In the past, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Hubie Brooks and Wally Backman have gotten the nod. This year, it’s Chris Donnels’ turn.
Things look promising for Donnels, the Loyola Marymount University junior who was the New York Mets’ first-round choice in the baseball free agent draft last week.
In the last 10 years the Mets have had an outstanding track record with first-round picks. Brooks (1978), now with the Montreal Expos, Strawberry (1980) and Gooden (1982) are all-stars. Backman is the starting second baseman and hit .330 last season. The Mets’ 1984 choice, Shawn Abner, was the key player in the Mets’ trade over the winter in acquiring Kevin McReynolds from the San Diego Padres. And their 1985 draft pick, Gregg Jefferies, was the 1986 minor league player of the year.
The Mets’ 1979 first pick, Tim Leary, is now with the Dodgers despite several seasons of arm trouble, and their 1973 pick, Lee Mazzilli, is a key bench player in his second tour of duty in New York.
The Mets know what kind of talent they’re looking for and how to develop it when they get it.
The Mets were in Los Angeles last week when they drafted Donnels on the 24th pick, so they brought him out to Dodger Stadium to meet the players and have pictures taken.
The 21-year-old Donnels, normally unemotional on the field, was clearly excited as he carried a Mets cap and T-shirt and was introduced to some of the World Series stars including Gary Carter, Len Dykstra and Keith Hernandez (nervous smile, handshake, “pleased to meetcha”). He posed with Manager Dave Johnson for pictures (“How about puttin’ on the cap!”), then stood behind the batting cage with hitting instructor Bill Robinson while Strawberry pounded batting practice pitches far into the bleachers.
He was ready to kick off his snakeskin boots and play.
“This is very exciting. I’ve been jumping around since I heard,” Donnels said. “It’s exciting to meet all the guys. I’m real interested in getting out and playing. I’m not really used to a layoff.”
Donnels’ father, Dennis, watching the Mets filter through the dugout, was beaming. “It’s a big thrill to go to an organization like that,” he said. “The more I hear and find out about it the more impressed we are.”
Donnels, who leaves an unparalleled trail of records and accomplishments at Loyola, was projected to be among the top 10 players taken in some pre-draft assessments. The Mets had expressed interest and scout Bob Minor, who signed him, had a private batting session with him. Donnels was the player the Mets wanted if he lasted to the 24th pick.
His father said, “I told him not to be disappointed if he didn’t go as high in the draft” as had been predicted. “I told him those reports weren’t (from) the people drafting.”
Minor, the Mets’ chief scout in Southern California, said he has followed Donnels since his days at South Torrance High, and he likes the package of skills and determination the 6-foot, 180-pound Donnels offers.
Minor said he “figured there was a 50-50 chance” Donnels would still be available when the Mets chose. “When he was, we jumped on him. I think he’s going to be an above-average major league player. He’s a line-drive hitter, makes good contact, has power to left center and right center. He makes outstanding contact and hits the ball hard.”
Like most Mets signees, Donnels will start out at Kingsport, Tenn., in a rookie league despite his All-American pedigree. Minor said he could expect to spend three or four seasons in the minors.
“At first when they said rookie league I thought, ‘Wait a minute, he’s better than that.’ But they explained that’s the way they like to do things and they’ve been successful,” Dennis Donnels said.
Chris Donnels said he sees that path as an opportunity, much like his signing with Loyola. “It’s their way of doing it and you can’t really argue with success,” he said. “I figure I have to work my way up.”
Donnels has been working his way up from the time he was snubbed by the pros out of high school.
He was CIF 4-A co-player of the year in 1984, leading South Torrance to a CIF championship and setting a CIF season record with 56 runs batted in (broken this season by Redondo’s Scott Davison). But he wasn’t drafted that June, possibly because he played shortstop in high school without the true range or arm of a major league shortstop prospect.
That was fine with new Loyola Coach Dave Snow, who made Donnels his star recruit in an effort to rebuild the Lions. As a freshman Donnels played several positions while batting .389, hitting 8 home runs and knocking in 59 runs in 53 games. The team went 27-28, setting the stage for 1986.
Donnels said not getting drafted out of high school “made me work a little bit harder. I thought I had a successful high school career but (attending Loyola) worked out great for me. When I first got there Coach Snow talked to us and set a game plan for us.”
After a year of maturation, Donnels and the Lions came on with a vengeance, The sophomore, now set at third base, pounded 21 home runs and 91 RBI--both school records--in leading Loyola to a 50-15 record and its first appearance in the College World Series to earn West Coast Athletic Conference player of the year and All-American honors.
Donnels entered the 1987 season as a bona fide pro prospect--and a marked man, often pitched around by wary opponents. He still managed to hit .365 with 16 homers, 18 doubles and a conference high 75 RBI. His three-year career left the Loyola record book in shambles: 45 career homers, 225 RBI (in just 175 games), a slugging average of .650. He had a three-year batting average of .367. The team, now a firmly established winner, had another successful year, going 36-21-1.
Donnels said being one of the cornerstones in rebuilding the program “gives you a feeling of accomplishment.”
His father said, “It’s hard to put into words the appreciation we have for Loyola. The opportunity he’s had, the people, the faculty--everybody there has been tremendously helpful. The school assisted him in academics and personal things. When we had some personal problems last year (Donnels’ mother died during his sophomore year), they really helped him. I could not wish for things to have gone better.”
Now Donnels is on his own, shouldering a loud bat and a legacy of excellence expected of Mets No. 1 picks. A New York writer pointed out to Donnels that third base has long been a trouble spot for the team and is unsettled this year, the team having declined to re-sign World Series hero Ray Knight.
“You hear the stories. I’m glad it’s a position they’ve been moving guys around,” Donnels said. “It’s a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel.”
So Donnels will report to Kingsport, hoping to show he’s as good a hitter with wood--which the pros use--as with an aluminum bat as he swings for the stars.
“I just have to work on staying aggressive, hitting the ball hard and doing the things that got me here,” he said.
Lions catcher Jim McAnany was also drafted last week, being selected by the California Angels in the 19th round. He is playing for Palm Springs, the Angels’ Class A affiliate. McAnany, who hit .340 this season with 9 homers and 49 RBI, follows in the footsteps of his father, Jim, who played several seasons in the major leagues, including an appearance with the Chicago White Sox in the 1959 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.