10 Overhyped Baseball Players Who Fizzled
By almost all accounts, Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg is a can't-miss prospect who will enjoy a long and prosperous major league career. The amount of Strasburg-related memorabilia available on eBay grows by the day. Before you think about investing in the No. 1 pick of June's amateur draft, consider the following 10 players who went from sizzle to fizzle in no time, leaving fans broken-hearted and prospecting collectors and dealers with an excess of worthless inventory.
1. Bob Hamelin
The Hype: "The Hammer" broke Bo Jackson's Royals record for home runs by a rookie in the strike-shortened 1994 season to capture AL Rookie of the Year honors, the hearts of Kansas City baseball fans, and the confidence of legend George Brett. "I've always been a big Bob Hamelin fan," Brett said of the man who replaced him as the Royals' designated hitter. "Before, when I was a Bob Hamelin fan, I hoped that he would play well, but never well enough to take my job. Now, I'm hoping he stays there for 20 years." By then, the thinking went, Hamelin would have shattered all of Brett's records en route to the Hall of Fame and collectors would consider themselves lucky to own the slugger's first minor league card, which misspelled his name "Hamblin."
The Aftermath: Hamelin hit only 16 home runs over his next two years in Kansas City before being traded to Detroit. While playing with the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens in 1999, Hamelin walked back to the dugout after grounding out in the sixth inning of a midseason game, told his manager that he was retiring, and headed for the clubhouse. "I told them to put somebody else in and left," Hamelin told the Topeka Capital-Journal several years later. "Even if I was going to get called up at the end of the year, I wasn't looking forward to playing for the Tigers at all. They weren't very good that season." Currently, Hamelin serves as a scout for the Washington Nationals.
2. Todd Van Poppel
The Hype: The A's drafted high school phenom Todd Van Poppel with the No. 14 pick in the 1990 draft and signed him to a $1.2 million contract. While Van Poppel was pitching for Huntsville, Oakland's Double-A affiliate, fans would follow the team bus back to the hotel in hopes of getting his autograph. Many of those fans probably carried Van Poppel's rookie card. "His 1991 Upper Deck baseball cards are selling for as much as $3 a pop, which says something about how much the world is expecting from pitching prospect Todd Van Poppel," one reporter wrote at the time.
The Aftermath: While $3 doesn't sound like much by today's standards "“ most packs now cost at least that much "“ that turned out to be about $2.99 more than what anyone should have paid for a card bearing his image. Van Poppel started one game for the A's in 1991, allowing five runs in 4 2/3 innings. He missed all of 1992 with arm trouble and returned in 1993 to go 6-6 in 16 starts. He won a career-high seven games in 1994, but also lost 10 games and walked a league-high 89 batters. Van Poppel last pitched in the majors in 2004 and retired with a career record of 40-52 and a 5.54 ERA.
3. Bill Pulsipher
The Hype: The New York Mets selected Pulsipher in the second round of the 1991 MLB draft and the left-hander enjoyed a fast rise through the minor league system. He was part of "Generation K," the nickname given to the Mets' triumvirate of top pitching prospects that also included Paul Wilson and Jason Isringhausen. Pulsipher made his major league debut in June 1995 and finished his rookie year 5-7 with a respectable 3.98 ERA. His mediocre debut didn't dissuade collectors from forking over $50 for his 1996 Topps rookie card. "He's got the best stuff," Tony Gwynn said of Pulsipher at the time.
The Aftermath: Pulsipher's unusual major league career was derailed by arm and back injuries, as well as depression. Pulsipher pitched for seven teams in four different organizations from 2000 to 2001, and after being released by the Yankees in 2002, he took a job as the groundskeeper at the Mets' minor league complex in St. Lucie, Fla. Pulsipher fought his way back to the major leagues for a brief stint as a reliever for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2005 before injuries ended his major league career. Since then, Pulsipher has pitched in various Mexican and independent leagues. He spent this past season with the Winnipeg Goldeyes of the Northern League and hopes to return next year, potentially as a player/pitching coach.
4. Jerome Walton
The Hype: Walton, a speedster out of Enterprise State Junior College in Alabama, won the starting centerfield job and hit in his first seven games with the Cubs in 1989. Later that year, he compiled a 30-game hit streak en route to winning NL Rookie of the Year honors. The former second-round selection of the 1986 draft finished with five home runs, 46 RBI, and 24 stolen bases for the NL East champion Cubs, an opening act that fans and team officials alike thought was a preview of even greater things to come. "Jerome Walton, he's going to hang for a long time," said Jim Essian, who managed Walton in the minor leagues and compared his attitude to Cubs great Andre Dawson. "He has the opportunity to be a great success." Baseball card collectors thought so, too, as the demand for Walton's cards, particularly in the Chicago area, skyrocketed that season.
The Aftermath: Walton's fall from grace didn't take long. He hit .263 in his sophomore season and .219 the year after that, losing his starting job. Walton eventually became a journeyman, playing for the Angels, Reds, Braves, and Orioles. Walton's last major league stop was in Tampa Bay, where he appeared in 12 games for the Devil Rays in 1998 before being optioned to Triple-A when Wade Boggs came off the disabled list.
5. Gregg Jefferies
The Hype: Jefferies was the Mets' first-round pick in 1985 and a two-time minor league player of the year. When the Mets called him up in 1987, he was the youngest player in the majors, brimming with potential. As a result, the demand for his rookie cards was enormous. In fact, Jefferies' 1989 Fleer card appeared on the baseball card black market, in dealers' showcases, before Fleer released the set to the public. According to newspaper accounts, a Fleer employee stole the cards from the company's factory in Philadelphia and sold them directly to dealers.
The Aftermath: Jefferies wasn't horrible, but he wasn't a huge star, either. As the unanimous favorite to win NL Rookie of the Year in 1989, he was benched in late July and finished the year hitting .258 with 11 home runs and 54 RBI. Of the value of Jefferies cards', Norm Cohen of Newsday wrote, "Don't expect Gregg Jefferies to start falling off as his batting average approaches his weight. Investors who have sunk a lot of money into his cards are hoping it's just the sophomore jinx having hit the phenom a season early." The pressure of playing in New York got to Jefferies, and after two more mediocre seasons during which time he fell out of favor with his teammates, the Mets traded him to the Royals for pitcher Bret Saberhagen. Jefferies would make two All-Star game appearances with the Cardinals and later played with the Phillies, Angels, and Tigers.
6. Brien Taylor
The Hype: The Yankees made Taylor the No. 1 overall pick in the 1991 draft after the left-hander went 8-2 with a 0.86 ERA and 203 strikeouts in 84 innings as a senior at East Cateret High School in North Carolina. Baseball America ranked him as baseball's best prospect, ahead of the likes of Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez. The Yankees gave Taylor a record $1.55 million signing bonus, some of which he used to buy his parents a new house and new cars. Collectors invested in Taylor, too, and confidence in the kid only grew after he put together two promising seasons in the minor leagues.
The Aftermath: In December 1993, while attempting to defend his younger brother, Taylor was involved in a fight and injured his shoulder. Taylor's agent, Scott Boras, told reporters that his client's shoulder was bruised, but the diagnosis was much more severe. Taylor had torn his labrum and required surgery, forcing him to miss the entire 1994 season. He returned to the Yankees' rookie league affiliate in 1995, but struggled to regain the velocity and form that had made him one of the game's top prospects only two years earlier. The Yankees released Taylor after the 1998 season, by which point it was clear he would never become the pitcher he was before his surgery.
Taylor appeared in five games for Cleveland's Single-A affiliate in 2000 before retiring, having never reached the majors. When Wayne Coffey of the New York Daily News caught up with Taylor in 2006, he was living in his hometown on a street named after him, in the house that he had purchased for his parents.
7. Ben McDonald
The Hype: McDonald, the No. 1 overall pick of the 1989 draft following a standout career at LSU, was projected to be one of the dominant pitchers of his era. Orioles manager Johnny Oates said that the 6-foot-7 right-hander reminded him of Roger Clemens, Dwight Gooden, Nolan Ryan and Jim Palmer. "This kid has a chance to become the guy you build your whole staff around," Oates said. "Give the 25 other teams a chance to grab him and I guarantee you they'd take him. But we got him." For collectors, "getting" Big Ben in a pack of cards was a big deal, especially his 1990 Upper Deck error card. The original card had the Orioles' logo instead of Upper Deck's generic "rookie" logo on the front, a mistake that Upper Deck corrected for later issues.
The Aftermath: McDonald enjoyed more success than several players on this list, but never became the star that the Orioles had envisioned. McDonald signed with Milwaukee as a free agent after the 1995 season and played two years with the Brewers before shoulder problems ended his career. McDonald retired with a record of 78-70.
8. Ben Grieve
The Hype: While Kerry Wood attracted the most attention from baseball card collectors in 1998, Oakland A's outfielder Ben Grieve had his fair share of admirers, too. As Grieve's stranglehold on the AL Rookie of the Year award tightened throughout the season, collectors' interest in his rookie cards grew. The son of a major leaguer and the No. 2 pick in the 1994 draft, Grieve finished the season with a .288 average, 18 home runs, and 89 RBI. Investing in Grieve seemed like a sure thing.
The Aftermath: Grieve followed up his solid rookie season with two more good years. In 2000, he hit 27 home runs and had 104 RBI, but the A's traded him to the Devil Rays before the 2001 season and he was never the same. Grieve hit 34 home runs in two-and-a-half seasons in Tampa Bay before moving on to Milwaukee and then Chicago. Jose Canseco would later write that Grieve could have benefited from using steroids: "He had a slow bat, slow feet and average ability"¦I could have taken Grieve and turned him into a stud." If only. Grieve appeared in 23 games for the Cubs in 2005 before disappearing from the major leagues for good.
9. Ricky Jordan
The Hype: The Phillies selected Jordan in the first round of the 1983 amateur draft in hopes that he would become the heir apparent to Mike Schmidt when the legendary third baseman retired. While it took Jordan nearly five full seasons to reach the majors, his debut was a smashing success. Jordan became the 31st National League player to homer in his first major league at-bat, connecting off Houston's Bob Knepper in July 1988. "I knew it was out," Jordan said afterward. "And man, was I happy. A home run in my first at-bat!" Baseball card collectors were happy, too, as Jordan appeared in several 1988 update sets and were in high demand.
The Aftermath: Jordan's major league debut was probably the highlight of his otherwise mediocre career. He started 132 games for the Phillies in 1989, finishing with 12 homers and 75 RBI, but would settle into a role as a platoon player and pinch-hitter for the final six years of his career. Jordan missed all of the 1995 season with a shoulder injury and played 15 games with the Seattle Mariners in 1996 before leaving the major leagues for good. He finished his career with 55 home runs and a .281 average.
10. Alex Gordon
The Hype: The Kansas City Royals made former University of Nebraska star Alex Gordon the second pick of the 2005 draft and it didn't take long for the hype machine to start whirring. Gordon was the 2006 minor league player of the year and drew comparisons to George Brett, but the demand for one of his rookie cards was fueled by something completely unrelated to his potential. Topps mistakenly released a card in its 2006 set depicting Gordon in a Royals uniform, a no-no under the terms of an agreement with the Major League Baseball Players' Association that prohibited Topps from releasing cards depicting players who have not played in the major leagues. Topps pulled the cards from production, but about 100 slipped into circulation. Keith Olbermann purchased a few of the error cards on eBay, including one for $7,500.
The Aftermath: While Gordon could eventually become a solid player, he hasn't lived up to the gaudy expectations that have followed him throughout his brief career. Gordon hit 31 home runs in his first two major league seasons and was expected to break out this year before undergoing hip surgery in April following a slow start. Gordon returned in August, but struggled mightily, and the Royals optioned him to Triple-A.