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    Mudville: November 29, 2021 5:51 pm PDT
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    Onward, Upward & The Crash

    It’s time to bring Steve Chilcott in.

    The top pick in the 1966 MLB First-Year Player Draft has been hung out to dry for 55 years and by now, the critics should have had enough time to wring every last drop out of the former New York catcher.

    Chilcott, 72, has been the poster boy for draft busts everywhere since the Mets made him the No. 1 overall pick in 1966. That Chilcott never reached the Major Leagues and spent seven injury-plagued seasons in the minors was enough to draw the ire of draft gurus and New York baseball fans alike. What makes Chilcott’s case a bit more damaging is that the Kansas City Athletics drafted Reggie Jackson with the second pick, a selection that not only provided a major building block to their future Oakland dynasty of the early 1970s but also put the charismatic outfielder on a path to the Hall of Fame.

    While hindsight has made it easy to single out the Mets for their selection and make Chilcott the butt of many a joke, the fact remains that he was a highly sought-after prospect, one that many scouts thought would be a very good Major Leaguer. That includes Hall-of-Famer Casey Stengel, who scouted Chilcott and personally recommended him to the Mets.

    That Jackson’s and Chilcott’s paths diverged almost immediately following the draft leaves Chilcott in the unenviable position of being history’s whipping boy, though. The circumstances surrounding his aborted career, however, bring up more questions about what might have been for him rather than why the Mets didn’t draft Jackson.

    “Does history treat me fairly? I guess that depends on who is writing the story,” Chilcott said. “It comes down to the fact that I had a lot of injuries.

    If the Mets had selected Reggie, he could have gotten hurt as easily as I did. It’s all speculation, though.

    “The joke for a lot of people was that you’re a prospect, then suspect then a reject. I kind of felt that way. ”

    “What I have always heard, especially from Mets’ scouts, is that they were loaded with a bunch of outfield prospects in those years and that they were really looking for a catcher, especially a lefty-hitting one who could hit with power. That’s why they picked me.”

    Steve Chilcott of the New York Mets and Joe Deer during the 1970 season. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)<br />

    THE JOURNEY TO NO. 1

    While the Mets desire for a catcher in the 1966 draft necessitated their picking Chilcott, it was their poor draft in 1965 that set the stage for the latter selection. New York chose Les Rohr with the second overall pick in the 1965. Rohr, a left-hander, also saw his career cut short by injuries and was out of baseball by the end of 1970 having pitched in only six Major League games.

    The Mets chose catcher Randolph Kohn with their second pick in ’65 [22nd overall]. Kohn chose not to sign and instead went to the University of Georgia. The 36th pick in that draft was Johnny Bench. While the Mets weren’t the only team to pass on Bench, imagine what New York would have looked like in the late 60s and early 70s with Bench and Jackson in their lineup.

    So when the ’66 draft arrived, Chilcott was high on New York’s list, as he was for many teams. Chilcott was coming off a senior year at Antelope Valley High in which he hit .500 [42-for-84] with 33 RBI and 40 runs scored over 25 games. Twenty-six of his hits went for extra bases and 11 of those were homers. He went 4-for-4 in an April 25 game at which Stengel was in attendance.

    “I don’t think anyone knew Casey was coming,” said Chilcott, who was also the starting quarterback on his high school team. “Nelson Burbrink [the scout who signed Tom Seaver] was the scout who scouted me the most. I don’t remember Casey sitting in the stands. All of a sudden, he was just at the game and during a normal high school game, you get 20 people and most of them are parents. All of a sudden one of my teammates said Casey Stengel is in the stands and all of a sudden hundreds of people were at the game. He left around the sixth inning and by the seventh inning the stands were back to about 20 people.

    “I got scouted a lot so I knew I was going to go high. I applied to colleges, too. I thought it would be in my best interest if I could get a big bonus and get college scholarship [money] from a pro team and still be able to go to college, which I didn’t do. I got my big bonus [$75,000] and I wanted to play ball. I think that if I wasn’t drafted so high I probably would have gone on to college for sure.”

    Where Chilcott did go was to Marion, Va., where he played for the Mets’ affiliate in the Rookie-Level Appalachian League. He struggled, hitting .226 with four RBIs in 31 at-bats. Johnny Murphy, who was the Mets’ vice president, told The Sporting News at the time that Chilcott’s struggles were the result of playing night games on a poorly lit field, adding that the youngster displayed exceptional power and ability during batting practice in daylight hours just before games.

    So, Chilcott was moved up to Auburn of the Rookie-Level New York-Penn League but he hit .155 with a homer and six RBIs in 71 at-bats to close out his first professional season. While it was an inauspicious start to his career, Chilcott would begin 1967 in much better fashion.

    ONWARD, UPWARD AND THEN THE CRASH

    New York sent Chilcott to Winter Haven of the Class-A Florida State League the following season and he began to display the talent that made him a top pick. He was hitting .290 with six homers and 45 RBIs through 79 games. He was fourth in the league in hitting at the time and leading all catchers with a .991 fielding percentage before suffering the right shoulder injury that would ultimately mark the beginning of the end of his career.

    “It happened when I dove back into the bag,” Chilcott said. “It was a double play ball and I was out by 10 feet. I was forced at second and as I slid, I saw the umpire lift his arm like I was out. I never saw the ball. I don’t know if the fielder dropped the ball or what because I didn’t hear or see anything.

    “I was out by a long shot and was five-to-10 feet off the bag and about to head back to the dugout when he called me safe. I dove back into the bag and jammed my right shoulder. I was doing really well at that point, catching every day, leading the team in a lot of stats and it all went downhill.”

    Chilcott suffered what he called a semi-dislocation of the shoulder. He missed the remainder of the season and said his shoulder got to a point where it would pop in or out of joint if he simply reached for something the wrong way. He said his muscles had lost elasticity and that he had been sapped of much of his shoulder’s strength.

    “I finally had surgery in 1969 and that seemed pretty successful but it changed my throwing and my hitting,” Chilcotte said. “Sports medicine was just starting. If that had happened now, they’d have me on a full-blown program. I think that was probably a factor in my never coming back 100 percent. I hurt my shoulder in 1967 and there was always a shoulder or my knee injuries, or hand injuries after that. I never played a full season.”

    TRYING TO MOVE FORWARD

    That proved to be the case in both 1968 and 1969. Chilcott was limited to a combined 26 games at Visalia of the Class-A California League because of his shoulder. The Mets were the defending World Series champions as 1970 unfolded and Chilcott found himself with an invite to Major League spring training.

    Chilcott had a solid spring that year and felt as if he was on track to become, at the very least, the team’s No. 1 pinch-hitter. However, with no position to play he found himself back in the minors for the regular season. He split the year between Triple-A Tidewater and Double-A Memphis and even appeared in three games for the Montreal/Winnipeg franchise in the International League. The Mets had loaned him out after the Montreal/Winnipeg starting catcher had gotten hurt. By mid-August, Chilcott’s season was over, though, because of Reserve Training duty.

    The 1971 season would prove to be Chilcott’s best as pro but it was yet another year that was cut short by injuries. He was 22 years old and by that point had already spent five seasons in the minor leagues. His chances of achieving the goal of reaching the Major Leagues were beginning to fade but that didn’t deter Chilcott, who was hitting .265 with 17 homers and 68 RBIs through 91 games. That stretch, however, proved to be his last gasp.

    “The first part of the season I fouled a ball off my shin and it got infected and I had to get it drained,” Chilcott said. “I couldn’t put on shin guards because the spot was as big as a grapefruit. But I got over that. Because I couldn’t put on my shin guards they put me in right field in June, July and August and that’s where I stayed for the rest of the season until I stepped on a sprinkler head in Reno and tore up my knee.

    The Mets traded Chilcott to the Yankees that winter and he appeared to be in a good situation. He was the only left-handed hitting catcher in the upper echelon of the organization and looked to have a very good chance at being Thurman Munson’s backup. However, he ended up breaking his hand and that proved to be the end of his career.

    Chilcott appeared in 24 games in 1972, splitting time between AA West Haven of the Eastern League and Class-A Fort Lauderdale of the Florida State League. He hit .222 with a pair of homers and eight RBIs and was out of baseball by the time he turned 24 that September.

    “It was frustrating,” Chilcott said. “Especially when I got to the Yankees and broke my hand. I dislocated my index fingers and broke several bones and [ultimately] got released. The joke for a lot of people was that you’re a prospect, then suspect then a reject. I kind of felt that way. I knew I went from being a good player to an average player and that there were a bunch of average players out there already so I needed to find something else to do.”

    SOMETHING ELSE

    Chilcott returned to California and tried a few different career directions, including an attempt at working for the fire department. Ultimately he began working on remodeling homes and building houses and was very successful at doing so. His baseball injuries and the rigors of working in construction, though, have taken their toll.

    “2005 was when I really quit working full time,” he said. “It seems like I have had surgery every year. I’ve worn out my bones and my joints. I bought a new truck and in five years I probably drove 15,000 miles. It sat in my driveway. I couldn’t drive it because of my hands and knees.”

    He says there is no bitterness about his baseball career but he does admit he feels cheated in a way because of all the injuries, which left him as one of seven top picks in the draft to never have reached the Major Leagues. Three of those players, though, were selected in the last four years. The others are Brien Taylor [1991], Mark Appel [2013] and Brady Aiken [2014].

    “I never felt like I was able to perform like I thought I could,” Chilcott said. “I never had a chance to reach my potential. After I hurt my shoulder I was playing first base and I wasn’t really a first baseman. I got stuck in right field and I liked that a lot but I wasn’t an outfielder. I had a good arm and I was signed as a catcher and I wanted to catch.

    “When I got traded to the Yankees, I was finally back catching. Then I got hit with a foul ball and broke my hand badly and was back at first base. It was hard grabbing a bat after that when they gave me permission to play. My right hand was not in good form. Anybody could have stepped on a sprinkler head or gotten hit in the hand with a foul ball so [everything said] is all speculation. It’s all luck.”

    It’s also time to bring Steve Chilcott in.

    Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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