Bernie Church offers a cautionary tale.
The retired McClatchy High School baseball coach said the recognition that comes with being a first-round pick in the major-league draft can catapult players to new heights or serve as an overwhelming burden.
“It’s always a crapshoot because getting drafted in the first round doesn’t give you a free ride to the big leagues,” Church said. “Not even close.”
Church coached two first-round selections at McClatchy and competed against three in the heyday of the Metro League. The 1972 draft was unique in that three area players were selected in the first round: Cordova’s Mike Ondina (Chicago White Sox, 12th overall) and Jerry Manuel (Detroit, 20th) and McClatchy’s Joel Bishop (Boston, 16th). In those days, results of the draft came across ticker-tape machines in newsrooms, and Bee reporters would call local schools to inform players of their selection.
Of the three, only Manuel reached the majors. Bishop, who had speed and range at shortstop, played just two minor-league seasons. He died in 2012.
“Joel had the physical skills, but he walked away, disillusioned,” Church recalled. “His heart wasn’t into it. He lost his desire and drive.”
Bishop returned to his roots to find himself. He was an assistant coach for Church in the 1980s.
“He got his life squared away, and I thought it’d be good for him and for our players to see that he can reconnect to the game,” Church said. “He was a good influence on the kids. He felt he owed something, to give back to the school, to put some polish on his reputation. I think he did.”
Church coached Dion James at McClatchy and sat in with his family during signing-bonus negotiations after the outfielder went 25th to Milwaukee in 1980. James had a solid 11-year major-league career. Saturday, his son Jared was a 30th-round pick by Atlanta after playing outfield at McClatchy and Sacramento City College.
It would be a decade before the area produced another first-round pick out of high school: El Camino first baseman Derrek Lee, who went 14th to San Diego in 1993.
Lee had a productive 15-year big-league career, hitting 331 homers and winning a World Series with the Marlins. Now living in Malibu, Lee recalled his draft-day joy – and how it contrasted sharply with his emotions earlier that winter.
“Draft day, you don’t forget that day,” Lee said. “I was at an elementary school near El Camino to read to kids when I found out. You go through all the work, the scouts, the executives coming by the house, all the buildup, and then it happens. But you have to want to play, and you have to be ready, or it’ll eat you up.
“My senior year, I almost didn’t play baseball. I fell so in love with basketball that I was having second thoughts about baseball. I had a handwritten letter from coach Dean Smith of North Carolina to come play on scholarship. My dad ( Leon Lee) talked some sense into me and said to still give baseball a shot. I’m glad I did. I had the best years of my life.”
Besides, Lee joked, there’s no room – then or now – for a 6-5 power forward in the NBA.
Lee said he was delighted to hear about Elk Grove outfielder Derek Hill, who went in the first round to Detroit on Thursday.
“He’ll find out that it becomes a business real fast – agents, financial advisers, dealing with things that never crossed your mind before,” Lee said. “I remember telling friends that after my ($600,000) signing bonus, I was set for life. That’s how naive I was. You’re 17 or 18, it’s all a whirlwind, but then the real work starts.”
Lee said the draft will always be a guessing game.
“Baseball is a funny game,” he said. “Just because you’re a super athlete or super fast, it doesn’t mean you’ll make it. Baseball is such a mental game, very cerebral. It’s not like basketball scouting where if you can shoot or jump and it’s clear what you can do, or you’re a 7-footer. Scouts are trying to project in baseball, and you just never know.”