The Next Mickey Mantle

The Next Mickey Mantle






These are words that David Jonathan Drew has been hearing his entire career. His college days were spent shattering records and putting up unearthly numbers. Scouting reports began venerating him, comparing him to baseball legends. Many had him chosen as “the next Mickey Mantle”. Agent Scott Boras proudly declared that this college aged future Hall of Famer would accept nothing less than $10 million to sign with a major league club. The price tag raised eyebrows, of course. But that swing, that beautiful, effortless swing with which it seemed Drew could flick the bat and send the ball 400 feet, could not be ignored.

There followed a debacle with the Phillies, a team with a fan base whose memory stretches back to a time before the Liberty Bell was cracked, for which Drew is still booed in the City of Brotherly Love. But, he eventually signed with the Cardinals. It was in St. Louis that he found that his talent alone would not carry him through the Major Leagues and win the hearts of the fans.

In his five full seasons playing for the Cards, he averaged only 116.6 games a season. Such frequent stays on the disabled list earned him a reputation for fragility as well as several nicknames such as “Nancy Drew” and “DL Drew”. On top of it all, manager Tony La Russa was quoted in Buzz Bissinger’s book Three Nights in August as voicing his frustration with Drew’s perceived lack of work ethic. La Russa is quoted as saying Drew was content to “”settle for 75%”, and that with his enormous contract firmly signed, he wouldn’t work to fulfill his immense potential.

The words of La Russa have haunted Drew throughout his career (though, knowing La Russa, he had probably tried to push steroids and became frustrated when JD turned him down…). Regardless, JD has since struggled with the reputation of riding simply on his talent, content simply with the big contracts he makes, lacking any sort of desire to win. That scar followed him when he went to Atlanta, then further to Los Angeles

When Drew signed with Boston in ’07 there were several questions. How would the Red Sox fan base possibly ever embrace a player who had trouble getting along in the laid back atmosphere of Los Angeles? Sure, he had claimed he was happy there, but then opted out of a guaranteed $33 million over three years to go sign with someone else. How could he possibly thrive in the pressure cooker of Fenway Park? The eyes of a whole city would be upon him, constantly questioning every decision he made at the plate, frowning at every strike he took. His career average of 65 RBIs a year before coming to Boston was a disappointment considering his immense talent and scouts originally had predicted regular 100 RBI potential. So, as a player with a reputation for inability to come through in the clutch, how could he possibly succeed in a city who not only expects, but demands excellence? Indeed, for the regular season of 2007, JD Drew was a disappointment, posting a mediocre .796 OPS, the third worst season of his career. It seemed that JD Drew would be another of Theo Epstein’s gaffs, another player unable to function in the most intense playing atmosphere in baseball. But that postseason changed everything.

It was game 6 of the ALCS, the Red Sox, being down three games to one against the Cleveland Indians, had fought their way back to a Game 6. With their backs against the wall and facing elimination, they had put the fearsome Fausto Carmona on the mound. The co-ace of the Indians had been a force that season, winning 19 games and posting a 3.06 ERA. He placed fourth in Cy Young award voting that year. But by some miracle, the dominance of Carmona had faltered that night and the Sox managed to load the bases with a pair of singles and a walk in the first inning. There were two outs already and JD Drew stepped up to bat. Every fan in the Nation cast their eyes to the ground and silently cursed. “Anybody but Drew! Please Tito! Pinch hit for him! Put in Hinske! Cora! Anybody!”, they cried. But then something happened that nobody could have predicted. All of the sudden, the entire baseball world saw what those scouts had glimpsed in Drew back when he was a prospect. The player without any fire, the man who had no desire to win made Tony La Russa eat his words. Carmona threw a fastball and JD used that beautiful, fluid swing of his to effortlessly knock the ball over the wall in the deepest part of Fenway Park. Drew would go 3-for-5 with two runs that game and Boston would win it 12-2, beating Carmona so badly that to this very day he still hasn’t returned to form.

The following season, tragedy struck the Nation as David Ortiz, coming off the greatest hitting season of his career, popped a tendon sheathe in his wrist and would require surgery. JD Drew once again stepped up when we needed him the most. That June he put together the single most impressive month that I have ever seen in a hitter. Moving to the third slot in the lineup to replace Ortiz, Drew hit .337 and cranked 12 home runs over a 30 day period. It seemed impossible to get Drew out. Everything he hit seemed to end up in the bleachers. He was suddenly hitting like the baseball legends that he was compared to early in his career. He would go on to win Player of the Month and be the MVP of the All-Star Game. Unfortunately, his power streak would end in a very Drew-esque manner: with him on the disabled list with a strained lower back.

That postseason, he would once again prove his clutch ability and solidify his reputation as a hero of October. In Game 2 of the ALDS he hit a go-ahead two-run homer against the Angels. Then, even more impressively, helped the Red Sox come back from a seven-run deficit in Game 5 of the ALCS against the Rays with a two-run shot in the 8th and the walk-off double in the 9th.

Many Sox fans hate Drew. He’s far from the traditional hard-nosed Boston Dirt Dog archetype. His silent, stoic demeanor often frustrates Boston fans as he turns around and walks away from the plate following a third strike call without so much as a grimace on his face. But what many fans do not recognize is that over the past two seasons, he has been one of the strongest hitters on the team. Posting a .927 and .914 OPS in the past two seasons, second best on the team in ’08 and third in ’09. He has an unbelievable career .392 OBP and an impressive .896 career OPS. Perhaps it’s the fact that he seems content to walk the bases loaded with nobody out, perhaps it’s because he gets injured so much, perhaps it’s because he sees too many called third strikes, or maybe it’s just because he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, but for whatever reason people don’t seem notice that Boston has one of the strongest right fielders in the game.

This past off-season, Drew had surgery on his shoulder to clear up some bone spurs that had been hindering him towards the end of last season. Now feeling better, healthy and turning age 34, Drew seems poised for big things this season. The Nation needs him now, more than ever. With the loss of Jason Bay’s bat, the lineup needs Drew to finally step up and live up to his potential. If he can stay healthy, continue to get on base, and use the prettiest swing in baseball a little more often, he will be a force for Boston. I seriously believe that this is Drew’s year. This is the year we finally see the true JD Drew, the one who was compared to Stan Musial and Mantle. I fully expect him to hit .305 this season with 25 HRs and 90 RBIs with an OPS of 1.000. Optimistic? Maybe. But he can do it. He has the potential.

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