball and came up short. Or that he deals with injuries on a consistent basis, and will likely sustain them for life.

No, it’s more that he’s a really good guy who gets a really bad wrap. Of course athletes, like all high-paid public figures, receive their fair share of criticism. But Drew’s case is different. It all seems so unwarranted:

Simple Jesus-loving family man who’s humble about his vast accomplishments and acts like a nun both on and off the field is demonized for acting in an unconventional manner? He’s too well behaved for the common fan to embrace?

It doesn’t make sense.

Isn’t this the guy who parents want their kids looking up to? In a sporting world replete with poor role models – guys who lie, cheat, and steal – in some respects, it’s the J.D. Drews who preserve the purity of the game. He’s the definition of stoic: free from paralyzing passion, impervious to the distractions of joy and grief, pleasure and pain.

He won’t let one at-bat affect the next. He’s steady Eddy, and because of that he’s all the more focused. Drew understands his duty as a baseball player, not just to his team, but to the kids watching at home.

“It’s important for guys to realize that you can’t tell a kid who he can and can’t look up to,” he said. “So it’s important to watch the way we carry ourselves.”

It’s easy to misinterpret unfamiliarity with negativity, just as Schilling did in 1998 when he publicly criticized Drew. But after playing with him almost 10 years later, Schilling now sings a different song.

“I learned he was as genuine and kind as I thought,” he said. “He’s a fantastic kid. He plays the game hard every night. He gives everything he has.”

This seems to be the common theme with Drew: Once people actually get to know him, their generalizations and past prejudices vanish. They see that the emotionless demeanor is all part of his makeup, just as the money disputes and injuries are all part of the game.

Like Coach Martin says: “Anybody that can find a bad thing to say about J.D. Drew obviously doesn’t know him very well.”

Read More: Curt Schilling, florida state university, J.D. Drew, mike martin
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