A major factor in baseball this season is the impact of the vast number of trades made during the off season (Minnesota, for example, got Dean Chance for two of its prize sluggers, Don Mincher and Jimmie Hall, whom the Twins seem to miss). A less known but perhaps equally significant factor is the effect of baseball's free-agent draft, which came into being with a minimum of fanfare in June 1965. Most fans were aware that Kansas City signed Rick Monday of Arizona State, the one highly publicized college player, but beyond that there was little more than polite yawns and occasional harsh criticism from baseball's fat cats. The Yankees called the free-agent draft "communistic," and Walter O'Malley of the Dodgers hurled and puffed and did all he could to defeat it.
The idea behind the draft was simple: 1) it gave the poorer teams—usually those lower in the standings—an equal chance to sign the top talent being produced in colleges and high schools; and 2) it cut down on payments of excessive bonuses to untried players. Even those who enthusiastically supported the free-agent draft had no idea that benefits from it would be reaped so quickly. Yet this season, less than two years later, several youngsters selected in the draft have stepped into the major leagues and have performed not just capably but in some cases spectacularly.
In Cincinnati, the main topic of conversation is Gary Nolan, who struck out 20 men in his first 16‚Öì innings. In Baltimore, people are saying the name Bill Dillman and winking. In Chicago, a young left-hander named Ken Holtzman is asking people to stop comparing him to another Jewish left-hander who only recently retired. In Washington, although no one has yet written a musical called Damn Senators, fans are enchanted with a Joe Hardy type named Joe Coleman Jr. In New York, Wes Westrum, manager of the Mets, sits bare-chested behind a cup of beer and says, "Mr. Don Shaw has come in from the bullpen and done tremendous jobs for us, and Mr. Tom Seaver has started and pitched excellently."
Nolan is an 18-year-old husband and father who married the girl next door in Oroville, Calif. three years ago. His powerful pitching helped thrust the Reds right back into contention in the National League and prompted Don Sutton of the Dodgers to say, "If that kid was on our club, I'd be out of a job. The guys sitting in our dugout couldn't believe what they saw when he pitched against us." Nolan went to spring training this year with no apparent chance to make the team, but he kept doing so well that the Reds, desperate for pitching, gave him a chance. Now Mel Harder, Cincinnati's pitching coach, says, "Nolan has assets you don't expect in a man until he has been in the majors three or four years."
Dillman, 21, came to the Orioles at a time when the club's bullpen, a strong point last year, was sagging. In his first two relief appearances, he gave up one hit and no runs in seven innings. Holtzman, another 21-year-old, achieved a fair degree of fame when he beat Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers with a near no-hitter in the closing days of the National League pennant race and is now a key starter for Leo Durocher's Cubs. Coleman, 20, was a first-round draft choice of the Senators in 1965 and, although unsuccessful in the minors (9-29), he won his first five starts in the majors; in one of them he drove in the tying run with a double. Coleman has been helped by his father, a former American League pitcher.
The two Met youngsters offer a strong contrast. Shaw, 23, was the 752nd player drafted in 1965, possibly because he doesn't have much of a fast ball. But he does have an excellent sinker, and he was trained from the beginning to be a reliever. During his brief career in the minors, he had an earned-run average of 0.00 with three of the five teams he pitched for. Seaver, 22, was an outstanding pitcher at Southern California and a first-round choice of the Dodgers in 1965. He elected to stay in school, and when the Dodgers failed to sign him within six months of the draft they lost their rights to him to the Braves. Then, when the Braves violated the rules by signing him before the college baseball season was over, Seaver's name was tossed into a hat and the Mets pulled it out. Seaver has poise and maturity rare in a rookie. Working with a big lead in his second start, he realized he was getting tired and losing his stuff. He alerted the manager and, when he gave up two hits in the eighth, Westrum promptly relieved him and sent in Shaw, who wrapped up the game with five quick outs. "These two can make a huge difference in this team," said Westrum. And the free-agent draft can make a huge difference in baseball.