Drew’s abundant talent garnered comparisons to immortals Stan Musial and Mickey Mantle before he had played even a full month with the St. Louis Cardinals. After a record-setting three years at Florida State, he had become a poster-boy for greedy ballplayers when he engaged in an acrimonious contract holdout after being drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1997.
Born in tiny Hahira, Georgia, Drew was raised Baptist by parents who took him to church almost daily. He didn’t take up baseball until the age of 13, when he tired of playing wide receiver on his high school’s run-oriented football squad. Taken in the 20th round of the 1994 draft by San Francisco, Drew elected instead for college, telling the Giants that he wanted to get bigger and stronger.
Drew enjoyed a storied career at Florida State. In his freshman year he became the first player to hit three home runs in a single College World Series game, and tied a Series record with four-round trippers overall. He added a fifth circuit blast when he returned to the Series as a sophomore, establishing a record for most career homers in Series play. As a junior Drew won every honor imaginable, including the Golden Spikes Award given to the country’s top amateur. While batting .455, he recorded the first 30-homer/30-steal season in NCAA Division I history, and set a host of team and ACC batting records along the way.
Disregarding warnings from agent Scott Boras not to pick Drew unless they were willing to pay top dollar, the Phillies selected Drew with the second overall pick of the 1997 draft. (J.D.’s brother Tim Drew, a high school senior, was taken in the first-round by the Cleveland Indians, marking the first time two brothers had been taken in the first round of the same draft.) Boras and Drew asked for a contract package that totaled $11 million, a number that Philadelphia staunchly refused to consider. In a bizarre chapter of the saga, Drew claimed never to have received three executed minor-league contracts the Phillies sent via Federal Express to his parents’ home in Georgia and later to his Florida State address.
Unable to agree to a contract with the Phillies, Drew opted to spend the 1997 season with the St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern League, where he batted .318 with 18 home runs and 50 RBIs in 44 games, earning the league’s Rookie of the Year Award. Despite his offensive assault, Drew faced resentment from both fans and player for his holdout. After hitting him in the shoulder with a pitch, Sioux Falls hurler Rich Hyde admitted to throwing at him intentionally. “I never made any money in this game, and he’s turning down $2 million," explained Hyde. "A lot of guys here don’t appreciate that. I wanted to send that message to him.”
Drew re-entered the draft the next year, and the Cardinals took him with fifth overall pick in June 1998. After signing a four-year deal worth approximately $8.5 million and playing just 45 games at Double-A Arkansas and Triple-A Memphis, Drew was called up to St. Louis that September. He made his debut on September 8, 1998, the day Mark McGwire hit his record-setting 62nd home run. Playing his first road game the next day at Cincinnati, Drew responded to the jeers and boos of the crows by launching his first major-league home run, a 438-foot blast off Gabe White. In 14 games that month, Drew batted .417 with five home runs, fueling expectations for his impending rookie year.
While Drew tore through the exhibition season in the spring of 1999, Cardinals coaches fell all over themselves trying to praise him. Hitting coach Mike Easler described the left-handed swinger as “Wade Boggs with power” and compared his running and defensive skills to Mantle. Manager Tony LaRussa opined, “He has the standard five tools and I give him an extra-credit half tool because he knows how to use them.”
But despite opening his rookie campaign batting in the most coveted lineup spot in baseball – directly ahead of new home run champ McGwire – Drew’s first year did not turn out as planned. He batted just .242 with 13 home runs and 19 steals in 104 games, and was criticized by LaRussa for poor outfield fundamentals. Adding injury to insult, Drew was sidelined more than six weeks by a quadriceps injury in May.
The rookie also suffered the wrath of the City of Brotherly Love when the Cardinals traveled to Philadelphia in August. While Phillies ace Curt Schilling hinted that he might go head-hunting at the man who had spurned his city (Schilling was quoted as saying Drew had better wear a batting helmet with double earflaps), Philadelphia fans booed Drew lustily and brought all manner of colorful signs to the ballpark. Eight arrests were made at his Veterans Stadium debut on August 10, 1999 when two D-cell batteries were thrown at him in the outfield.
Drew’s 2000 season augured better, as he raised his average to .295 with 18 home runs. He began to fulfill the predictions of greatness in 2001, when he batted above .320 with bulked-up power numbers despite losing time to a broken right hand and a lower back sprain.
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FROM THE BASEBALL CHRONOLOGY
»June 6, 1995: J.D. Drew sets a college World Series record by hitting homers in his final three at bats as his Florida State team loses, 16–11 to Southern Cal. The 12 total bases is also a record.
»June 3, 1997:
The annual June amateur draft features two brothers being drafted in the first round. Ignoring J.D. Drew's warnings about not drafting him unless they're ready to pay out, the Phils take the FSU junior with the 2nd pick, while the Indians take his brother Tim Drew, a high school senior, with the 28th pick: it's the first time brothers have been picked in the same first round. In another first, Great Bridge High School in Chesapeake, VA, has two players picked on the first round; Michael Cuddyer, a SS, by the Twins with the 9th pick, and pitcher John Curtice, by the Red Sox with the 17th pick. The number one pick overall is Rice University pitcher Matt Anderson by the Tigers, who skip over J.D. Drew because of the anticipated cost. Anderson was the WAC Tournament MVP and the top pitching prospect in the Cape Cod League last summer. Drew, The Sporting News College Player of the Year, is the first Division I player in history to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in one season.
»May 19, 1998:
Arbitrator Dana E. Eischen rules that J.D. Drew, the second overall selection in last year's amateur draft, remains subject to the draft. Drew's agent, Scott Boras, claimed Drew was a free agent since he played professionally last season in the independent Northern League. The Phillies were unwilling to meet Boras' demand for $11 million for his client.
»June 2, 1998:
The Phillies select University of Miami 1B Pat Burrell with the 1st pick in the First–Year Player Draft. Burrell's .888 slugging percentage is 2nd in NCAA history. The Athletics follow by taking Michigan State P Mark Mulder at No. 2; the Cubs take high school OF Corey Patterson with No. 3; Stanford P Jeff Austin is grabbed by the Royals at No. 4; and last year's top pick, J.D. Drew is selected by the Cardinals as No. 5. Drew will debut in September. The 19-year-old Patterson will get a record $3.7 million from the Cubs, but will sign too late to play in 1998, while Mulder will pocket $3.2 million from the A's. Picking 9th, the Padres select Sean Burroughs, son of former MLer Jeff Burroughs. Drew Henson, Michigan QB, drops to the 3rd round where the Yanks take him.
»September 25, 1998: The home run race continues unabated as Sammy Sosa blasts his 66th homer in the 4th inning at Houston, and Mark McGwire responds in the 5th inning with his 66th in the 5th inning at Busch Stadium. Sosa's solo shot ties the game at 2–2, but the Astros score in each in the next four innings to win, 6–2. Kevin Tapani fails in his bid to win his 20th. The Cards top the Expos, 6–5, as McGwire adds another single and J.D. Drew a pair of homers.
»May 1, 1999:
The Cardinals defeat the Expos, 16-5, as rookie OF J.D. Drew scores five runs for St. Louis, and 3B Fernando Tatis hits his 8th home run and drives home 3.
»August 1, 2002:
A.J. Burnett (11–7) fires his 4th shutout of the year, beating the Cardinals, 4–0, on four hits. The high point for St. Louis is a 6th inning triple play (9–6–3), just the 11th in history started by a right fielder. With runners on 1st and 2B, J.D. Drew snags Eric Owens' line drive and throws to SS Edgar Renteria who steps on 2B and relays to first baseman Tino Martinez. Jay Buhner was the last right fielder to start a triple play, accomplishing the feat for the 1992 Mariners.
»October 3, 2002: The Cardinals take a commanding two games to none lead in their series with the Diamondbacks by eking out a 2–1 victory. J.D. Drew homers for St. Louis and Jeff Fassero gets the win in relief.