Rick Monday was 17 years old when he found himself across a dinner table from a very persistent baseball scout named Tommy Lasorda.
Monday’s mother, Nelda, kept insisting that she wanted her son to get an education, and Lasorda kept ripping up the paper that included the Los Angeles Dodgers’ signing bonus and increasing it. First, he doubled the original number. Then, he wrote down an eye-popping sum that gave both mother and son pause: $20,000. It was, after all, 1963.
In the end, Nelda Monday still turned down Lasorda’s offer, and Rick Monday attended Arizona State University, but before he left the dinner table, she made Lasorda a promise: Her son would turn down the other scouts after he got his education and sign with the Dodgers. After all, the Mondays were big Dodgers fans. The voices of Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett were seemingly always on Nelda Monday’s car radio as she tooled around Santa Monica.
But Rick Monday never got to fulfill his mother's promise. In an effort to suppress signing bonuses and give smaller-market teams more access to elite talent, Major League Baseball instituted its first amateur draft in 1965. Teams would pick players in reverse order of the previous season’s standings.
Monday, an athletic and powerful center fielder who reminded some scouts of a young Mickey Mantle, was the first overall pick, taken by Charlie O. Finley’s Kansas City Athletics.
He just didn’t know it at first. Unlike today’s draft, in which players can find out instantly where they got picked through their smartphones or tablets and on TV, this was the age of land lines and wire services. When catcher Kevin Kennedy was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 1976, he had to disguise his voice and telephone the San Diego newspaper to find out where and when he was taken.
On that afternoon in 1965, Monday was sitting in the right-field stands with his Arizona State teammates at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, waiting for a game to end so they could play the final game of the College World Series. A couple of reporters from the Associated Press and United Press International approached for a comment. ASU coach Bobby Winkles tried to keep the reporters away, but one of them yelled: “Rick, you’re the No. 1 pick. What do you think?”
“There was a lot going on,” said Monday, who went on to a 19-year major league career and now is a broadcaster for the Dodgers. “I was excited about it like everyone else coming into pro ball. You’re chasing a dream you’ve had since you were a little kid and we didn’t understand how the system was going to work because we grew up in a different system."
Monday said two attorneys approached him that summer offering to represent him in lawsuits against Major League Baseball teams, which the lawyers said were colluding to suppress the market for amateur talent. He asked them how long it would take. They said about three or four years, and he replied: "Not interested."
Monday is a big proponent of the draft nowadays, and he said he is thrilled each year for each player, regardless of where they're taken. He also would like baseball to consider holding it after the conclusion of the College World Series, rather than in the middle of it.
"I know the empty look in a teammate’s eyes when he finds out he’s not drafted in the round he had been led to believe he would, or maybe wasn’t drafted at all," Monday said. "Yet you’re told within an hour to go out and play on the biggest stage with the brightest lights you’ve ever played under in your life."
Twelve years after he was drafted, Monday finally did make his way home. His second team, the Chicago Cubs, traded him to the Dodgers in a deal for Bill Buckner in 1977. The next spring at Vero Beach, Florida, Monday and Lasorda, then the Dodgers' manager, were waiting out a rain delay and chatting about old times.
Monday brought up a memory that had been irking him for 14 years, from when he played for Lasorda on a team of amateurs the Dodgers were considering signing back in 1963. The team was playing a game against Marine all-stars in San Diego. Batting second, Monday watched the pitcher walk the leadoff hitter on four pitches. He looked over at Lasorda, who gave him the hit-and-run sign. Monday regrouped, got a chin-high pitch and hit it out for a home run. As he rounded the bases, he went to shake Lasorda’s hand near third base, but Lasorda backed away.
Finally, that far-off day in Vero Beach, Monday wanted an explanation.
"I said, 'It’s always bothered me and you’re not going to remember this, but you didn’t shake my hand that day,' " Monday said. "He said: 'No, I remember it. I’ll even tell you why I didn’t shake your hand. There were about 12 scouts in the stands that day right behind home plate. I wanted you to look bad. I wanted you to swing and miss at a pitch I didn’t think would be anywhere near the strike zone.' "
The draft has helped a lot of players live out their dreams in the past 50 years, but it also ended some colorful times in baseball.