The first round of the 1990 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft started off with a bang: future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones, selected first overall by the Atlanta Braves. Tony Clark — the first baseman and current executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association — went second to the Tigers.
HOF-worthy starter Mike Mussina was selected by the Orioles with the 20th pick. And everyone’s favorite dinosaur denier Carl Everett was taken with the 10th overall pick by the Yankees. Still on the board were more names you might recognize: Jeromy Burnitz, Mike Hampton, Garret Anderson, Rondell White, Steve Karsay, and Troy Percival. But taken ninth, by the Los Angeles Dodgers, was a high school pitcher named Ronnie Walden.
The 17-year-old lefty was clocked at 92 miles per hour and he threw five no-hitters for his Blanchard High School team in Oklahoma. Nolan Ryan threw seven no-nos during his major league career. Obviously high school isn’t MLB, but that’s still a pretty nice stat to have at the disposal of the guys sitting around the draft board looking at your name. At this point in the story, when the name of a legendary Hall of Famer has been dropped, what could go wrong? Go dig out your Ronnie Walden rookie card (Topps #596 in 1991). I’ll wait.
If you can’t find it, there’s always eBay. Oh. Well, looks like something happened after all.
Right out of the draft, Walden went to rookie ball, pitching for the Great Falls Dodgers of the Pioneer League. In an August start where he allowed just one hit over 5.2 innings, opposing manager Nick Belmonte of the Salt Lake Trappers remarked that he “felt like the Maytag repairman at third base, except that one inning we got the bases loaded” speaking of Walden’s three walks that lead to his exit in the sixth.
In total, Walden started four games, tossed 21.2 innings, and allowed just one earned run. Overall that first summer, he struck out 20 while walking 11 so it wasn’t as though he was pitching heads and shoulders above the rest of the league, but at 17, it was a solid enough debut for the promising starter.
Unfortunately,he wouldn’t step onto a mound for three years. For the Vero Beach Dodgers, at the ripe old age of 20, Ronnie Walden tossed his swansong: a mere nine innings that included seven walks and just two strikeouts. And like that, in 1993, his career was over.
What happened? Injuries. And more injuries. Elbow surgeries derailed his career after a promising debut, and shoulder ligaments gave way to finish his career. While his teammates from the Pioneer League – Raul Mondesi and Pedro Martinez – went on to stardom, Walden retired before ever making the majors. He had ability but not health.
Was the high velocity at a young age an accelerant to his injuries? Did his gaudy strikeout totals add extra wear and tear? Would modern sports medicine have caught his elbow and shoulder troubles before they became catastrophic? We may never know.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball ReferenceNext post: Six More Weeks of Winter: Evan Gattis, Yunel Escobar and the Hot Stove’s New Fire
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