Imagine, if you will, the 1979 Major League Baseball draft. I was not alive. So, I don’t begin to know what the draft was like back then. It was certainly not the spectacle that pro sports drafts have become at this point. There were probably no groups of fans booing the commissioner at every turn. There was no green room of high draft pick hopefuls. There was no ticker at the bottom of your screen giving pick by pick updates. There were probably people smoking cigarettes in the room. There may have not even been “a room” as drafts of that era were often done entirely by conference call.
In that fashion, it was also a pretty unspectacular draft for our hometown team. Of the 37 players selected, only five ever reached the majors, with 3rd round selection Pat Sheridan being the only one to log any significant time in KC. Atlee Hammaker (1st round) and Craig Lefferts (7th round) went on to enjoy long MLB careers in the NL. Otherwise, like any draft it was mostly populated by a long list of future insurance salesman and beer league softball heroes.
But amongst this ho-hum lack of spectacle, the Kansas City Royals inadvertently tried to alter the course National Football League history.
With the 99th pick, they selected a right-handed pitcher out of Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh, PA by the name of Daniel Constantine Marino, Jr. Yes, THAT Dan Marino. However, being a Parade All-American at quarterback, he chose to go play football at Pitt instead. Back then signing bonuses were much smaller and the allure of playing to sold-out stadiums on Saturdays was more appealing than mostly empty minor league parks every night of the week. In hindsight, it is safe to say that although he never got the Super Bowl ring he so desperately wanted, he certainly made the right choice and will go down as one of the top quarterbacks in NFL history.
But one future Hall of Fame quarterback just wasn’t enough for the Royals. With the 463rd overall pick in the 18th round, the Royals reached out for a dual sport star athlete again. This time, a power hitting outfielder and pitcher out of Granada Hills High School in Granada Hills, California named John Albert Elway, Jr. It was a long shot though, as Elway was considered the #1 football recruit in the nation and supposedly had offers from over 60 colleges. Not surprisingly, he picked football and Stanford cardinal over Royal’s blue. And so began the series of events that led him to becoming probably the most hated athlete in Kansas City (if he’s not #1 on that list, he’s certainly in the top three).
Across the parking lot at the Truman Sports Complex, perhaps the Chiefs should have been watching that 1979 draft a little more closely. Four years later in the 1983 NFL draft, they did not draft Elway (though he was gone by the time the Chiefs came up with the 7th pick). They did not draft Marino. As we are all reminded at least four times a week on local sports talk radio, they hitched their wagons to Todd Blackledge. The rest, as they say, is unfortunate history.
But imagine for one moment that scraggly horse face belting homeruns into the fountains. That mop-topped lightning bolt arm striking out batter after batter in the blazing Royals Stadium sun. Imagine that joyous huddle around Saberhagen at the end of game 7 in 1985 with Elway and Marino hopping and screaming along. Imagine what the Miami Dolphins or Denver Broncos franchise encyclopedias might read like without their respective best players ever.
The Royals had a great eye for drafting talent. It was just for the wrong sport.