50 Years Ago Today, The Mets Made A Colossal Draft Mistake
New York Mets fans, close your eyes.
Take yourself back to October 13, 1973. The Mets were in the World Series taking on the Oakland A’s. Picture the legendary Willie Mays, standing in center field and still batting third for the Mets even at age 42.
Now, in your imagination, drift your eyes over to right field and picture Reggie Jackson standing there in blue and orange, ready to take the mantle as the game’s top slugger right from his teammate, the incomparable Mays.
That’s they way life should have been for Mets fans if they pushed the right (and obvious) button 50 years ago on June 7, 1966. Instead, the Mets had Don Hahn in right field and were beaten by the A’s 4-3 as Jackson earned the MVP of the series.
Looking back on any draft in any sport you will find a large collection of “what if’s.” There are never sure things and all the scouting in the world doesn’t guarantee whether or not a great prospect would become a bust. In baseball, draft science is even harder. Unlike the NFL or NBA, even the best prospects can take years to make the majors, and so much can go wrong along the way.
However, there are times where logic should really dictate who a team picks, especially if they’re holding the top overall pick and are staring down a possible transcendent athlete.
That was the case 50 years ago today.
The Mets held the top pick in the 1966 draft and the A’s were right behind them. The general consensus pick was Reggie Jackson, who had just wrapped up an incredible career at Arizona State. Jackson, who initially attended Arizona State on a football scholarship before switching to baseball, completely dominated the sport on his was to earning All-America honors. From the time he was a senior in high school when he was heavily recruited by Alabama, Oklahoma and Georgia for football and had to fend off pro baseball scouts who wanted him to forego college, it was clear Jackson was an elite athlete.
Come June 7, 1966, Jackson was generally considered the best amateur baseball player in the country. Surely the Mets would make the simple choice to add this budding superstar to their franchise, right?
The Mets were in just their fifth year of existence at the time and were beyond awful. They should have been begging for a star that they could fast-track to the majors. The Mets had recently won the rights to Tom Seaver, another prospect who’s greatness had been expected right from the start and if they could add an electric slugger like Jackson as well, it would give fans their first real reason for hope in franchise history.
Instead, the Mets pulled a fast one and went with Steven Chilcott, a 17-year-old high school catcher out of Antelope Valley, California. To be fair, Chilctott was a good prospect, but he was seen as an obvious project. He wouldn’t turn 18 until September and catchers weren’t typically fast-tracked to the majors.
The Mets stated they took Chilcott because he played a prime position of need and because he had the endorsement of the legendary Casey Stengel, but there were always rumors of the Mets passing on Jackson for racial reasons as well. Either way, the Mets passed on someone who had every tool in the shed for a 5’11” kid who was years away from playing.
Even the most casual baseball fan knows how this panned out. Jackson of course went on to become one of the greatest players to ever play the game, while Chilcott remains one of just two #1 overall draft picks to not make the majors. He was injured early in his minor league career and just never got going. Chilcott batted .248 over seven minor league seasons, making it as high as AAA in 1970. By the time he was 23, he was converted to first base on the Yankees AA team in West Haven, Connecticut, but then found himself out of baseball after batting .146.
Playing Monday morning quarterback on any draft in any sport is an easy thing to do. You’d think it was a slam dunk for the Indianapolis Colts to take Peyton Manning ahead of Ryan Leaf, but back then, there were a good number of experts campaigning that Leaf was the better choice. This dynamic can be revisited with just about any draft. However, looking back at the situation between Jackson and Chilcott, the field should have been so far tilted in Jackson’s favor for the Mets that it should have been a situation like when LeBron James was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers. An absolute no-brainer.
Instead, Mets fans are forced to close their eyes an imagine number 44 patrolling right field in Shea Stadium, helping to hoist the 1969 World Series trophy and leading the Mets to the 1973 World Series championship playing right next to the Say Hey Kid.