Ten players from the state were taken in the first two rounds in 1999 but just one — Ryan Doumit — is currently playing in the major leagues.
Jeff Heaverlo remembers the cover story in Baseball America so vividly that 10 years later, he can recite the headline, word for word.
“Scouts flock to talent-rich … dot dot dot … Washington, with a question mark,” he recalls, laughing. “I don’t know if we’ll ever see a boom like that again.”
One decade ago, this state was the improbable hotbed of amateur baseball. In the 1999 June draft, 10 state players were taken in the first two rounds, including four in the first round and two in the supplemental round between the first and second.
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Never before or since has Washington produced such a rich array of talent. The 2009 draft will commence today, and it’s possible no state players will be taken in the first five rounds.
A look back at the great Washington Class of ’99 reveals the cruel and fickle nature of professional baseball.
Only one of the 10 made it big — catcher Ryan Doumit, one of three players chosen in the top 63 picks that year from Moses Lake High School.
Doumit hit .318 last year for Pittsburgh and then signed a three-year, $11.5 million extension with the Pirates.
One of his Chiefs teammates, B.J. Garbe, the No. 5 overall pick by Minnesota — four spots ahead of Barry Zito — never made it out of Class AA. He quit baseball three years ago and now is part-owner and general manager of a restaurant/casino/hotel in East Wenatchee.
“I expected to do a lot of great things in baseball,” said Garbe, 28. “It didn’t pan out.”
The other Moses Lake player, Jason Cooper, opted to attend Stanford rather than sign with the Phillies, who picked him in the second round. Cooper, who was drafted in the third round by Cleveland in 2002, is playing his sixth season at Class AAA Buffalo in the Mets’ organization. He is still waiting and hoping for that elusive big-league call.
Of the seven other players (which doesn’t include Port Orchard’s Willie Bloomquist, taken in the third round and in his eighth big-league season), only two made it to the big leagues — pitcher Josh Pearce from Yakima’s West Valley High School, who had a 13-game stint with the Cardinals from 2002 to 2004, and Jason Repko of Hanford High School in Richland, who has played 220 games for the Dodgers but is currently toiling in Class AAA Albuquerque.
Six are out of baseball and starting new careers in their late 20s, including first-rounders Garbe, Ty Howington (14th overall) and Jason Stumm (15th overall).
The other first-rounder, Gerik Baxter from Edmonds-Woodway, was killed in a car accident in 2001 at age 21.
By all accounts, Baxter, a hard-throwing pitcher, was on a fast track to the Padres’ rotation. At the time of the accident, he was on his way from Phoenix to Lake Elsinore, Calif., to continue rehabbing an arm injury. A tire on his pickup truck blew out and the truck rolled, killing Baxter and his Edmonds-Woodway teammate Mark Hilde, 18, who had been drafted by the Oakland A’s.
“We had taken Jake Peavy that same year [in the 15th round], and Baxter was thought of as highly as Peavy at the time,” recalled Padres general manager Kevin Towers.
“The accident was devastating to everyone. He had a real bright, promising career. Gerik was a super kid.”
Added Barry Axelrod, agent for Baxter and Peavy: “Gerik was very talented, and he had that swagger. He was a guy who knew he was good.”
Axelrod actually forged his professional relationship with Peavy while both attended Baxter’s funeral.
“There’s some sort of karma there,” he said. “When I look at Jake, I see so many of the things I thought were the case with Gerik. Starting with talent, the way they’re physically built, the same confidence and swagger. Jake reminds me of Gerik.”
Peavy, who grew up in Mobile, Ala., recalls Baxter throwing 95 to 99 mph in 1999, straight out of high school.
“Gerik was as talented as anybody I’d ever seen,” Peavy said. “We hit it off right away. He was a bit older than I was, and a little more in tune with the world than I was.”
Peavy and Baxter bonded in the low minors, even getting a tattoo together one spring training at Two Cats Tats in Peoria, Ariz., where the Padres trained.
Years later, when Peavy had become a Cy Young winner, he got an elaborate tattoo on his shoulder and upper arm. But he insisted that the original cross he had received with Baxter remain visible.
“Gerik was a great soul, a great human being,” Peavy said.
Garbe’s story is the classic tale of a can’t-miss prospect who did. While Justin Morneau, taken in the third round of the same 1999 draft by Minnesota, is a superstar in the second year of a six-year, $80 million contract, Garbe’s life is consumed by running Kegler’s Casino and the Wild Card Sports Bar and Grill in East Wenatchee.
And loving every minute of it.
“It’s kind of hard to say this, but I’m probably more happy doing this than I’ve been in a long time,” he said. “I’ll always miss baseball, but I’m extremely content right now.”
Pro baseball was an ordeal almost from the start for Garbe, who as a senior at Moses Lake was named the Gatorade national player of the year. For one thing, he was diagnosed with night blindness, which can be a problem in a sport in which 80 to 90 percent of the games are at night.
“It played a part, definitely,” he said. “In day games, my average was 80 points higher than at night. Was that the deciding factor? I don’t think so.”
The Twins tried to change his batting stroke, and he never adjusted. Mostly, Garbe said, he didn’t like the fact that baseball had become a business.
“I never liked that about professional baseball,” he said. “The game just changed. I lost a lot of passion for it over the years that I played.”
The Twins finally cut Garbe after the 2004 season. He hooked up with the Mariners’ organization in 2005, hitting .275 in Class A ball, and began the 2006 season in AA with the Marlins. Struggling with a .184 average in May, he quit for good.
Like many of the other players from that draft, Garbe pocketed a substantial bonus ($2.75 million in his case) that helped finance his post-baseball life.
“I was just burned out on baseball, and I was getting married the next fall,” he said. “I couldn’t really be doing the things I wanted to do; the things important in life are difficult to obtain in baseball — a family, and being around your wife and kids.
“Not playing near expectations made it easier. It’s funny — now that I’m out of baseball, I actually enjoy baseball more than I did when I was playing it. Following Ryan [Doumit] is extremely fun.”
Doumit, rehabbing from a broken wrist, remembers the 1999 draft fondly.
“It’s awesome that so many guys from one small area in Washington were taken in the draft that year,” he said, in a quote provided by the Pirates’ media-relations department. “Those dudes were my best friends, and still are. We still talk to each other a bunch of times during the season.”
Cooper and his wife, in fact, own a house together in the Phoenix area with Doumit. At age 28, Cooper is persevering with his pro career in AAA Buffalo, and is just eight units shy of an anthropology degree at Stanford.
He takes inspiration in stories such as that of Bobby Scales, who reached the major leagues this season with the Cubs after 11 years in the minors, and Chris Coste, who had a similar saga before establishing himself with the Phillies.
“It definitely inspires me to keep pushing,” Cooper said by phone from a trip. “Hopefully, I can open some eyes. I’m going to do it until they tell me I can’t do it anymore.”
Many of the Class of ’99 firmly believe they had the talent, but simply couldn’t stay healthy. Stumm still fondly remembers getting out Paul Konerko, Frank Thomas and Ray Durham during spring training his first year. Heaverlo had some dominating years in the minors and was on the verge of being called up by the Mariners in 2005.
Howington, according to his agent, Jim Lindell, was cruising through the minors with the Reds until he suffered a series of arm injuries.
“It was ridiculous. He was making it look so easy,” Lindell said. “He had a combination of a power fastball and power curveball that was something else. His arm just gave out.”
Stumm’s story was frustratingly similar — he endured two shoulder and two elbow surgeries — but as he works toward finishing his marketing degree at University of Arizona, he is philosophical.
“You kind of feel cheated you didn’t get an opportunity,” he said. “But the other way to look at it, without baseball, I never would have bought my house here, and I never would have met my wife. Her roommate was dating my roommate, Mark Buehrle, and that’s how I met her.”
This past April 5, Stumm’s wife, Britte, gave birth to their first child, a girl named Mackenzie.
“Spending time in the minors and traveling, living that life, really makes you appreciate being at home,” he said. “Especially with a baby. It kills you when you have to leave.”
Heaverlo, too, is working toward finishing his college degree while coaching pitchers at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake.
He, too, wonders how things might have been different if his shoulder hadn’t given out, or if he had actually gotten the big-league call the two times he was led to believe a trip to the Mariners was imminent in 2005.
“I’m very fortunate,” he said. “I was in major-league spring training, and that showed me I could get big-league hitters out. I can go to bed and say, ‘You know what? I did have the stuff. I just didn’t have the opportunity.’ “
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com