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The Baseball Page: Todd Van Poppel is getting unfairly branded

By RICHARD L. SHOOK UPI Sports Writer

There's something about the Todd Van Poppel situation that just doesn't sit right.

Somehow it looks like a kid who just got out of high school (remember how smart you were back then?) is getting painted as a slick, greedy, manipulative weasel. With his dad's help, of course.

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All because he told the Atlanta Braves he didn't want to sign a professional baseball contract with them; he wanted to pitch for the University of Texas and the U.S. Olympic team.

But he ends up signing with Oakland, which drafts him midway through the first round. The Athletics signied the right-hander with the hot fastball and excellent mechanics for $1.2 million.

Somehow, because he changed his mind, Van Poppel is now a double-dealing rat who either got bought off or threatens to subvert the system.

Never mind that the draft itself is restrictive, collusive and probably illegal in terms of what it does to the rights of the individual. That's an issue for another time.

The Athletics come out one of the good guys in this, even though it was their money that brought all of it about.

Their image as a 'class organization' that 'does the right thing' and 'world champions' helps make them blameless. And rightly so since Oakland did nothing but make a smart move available to it under the rules.

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Poor Atlanta comes out as the fair maiden whose honor is sullied. And Baseball is viewed in this morality play as the honorable institution dishonored by a grasping kid or his dad.

There was pre-draft talk the pitcher from Arlington, Texas, had cut a deal with the hometown Rangers and would sign with them if he could slide down to 16th.

Thus the 'I won't play pro ball' stories, a tactic Detroit encouraged with Kirk Gibson when he came out of Michigan State as a football All-America.

Atlanta is seen as lied to under this scenario. Overlooked is the fact it drafted a fine high school shortstop, Chipper Jones, who may eventually prove to be far superior to Van Poppel as a major league player.

Overlooked is the fact Atlanta, as an organization, simply didn't measure up on draft day when put beside Oakland.

The Braves are supposed to have all these young pitching prospects -- but all they are to date are reputations. None has emerged as a star.

In addition, if Atlanta is an organization full of young pitchers, what is it doing signing retreads such as Ed Olwine and Doug Sisk?

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This is the year the Braves were supposed to show progress under General Manager Bobby Cox's directing hand. They haven't.

Not only that, the manager was fired over the resistance of the general manager, who was ordered to take his place in the dugout.

The whole scenario smacks of one designed to force Cox's resignation from the organization at the end of the year. So the Braves can start another five-year plan.

Bad teams get top draft positions so they get first crack at the better athletes. It's designed to help equalize competition.

Certainly the top prospect signing with the top team doesn't do anything to equalize competition. But every team in front of Oakland had a chance to draft Van Poppel and passed. Their choice.

And Oakland was drafting with a pick it got as compensation for losing a free agent.

As for the prospects, most initially aren't particular about whom they start out with. They're just interested in getting to the major leagues as fast as they can. (Then they get choosy.)

But what if some prospects don't care to start out with one of last year's worst teams? College seniors have no choice, they can either sign with the teams that draft them or choose another line of work.

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But what if high school kids prefer college to a bad organization? Or a good organization to college? Or what if they just aren't sure?

The Van Poppel signing is starting a movement within baseball to have kids sign pre-draft letters stating their intentions. This sounds arbitrary and immoral, if not illegal.

Any kid who would sign his rights away by agreeing to something like that probably isn't worth drafting anyway.

Atlanta could have drafted Van Poppel anyway. And if it failed to sign him, would have gotten a compensation pick in next year's draft. Sure, it wouldn't have been after the first round was over and not the No. 1 pick in the country. But it would have been something.

The Braves simply didn't want to take a chance. They felt they couldn't afford to waste the choice (and Oakland had picks to 'waste.').

Atlanta isn't a winner now -- and maybe decisions like this are one reason why. But it's up to Braves to show prospects they're a worthwhile organization to sign with.

Some of us like working for underdogs. Some favor the top dog. Should a youngster still in his teens be any different? Van Poppel tipped his hand there when he signed with Texas, which has sent a few pitchers to the majors in recent years, instead of another school.

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To impute Van Poppel with bad motives for simply changing his mind, exercising his freedom of choice, is wrong.

And to talk of changing the draft system isn't right either. If all the kids baseball is interested in are manipulative and dishonest, maybe they belong in another line of work. Or the front office.NEWLN:

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