Scott McGregorAugust 7, 2009
(Continued from Gary Beare)
In 1972, Scott McGregor was chosen by the New York Yankees with the 14th pick of major league baseball’s amateur draft. Only a little over half the players picked in the first round of that draft made it to the majors. This surprises me. I haven’t spent a lot of time evaluating major league drafts, but I always assumed that the Chosen Ones who have their names called in the first round had by virtue of their athletic abilities wrested a greater level of certainty from the world than the rest of us. Turns out there’s uncertainty everywhere.
A couple of the players from that first round that made it the big leagues are obscure to me (Dan Larsen, Rob Dressler), and a few turned out to be multifaceted, if uncelebrated, utility men (Dave Chalk, Jamie Quirk, and perhaps most of all the number one overall pick, Dave Roberts, who logged time at every position on the field but pitcher before he was done), perhaps suggesting that the athletic ability that first caught a scout’s eye allowed them to find ways to be useful even after they proved to not be in possession of the spark of greatness.
A few of the draft picks became regulars. Rick Manning, Chet Lemon, Dick Ruthven, Larry Christenson. Scott McGregor was in that group, and possibly the best of them when all was said and done. If I had to pick one pitcher and one hitter, I’d pick McGregor and Lemon. But Lemon did not have the highest lifetime OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) among the 1972 draft picks. That distinction belonged to the one member of the select club who may have had that spark of greatness: the sixth overall pick, Dan Thomas.
The year this card came out, 1980, McGregor built on the thrill of helping the Orioles snag the pennant in 1979 by racking up twenty wins, the only pitcher from the 1972 class of first round draft picks to ever top that hallowed mark. That same year, Dan Thomas, who had not played a major league game since the spring of 1977, hung himself in a jail cell in Mobile, Alabama, where he had been placed on suspicion of raping a 12-year-old.
The most accomplished pitcher among the 1972 number one draft picks and perhaps the most talented hitter among the 1972 number one draft picks faced one another just once, in a late September game that also had a tangential connection to Mobile, Alabama. The game was the second to last for the Home Run King, Hank Aaron, who hailed from Dan Thomas’ eventual deathplace. It was sundown for Mobile’s Hank Aaron, his last road game, played in front of just 8,119 Orioles fans. He’d already hit his last home run a couple months earlier, off the Angels’ Dick Drago, and he would collect his last hit and the last of his all-time major league leading 2297 RBI in his last game ever, back in Milwaukee (in front of—incredibly—just 6,858 fans). But in the game in Baltimore against Scott McGregor he would score his 2,174th and final run. Dan Thomas would be the last to ever drive Hank Aaron home.
It was sunup for Dan Thomas, or so it seemed. Perhaps in an attempt to stay on the roll he was on, Thomas went to Venezuela in the off-season to play winter ball. He would, in the coming months, after a transformational religious experience, tell reporters, “It’s just my personal belief, but I feel we’ve lost contact with our creator.” He seems to have known that feeling of disconnection all too well. When in Venezuela, he took an overdose of muscle relaxing pills, which almost killed him. The Brewers hospitalized him back in Milwaukee, then after he walked out of the hospital and was found wandering around a highway he was placed into psychiatric care in St. Louis.
First round draft pick. Minor league Triple Crown winner. Promising first month in the majors. It didn’t matter. Something was missing.
Something was missing for Scott McGregor at that time, too. The pitcher, who became an ordained minister after his playing career ended, implies as much in a quote from a Baltimore Sun obituary on his teammate Pat Kelly: “I got saved in 1978 through [Kelly’s] influence.” McGregor doesn’t elaborate on his state of being before he got saved, but earlier in the obituary the description of Kelly’s own conversion as coming on the heels of a nervous breakdown suggests that in these matters, as the old saying goes, it’s always darkest before the dawn.
Near the end of his tumultuous offseason, Dan Thomas underwent a similar religious conversion, joining the Worldwide Church of God.
He must have believed he was finally beginning to see the dawn.
(to be continued)
(For more on Scott McGregor, who once pitched a shutout to clinch a World Series title, see this meditative fan’s eye view on Orioles Card O the Day and scroll down on this page to access a recent Baseball Prospectus podcast interview with McGregor.)