Drew’s abundant talent garnered comparisons to immortals Stan Musial and Mickey Mantle before he had played even a full month with the St. Louis Cardinals. After a record-setting three years at Florida State, he had become a poster-boy for greedy ballplayers when he engaged in an acrimonious contract holdout after being drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1997.
Born in tiny Hahira, Georgia, Drew was raised Baptist by parents who took him to church almost daily. He didn’t take up baseball until the age of 13, when he tired of playing wide receiver on his high school’s run-oriented football squad. Taken in the 20th round of the 1994 draft by San Francisco, Drew elected instead for college, telling the Giants that he wanted to get bigger and stronger.
Drew enjoyed a storied career at Florida State. In his freshman year he became the first player to hit three home runs in a single College World Series game, and tied a Series record with four-round trippers overall. He added a fifth circuit blast when he returned to the Series as a sophomore, establishing a record for most career homers in Series play. As a junior Drew won every honor imaginable, including the Golden Spikes Award given to the country’s top amateur. While batting .455, he recorded the first 30-homer/30-steal season in NCAA Division I history, and set a host of team and ACC batting records along the way.
Disregarding warnings from agent Scott Boras not to pick Drew unless they were willing to pay top dollar, the Phillies selected Drew with the second overall pick of the 1997 draft. (J.D.’s brother Tim Drew, a high school senior, was taken in the first-round by the Cleveland Indians, marking the first time two brothers had been taken in the first round of the same draft.) Boras and Drew asked for a contract package that totaled $11 million, a number that Philadelphia staunchly refused to consider. In a bizarre chapter of the saga, Drew claimed never to have received three executed minor-league contracts the Phillies sent via Federal Express to his parents’ home in Georgia and later to his Florida State address.
Unable to agree to a contract with the Phillies, Drew opted to spend the 1997 season with the St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern League, where he batted .318 with 18 home runs and 50 RBIs in 44 games, earning the league’s Rookie of the Year Award. Despite his offensive assault, Drew faced resentment from both fans and player for his holdout. After hitting him in the shoulder with a pitch, Sioux Falls hurler Rich Hyde admitted to throwing at him intentionally. “I never made any money in this game, and he’s turning down $2 million,” explained Hyde. “A lot of guys here don’t appreciate that. I wanted to send that message to him.”
Drew re-entered the draft the next year, and the Cardinals took him with fifth overall pick in June 1998. After signing a four-year deal worth approximately $8.5 million and playing just 45 games at Double-A Arkansas and Triple-A Memphis, Drew was called up to St. Louis that September. He made his debut on September 8, 1998, the day Mark McGwire hit his record-setting 62nd home run. Playing his first road game the next day at Cincinnati, Drew responded to the jeers and boos of the crows by launching his first major-league home run, a 438-foot blast off Gabe White. In 14 games that month, Drew batted .417 with five home runs, fueling expectations for his impending rookie year.
While Drew tore through the exhibition season in the spring of 1999, Cardinals coaches fell all over themselves trying to praise him. Hitting coach Mike Easler described the left-handed swinger as “Wade Boggs with power” and compared his running and defensive skills to Mantle. Manager Tony LaRussa opined, “He has the standard five tools and I give him an extra-credit half tool because he knows how to use them.”
But despite opening his rookie campaign batting in the most coveted lineup spot in baseball – directly ahead of new home run champ McGwire – Drew’s first year did not turn out as planned. He batted just .242 with 13 home runs and 19 steals in 104 games, and was criticized by LaRussa for poor outfield fundamentals. Adding injury to insult, Drew was sidelined more than six weeks by a quadriceps injury in May.
The rookie also suffered the wrath of the City of Brotherly Love when the Cardinals traveled to Philadelphia in August. While Phillies ace Curt Schilling hinted that he might go head-hunting at the man who had spurned his city (Schilling was quoted as saying Drew had better wear a batting helmet with double earflaps), Philadelphia fans booed Drew lustily and brought all manner of colorful signs to the ballpark. Eight arrests were made at his Veterans Stadium debut on August 10, 1999 when two D-cell batteries were thrown at him in the outfield.
Drew’s 2000 season augured better, as he raised his average to .295 with 18 home runs. He began to fulfill the predictions of greatness in 2001, when he batted above .320 with bulked-up power numbers despite losing time to a broken right hand and a lower back sprain.