In case you hadn't heard, the baseball Draft is just around the corner. Over the next couple days, a few dozen gifted young men will become top prospects simply by virtue of when their names are called in the first few rounds of a 50-round two-day Draft.
We'll be hearing about them frequently for the duration of the season. We'll be covering their contract negotiations. We'll be writing about their pro debuts. We'll be throwing around a lot of big signing-bonus numbers. And we'll be referring to these guys for time immemorial, or at least until they retire to go into coaching or broadcasting or private business as "former first-round picks."
Funny thing is you don't hear a lot of guys referred to as a "former 10th-round pick" or "former 20th-round pick" or "former 38th-round pick" (though admittedly people loved to call Mike Piazza a "former 62nd-round pick" even though there was way more to that story than people realized).
But the truth is that the majority of guys who make it up to the big leagues, even for the proverbial cup of coffee, were not former first-round picks. I mean, just do the math.
And the further down the Draft ladder you go, the more you see the intangibles that got these long shots up that ladder. Maybe the best example is "former 38th-round pick" infielder/outfielder Tommy Watkins of the Minnesota Twins.
Currently in his 11th pro season with the Twins organization and his third for the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings, Watkins brought a lot to the table -- his kitchen table -- when he signed with the Twins in June 1998.
The 5-foot-8, 200-pounder out of Riverdale High School in Fort Myers, Fla., could play several positions, and he played them all with hustle, intensity and passion. Even though he missed most of his senior year with a broken finger, Twins scout Brad Weitzel could sense that Watkins was the kind of guy who made his team better, and he set out to get his man despite that man's lack of playing time that spring of 1998.
Watkins grew up in a baseball-centric household, the son of Tommy Watkins Sr., who had been an up-and-coming prospect in the Cincinnati Reds organization before a knee injury forced him to retire after reaching Double-A in 1979.
So Tommy Jr. grew up around the game and always knew, from the age of 3 or 4, that it was what he wanted to do.
He was bagging groceries at the local supermarket the day Weitzel called him to let him know he was on his way over to the Watkins' home to discuss signing with the team that had its Spring Training in his backyard, as well as both its rookie-level Gulf Coast League and Class A Advanced Florida State League clubs there.
The truth is, Weitzel's advice to Watkins was to play as a draft-and-follow. In other words, he'd head off to junior college and play a year, with the Twins signing him the following spring. But Watkins was having none of it.
"Having broken my finger my senior year, I didn't have many schools to go to," he recalled, "so I wasn't going to let him leave my house without signing me."
As a result, Watkins was soon playing pro ball for the Fort Myers-based Gulf Coast League team, a club he would play for in both 1998 and 1999. He certainly learned to overcome the challenges in a hurry, going 0-for-30 to start his pro career before his bat caught up to his enthusiasm.
"I thought maybe I should have gone to school after all," he recalled, "but just getting past that and getting past other obstacles and having played as long as I have, that's my proudest achievement."
After some Midwest League action over the next couple of summers, he returned home to Fort Myers to play for the FSL's Miracle in 2002-03, living at home to save some money.
Needless to say, Watkins had a very devoted built-in fanbase, and while the Miracle, under the aegis of promotions guru Andrew Seymour as general manager, drew well in a league that is traditionally not high in attendance, you could pretty much count on some extra fans every night just to watch their hometown hero.
But they had a lot more fannies in the seat, you should pardon the expression, one 2003 night when the club featured a special giveaway: Tommy Watkins Bobble Butt dolls.
Watkins smiles a little sheepishly when that is mentioned. It's clear he has mixed emotions about the "honor." He knows it was done in good fun. He knows it was cool to be honored by his hometown team.
But it's clear he was slightly embarrassed by it. I mean, who really wants to be memorialized for their, um, assets?
"It was pretty neat, but I don't want to see that one again," he admitted. "They did ask me about it and I was like, 'OK, I don't care.' I had to pose for it and everything. And I know there were people lined up pretty early to get them, and I saw some of my friends in line. I don't regret it. It happened."
In fact, he added, "You know, I'd probably do it again if someone wanted to."
Watkins managed to avoid being the butt of promotional jokes from that point on (ouch, sorry) as he moved up to Double-A New Britain in 2004 and spent most of the next three years in the Eastern League. And though he was batting just .218 there in '06, he was the beneficiary of a "trickle up" effect late that summer when Rochester shortstop Jason Bartlett got called up to the bigs and Watkins moved up to the Red Wings.
There he hit .276 down the stretch and helped lead the team to the International League finals. He was rewarded with a big-league non-roster invitation to Spring Training in 2007 and made a good impression on the brass. He continued to impress as he hit .272 with eight homers and 49 RBIs for Rochester that season.
Good enough that on Aug. 8, then-general manager Terry Ryan came through Syracuse, where the Red Wings were on the road, and gathered the club for a team meeting prior to the game against the Chiefs.
At that meeting, he informed the team that Tommy Watkins, in his 10th Minor League season, was going to the big leagues.
And it says a lot about Watkins that when the announcement was made, Watkins wasn't the only one in the room who shed tears. And the other players who cried weren't weeping because they weren't the ones getting the call.
Long-time Red Wings beat writer Jim Mandelaro of the Democrat & Chronicle quoted Red Wings manager Stan Cliburn as saying that Watkins' call-up was "one of the most emotional call-ups [he had] ever been involved with," and that the announcement "set off a joyous celebration in the clubhouse, because of everyone's love, passion and respect for Tommy."
Still in something of a daze, Watkins joined the Twins on the road in Kansas City and made his big league-debut two days later on Aug. 10. He collected his first Major League hit Aug. 15 when he singled off Seattle Mariners hurler Jarrod Washburn, and he went on to hit .357 in nine games.
But the stuff that Disney movies are made of came to an abrupt halt when he suffered a groin strain severe enough to not only land him on the DL for the remainder of the season, but one that kept him from working out nearly the entire off-season.
That layoff saw him come to camp rusty enough to not really factor into the mix for a big-league job to open the season, so he returned to Rochester, to the delight of the Red Wings faithful, but still, needless to say, in something of a disappointing development for him professionally.
Watkins hit just .143 in April in a part-time role, but a few injuries opened the door to more playing time, and he's been batting .291 since then and playing nearly every day.
And when he's not at the park or on the field, odds are you'll find him somewhere in Rochester where there is baseball being played. He'll go to Little League games of the Red Wings front-office members' kids to cheer them on and offer unofficial coaching, just because he enjoys it and knows how kids need role models.
No surprise that the Red Wings website says "it's not an exaggeration to state that in just two seasons Watkins has become perhaps the most popular Red Wings player of this decade, and one of the best representatives of Red Wings Baseball, on and off the field."
And it's no surprise Watkins says that once his playing days are over, he hopes to stick around as a coach or manager.
You can bet that the line of organizations who will want to bring Tommy Watkins into their fold when that day comes will be as long as the line outside the Lee County Complex on Tommy Watkins Bobble Butt Night.
But you can also probably bet that Watkins will be a Twin for life.