Former M.L.B. Phenom Mike Moore Defies the Odds of First Overall Picks

Mike Moore was drafted No. 1 overall by the Mariners in 1981 and he quickly began a 14-year career with stops in Seattle, Oakland and Detroit.

Mike Moore made a good living in Major League Baseball, enough to own a cattle ranch in Arizona and a farm in Oklahoma, where he grew up and still lives. At 58, Moore said, he spends his days “just doing the things I enjoy doing,” and that means working as a volunteer baseball coach at Lookeba-Sickles High School.

Then one day Harold Reynolds, his former roommate and a longtime major league second baseman, called while Moore was on his way to a game with some of the players.

“Harold was telling the guys, ‘Do you have any idea how good your coach was?’” Moore said. “They were like, ‘No, not really.’”

Moore laughed.

“Sometimes I tell these kids: ‘You know, I was the original Stephen Strasburg. I was the first right-handed pitcher ever drafted No. 1,’” he said. “And they’re like: ‘Oh, I kind of understand. Maybe you were good.’”

Moore was very good. He struck out Tony Gwynn in the 1989 All-Star Game, won the clincher of that season’s World Series and made more career starts than Whitey Ford, Carl Hubbell and Curt Schilling. He also has the most victories of any pitcher ever drafted first over all, with 161 across 14 seasons for Seattle, Oakland and Detroit.

The 54th annual draft was scheduled to begin Monday night at MLB Network studios in Secaucus, N.J. Moore was in town to represent the Mariners, who chose him from Oral Roberts University in 1981. He left for the Athletics as a free agent after the 1988 season and, until last year, had never heard from his first team again. The early Mariners, with tridents on their caps, were mostly forgettable.

“I had never lost at anything in my life until I got to the big leagues, and I never played on a winning team” in Seattle, Moore said. “One year we won 78 games. That’s the most wins of any team I played on with the Mariners.”

Moore won 66 games for both the Mariners and the A’s, yet he lost 50 more games with Seattle than he did with Oakland. At various points in his career, he led the majors in losses; wild pitches; and hits, earned runs, home runs and walks allowed. He starred in 1989, when the A’s won a championship, but was overshadowed by more famous teammates.

“That was one of the great things about Oakland: You didn’t have to worry about being a superstar there,” Moore said. “We had plenty of ’em. You could kind of just keep your mouth shut and do your job and nobody knew who you were.”

Moore’s relative anonymity underscores the rarity of drafting a superstar pitcher No. 1 over all (or “1-1,” in baseball parlance). While only David Price has won a Cy Young Award after being picked first, seven such position players have won the Most Valuable Player Award: Jeff Burroughs, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez, Josh Hamilton, Joe Mauer and Bryce Harper.

Several other hitters — Rick Monday, Harold Baines, Darryl Strawberry, Adrian Gonzalez, Darin Erstad and Justin Upton — have made multiple All-Star teams.

Yet besides Price, only one of the 17 pitchers chosen first over all before Monday — Strasburg — has made more than one All-Star team.

“The category of pitchers comes with more risk than position players, in general, because there’s a higher risk of an arm injury that either changes who they are or they miss critical time,” said Houston Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow. “It’s always been one of the big challenges of the draft, because pitching is so important and if you get the right guy, you could set yourself up for a long time.”

In his first draft with the Astros, in 2012, Luhnow chose Carlos Correa first over all, and Correa has become a centerpiece of a World Series winner. But with their next two No. 1 overall picks, in 2013 and 2014, the Astros chose pitchers Mark Appel and Brady Aiken. Appel never made the majors and retired this spring, and Aiken — who was injured, did not sign and was subsequently drafted by Cleveland — has not pitched above Class A.

Luhnow mentioned the 2006 draft to highlight the unpredictability of amateur pitchers. Eight pitchers were drafted in the first 11 picks that year, and the first four selected (Luke Hochevar, Greg Reynolds, Brad Lincoln and Brandon Morrow) have combined to make no All-Star teams. But the next four (Andrew Miller, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum and Max Scherzer) have combined for 18 All-Star selections and seven Cy Young Awards.

Steve Phillips, the former Mets general manager who is now a host for MLB Network Radio, was farm director when the Mets chose pitcher Paul Wilson first in 1994. The Mets expected to get a high-impact starter for years to come, Phillips said, but Wilson earned just 40 victories in an injury-marred career that is somewhat typical for pitchers drafted first.

“In order to be that highly regarded going into the draft, you’ve logged a ton of innings, you’ve pitched at a really high level, and maybe the wear and tear of all that diminishes the pitcher on the back end,” Phillips said. “ I wonder if, when you get to that point, you’ve earned it, but you’ve also started the downtrend.”

Moore was an exception. He signed for $100,000, reached the majors within a year and never had an arm injury. He has dealt with no aches or pains in retirement, he said, and even now, he throws batting practice three or four times a week at the high school — fastballs, curveballs, sliders, splitters.

If a batter admires a home run off him, Moore said, he will playfully drill him in the ribs, a lesson in country hardball from a former phenom who defied the odds at a perilous position.

“There’s only about 85 kids in the whole high school; it’s really small, some farm boys,” Moore said. “You’re just trying to teach them a little bit about baseball and a little bit about life. There’s more to life than just being right there where they are. If they can get out and see the world and do a few other things, they can always come back home.”

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