Like that which came 40 years later, the 1979 season was a miserable one for the Blue Jays and their nascent fanbase. After a five game improvement in 1978, they backslid to 53-109 which remains the low mark in franchise history. The starting pitching wasn’t a disaster, with Tom Underwood posting a 3.69 ERA in 227 innings, Dave Lemanczyk adding adding 143 innings in 143 innings, and some flash in the plan neophyte named Dave Stieb coming up midseason to post a respectable 4.31 ERA in 18 starts.
But just two quasi-regulars — Big John Mayberry and Otto the Swatto Velez — posted above average offensive production, and though Alfredo Griffin and Roy Howell were solid regulars, only Oakland was a match for the lack of punch. In fact, the A’s were the only team the Jays had a winning record against, edging them out by one game for the worst record. A 5-23 May left them 12-38 at the end of the month, and though it was a little uphill from there, the tumult and frustrations boiled over with an attempted August rebellion against manager Roy Hartsfield, who was relieved at season’s end.
Then, as now, one of the significant rewards for such misery was high draft position the following year. And thus, 40 years ago this week the Blue Jays had the second overall pick in the main June draft and on June 3rd, 1980 selected Garry Harris out of Herbert Hoover High School in San Diego, California.
A 5’9”, 160 pound shortstop, Harris was most noted in reports at the time for his speed and athleticism, and ability to spray the ball in the gaps. Speaking about Harris and second round pick Ken Kinnard, Pat Gillick was quoted in The Globe and Mail that “we got the two kids we really wanted. I think they’re the two best athletes in the entire draft. Both of them can run. They may not turn out to be the two best ballplayers but we think both have a chance to be that as well”.
Beyond being a, shall we say, interesting drafting philosophy viewed from the contemporary perspective, that last part proved prophetic. After hitting .224/.266/.348 in his age 20 season at AA Knoxville in 1983, Harris was released the following spring (his high school coach was quoted as saying “I’d bet my wife and children that he’ll make it to Toronto”; for his and their sakes I hope he didn’t).
Looking back in May 1993, Pat Gillick described Harris to Neil Campbell of The Globe and Mail as a “guy who could do a little bit of everything—had a good arm, good hands, looked like he was going to be a good hitter, an above average runner...he never really came on”.
Kinnard too peaked in AA, in fact not a single player drafted by the Blue Jays 40 years ago made the major leagues. While undoubtedly meager, it should be noted it was not a bumper crop of players, as the player chosen after the Jays selected to have a 20 WAR career was Danny Tartabull near the end of the third round. Doug Drabek was the only other in the top 100 picks, and only five others exceeded 10 WAR.
Unfortunately, whiffing at the very top of the draft was hardly the exception for the Jays in those years. After taking Lloyd Moseby second overall in 1978, they took Jay Schroeder third overall in 1979, Harris in 1980 second overall, RHP Matt Williams fifth overall in 1981, Augie Schmidt second overall in 1982 and Matt Stark ninth overall in 1983. It’s a testament to many other shrewd moves that the powerhouse of the mid-1980s onward was built despite this futility.
But the great what-if of the 1980 draft is not whom the Jays could otherwise have selected with the 2nd pick, what if they had the #1 pick — qfter all, in 1979 the Jays had the worst record in baseball. But in those days, and indeed until around 2000, the draft order alternated between AL and NL teams in order of finish, with the NL starting in even years and the AL in odd years. Thus, with a comparatively robust record of 63-99, the New York Mets had the first pick.
While the draft class was considered weak overall, there was a consensus 1-1 pick at the top of the board in a left-handed outfielder out of Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles by the name of Darryl Strawberry. For example, a Phillies scout was quoted in the Toronto Star that “he’s the best prospect I’ve seen in the last 30 years”.
Would the Jays have taken him if they had the chance? Gillick was quoted by Neil MacCarl of the Toronto Star the next day as saying they “assumed the Mets would take him, but our people were not as high on him as others”. Further, Jays scout Bob Zuk was quoted that “[Ellis Valentine was signed] out of the same high school eight years ago and there is no comparison. Valentine can out-throw and out-run him and he has more power”.
To what extent that reflected their true beliefs as opposed to conveying a tone of not missing out. Here contemporaneous accounts are useful, and The Star’s short preview on June 3rd noted that while the Mets were expected to take Strawberry, “if by chance the Mets don’t select Strawberry, Jays probably will” (the article doesn’t have a byline by reads like MacCarl, who was well connected).
And Zuk was right about one thing — there was no comparison between Valentine and Strawberry. Valentine had a fine career, posting 17 WAR almost all between 1976 and 1980, when his career was essentially done at just age 26. Strawberry likewise had a relatively short career, essentially done as an average regular by age 30 after 1991 though he stuck around until the late 1990s. That brevity tends to obscure in the collective memory justhow dynamic a force he was during his prime.
From when he burst on the scene as a 21-year old in 1983 and won the Rookie of the Year through 1991, Strawberry hit .263/.359/.516 for a 143 wRC+. He averaged just under 5 WAR/season, with MVP-level peaks in 1987-88. Would he have been the difference making piece to push the Jays over the top in 1985? Enough to prevent the collapse of 1987?
Of course, the Jays already were pretty stacked at the time with the Moseby-Jesse Barfield-George Bell outfield, so this type of what-if doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Moseby and Barfield were pretty well established by 1983, so maybe Bell never gets the opportunity he did as a Rule 5 pick. Or maybe one of them gets moved for a significant piece elsewhere. That’s the hell of what-if scenarios, but it’s fun to think the 1980s Blue Jays with a talent like Darryl Strawberry.
But for one obsolete rule that denied the Blue Jays the first overall draft pick that by record rightfully ought to have been their prerogative and would be today, Darryl Strawberry could and possibly would have a Toronto Blue Jay rather than a New York Met.
There’s numerous other interesting tie-ins between the Blue Jays and players selected in the first round of the 1980 draft which I’ll explore in a further post.
- “A thin year for baseball major draft”, Toronto Star, 6/3/1980, F1
- Neil MacCarl, “Jays get swifties in draft”, Toronto Star, 6/4/1980, D1
- Paul Patton, “Jays take shortstop as their first draft pick”, Globe and Mail, 6/4/1980, 39
- Neil Campbell, “Jays hope luck changes in draft”, Globe and Mail, 5/27/1993, C6