Written by Jeff Vorva
Parents of youth league baseball players, what if I proposed this scenario to you?
If I told you that your kid would pitch in 11 seasons in the major leagues and make millions, you would likely tell me “Great!” and maybe turn a cartwheel or two.
If I told you, he might not be a superstar and might bounce around the league a little, including a couple of years with the Cubs, you might not want to turn that cartwheel, but you would have to admit it’s a pretty sweet scenario.
It’s all a matter of perspective.
For a dude named Todd Van Poppel, it wasn’t all that special.
A few weeks ago, my daughter was playing volleyball at this massive national qualifying tournament at McCormack Place and there were thousands of players, coaches and parents milling about. While I was chatting with another parent, a long distance away in this sea of humanity, there was former major league pitcher Todd Van Poppel purchasing some tournament shirts.
I wanted to chase him down and say hello to him, but he was too far away.
He played with the Cubs when I covered the team in 2000 and 2001 and he may or may not have remembered me. Arguably, those were the two best seasons of his career as the setup man and racked up ERAs of 3.75 and 2.52 in his pair of years on the North Side.
By the time he reached the Cubs he was 29. He wasn’t the friendliest guy in the locker room but I was able to have a few decent conversations with him. By that time, he was beaten over the head over and over by fans and media about what a failure he was.
See, when he was in high school, he was supposed to be the next great thing.
He was going to be another Nolan Ryan.
He was a “can’t-miss” prospect.
In happier times, he was 11-3 with a 0.97 ERA and 170 strikeouts as a senior in Arlington, Texas. The world was his oyster.
The Atlanta Braves were so geeked about him, they were all set to draft him in the first round. But legend has it that Van Poppel told the Braves no and they looked in another direction. They picked up an infielder named Larry Wayne Jones, Jr.
His nickname is “Chipper.’’
Chipper went on to have a pretty good career.
He signed with Oakland, made his debut at age 19 and became one of the top 10 “Can’t miss prospects that missed” according to one website. A Facebook wiseguy who writes “Ricos Funny Quotes” said “My retirement plan is just a shoebox filled with Todd Van Poppel rookie cards.’’
When Van Poppel signed with the A’s in 1990, the team selected four pitchers with their first 36 picks and people started calling them the “Four Aces.”
Despite people thinking he was a bust, Van Poppel was the ace of the Four Aces. The others were Don Peters, Dave Zancanaro and Kirk Dressendorfer. Dressendorfer lasted a month in the majors and the other two never made it.
It’s so dangerous to play the Potential Game. So many athletes in all sports have been the victims of too much hype before they even perform at the highest level. When they don’t live up to that hype, people resent them.
Look, I don’t remember Van Poppel telling the world he was going to be the next great thing. He wasn’t bragging that he would be a Hall of Fame pitcher. He was just a great high school pitcher whose career was seemingly mapped out by others. And it didn’t work out like they thought it would.
Here’s what I like about Van Poppel – he didn’t flame out at a young age and go home. He took all of the demotions to the minor leagues and from being a big-name starter to a near anonymous reliever and still put the work in and did what it took to spend more than a decade in the majors.
That’s not a glorious accomplishment, but it’s a pretty difficult one.
At 6-foot-5, he can hold his head high, literally and figuratively.
He was in Chicago to watch his daughter, Halee, play for the 16 Mizuno Ray team out of Texas, which finished 14th in the 16-year-old open division. His daughter is getting a lot of positive press and will likely get a lot more before she graduates from high school in 2017.
If she gets a little too much love from the media and her head starts filling with thoughts about her greatness, her old man should be able to give some good perspective on that topic.