Worst First-Round Picks #9
A reminder, here’s our methodology.
Worst First-Round Picks — #9
1976 – Billy Simpson
The bicentennial season was a year of momentous moments. Celebrations abounded for the country’s 200th anniversary. An awe-inspiring flotilla In New York Harbor, and spectacular fireworks (among other airborne wonders) over Liberty Island astounded a nation.
Baseball, too, boomed, especially in the Bronx. For the first time in a dozen years—the longest stretch since moving into Yankee Stadium in 1923—the Yankees were back in the Fall Classic, although they’d be swept by the Cincinnati Reds and the Big Red Machine. That Reds team would go down in every debate from that season forward as a leading candidate for the “Best Teams of All Time”; the Yankees’ appearance was a portent of the “Bronx Zoo” dynasty just around the corner to close the 70s.
Spectacular didn’t describe the bicentennial year in Texas that season; North Texas felt the press of every hardship that made the Spirit of ‘76 special, no doubt. They simply lacked the pomp and circumstance of a pennant winner.
On top of that, the distrust of the post-Watergate years, staggering inflation, and skyrocketing gas prices crippled the oil capital of the US, even as Dallas’ rising banking industry and the IT jobs fostered by the likes of Texas Instruments and EDS hearkened to good days ahead.
There was just no sign of when “ahead” might arrive.
On the diamond, the Rangers finished in accustomed territory, with their 76-86 record good for 4th in a crowded AL West led by Kansas City’s young and talented squad. Many in Rangerland hoped that June would be a peak, with the promise of the amateur draft.
Instead, the draft signaled a nadir.
With the #12 pick, the Rangers chose an infielder with “athletic marvel” written all over him. As it turned out, Billy Simpson, would carry many titles and numbers throughout his career.
For all the digits on baseball cards and uniforms across minor league towns, far too many came with a matching jumpsuit; instead of his name on the back, read “Department of Corrections”.
In his prime—before he discovered cocaine and fell into the blackness of white-powder nights in his prime—Billy was a solid 6’2”, 195lb shortstop from San Diego. At 18, in 1976, Billy was considered a future name to know. He played a smooth shortstop, abnormally tall for his size. His frame screamed at the power that would develop. He reminded many scouts of another California kid of abnormal size and athleticism, drafted two years before but already showing glimpses of stardom in Milwaukee.
But Billy Simpson was no Robin Yount. Where the ball jumped out of Yount’s hand and off his bat, it wasn’t enough for him. He had to go whatever was the next mile, climb whatever mountain might lead to greater heights.
Billy didn’t have that in him. The jump off his bat, in his arm, and especially in his legs was plenty for him. He’d get by with that. He always had.
To him, when the Rangers took him with the #12 pick in the first round of 1976, he’d reached the mountaintop. Because there was the money. God the money, and God, what he might do with it.
Simpson signed for between $70,000 and $125,000; he blew most of it on drugs, parties, and bad investment choices; the rest, as they say, he pissed away.
But that wasn’t before finding out that the peak he’d thought he’d reached was just the lip hanging over the long valley of minor league expanse. Even for someone with Billy’s talent and draft pedigree, he had to navigate that expanse to see true summit time in the Show.
Billy never came close.
He hit .130/.227/.143 in 154 at-bats for the GCL Rangers in 1976 and in 1977, he batted .169/.269/.206 in 160 at-bats between the GCL Rangers and Asheville Tourists.
He joined the New York Mets system partway through 1978. He batted .211/.308/.261 in 261 at-bats that year. Despite this bonus money, by then, he was practically broke
That was the end of the ride, on the field and off. In 575 career at-bats across parts of three seasons, Simpson slashed .177/.276/.214.
Unbeknownst to him, hitting well below the Mendoza line in the minor leagues would be a peak, not a valley.
After his career, by the early ‘80s, he was still craving money, and the excitement of his sports career. He began to carry product and money for a large cocaine importation ring. He had to; he missed the high life the bonus money had once brought, and the chase would bring him down. After a short time serving the cocaine trade, he found himself trading white powder for prison blues.
For his drug-related activities, Simpson was sentenced to ten years in a federal prison in the Mojave Desert.
By that measure alone, Billy Simpson is one of the worst picks of all time. He never advanced above A-ball, and hit below .200 with a higher OBP than slugging percentage. His athleticism was just that: an athleticism that never grew with his advancement, largely because he didn’t push it to grow.
But the real price of Billy Simpson’s pick, besides what he did to himself, was the missed opportunity for the Rangers. The player they could have picked up wasn’t a Hall of Famer. But he was a consistent, All-Star caliber player for half a decade, and a contributor for 10 years.
The problem: his draft profile was polar opposite from the one Rangers to draft Simpson.
Leon “Bull” Durham was picked by the Cardinals just five picks after the Rangers took Simpson. He was a standout high school player. The Cincinnati leagues in which he dominated, if they were below Billy’s San Diego stomping grounds, were still nothing short of strong. And The Bull battered the ball.
Simpson had athleticism and speed; Durham was wiry strong, shorter than Simpson but with limited agility and 10 pounds lighter, nonetheless. Simpson played multiple positions; Durham was a corner outfielder at best, a first-baseman ideally.
Billy had his vices, his problems. Leon would be known by teammates down the years, and the press who covered him, as a better man than he was a payer. And he made two All-Star teams.
But most notably: Billy Simpson’s weakest tool was his bat. Leon Durham’s bat, by contrast, led the way.
Durham graduated from Cincinnati’s Woodward High School in 1976 where he was a high school All-American as a senior; he hit .385 with 16 home runs and an 11-3 record as a pitcher. That’s not staggering for a high-school player, although the home runs jump out. But, as the scouts say, he “looked like a hitter.” The ball left his bat in a big-league way.
Where Simpsons struggled, Durham constantly improved across the minor leagues. After struggling to a .224/.292/.346 split as an 18-year-old in the Gulf Coast League rookie ball, he rose quickly through the ranks. Here are his three minor league seasons before being called up, showing his consistent discipline and power:
That level of production wasn’t generally something he’d match for his career, but it also wasn’t his bat for which he became known. One unfortunate moment with his glove haunted him in the litany of Cubs synonymous with the team’s championship drought.
But before that, he changed the championship fortunate of the team that drafted him. Durham was the crucial piece in the trade of future Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter to the Cardinals in 1980. Sutter would end up closing out the 1982 World Series for the Cardinals, on top of multiple stellar seasons before his devastating splitter ravaged his arm.
After coming to Chicago, Durham came into his own.
After the trade, he was named the Cubs’ right fielder in 1981; at 23, he slashed .290/.344/.460 with 10 homers in the strike-shortened season and only 87 games numbers, earning his classic “Bull” nickname (yes, the nickname proceeded the movie title by a good bit).
Durham broke out in 1982, hitting 22 HR and driving in 90 runs, while hitting .312/.388/.521 and stealing 28 bases. Injuries marred in 1983 season, but he emerged as a leader on the division-winning ’84 Cubs squad, hitting .279/.369/.505 with 30 doubles, 23 homers, and 96 RBI.
As the Cubs took a 2-0 lead over the Padres in the NLCS, their 40-odd year World Series drought appeared over. The Padres battled back to tie the best of five series at two apiece. The series moved to San Diego one last time.
“Ryne Sandberg, who would be named the league`s Most Valuable Player a month later, fumbles around in the dugout for a swig of Gatorade. Sandberg, the two-time Gold Glove second baseman who committed only six errors all season, accidentally knocks over the ice cooler filled with Gatorade, soaking Leon Durham`s first baseman`s mitt.
Several Cub players and coaches watch in stunned amazement. Durham frantically clutches his glove with the tangy taste and asks coach Don Zimmer about this sticky situation, “What should I do, Zim? Should I still use this glove or my other one?“
“I think you should go ahead and use that glove, anyway, Bull,“ Zimmer says. “It might bring you good luck.“
Durham grabs a couple of towels and begins the process of trying to dry off his favorite glove. A hair dryer also is summoned from the clubhouse.
The game goes into the seventh inning with the Cubs leading 3-2 and Rick Sutcliffe on the mound. The Padres rally and Durham makes a pivotal error.
Pinch-hitter Tim Flannery`s grounder crawls under the Bull`s sweet-smelling glove for a two-base error. The Padres tie the game when Carmelo Martinez trots home from second. From that opening, the Padres go on to take a 6-3 lead with hits from Alan Wiggins, Tony Gwynn and Steve Garvey.”
For his career, Leon Durham hit .277/.356/.475 with 147 homer across parts of 10 seasons. Unlike Buckner in 1986, his glove was known as solid during the 1984 season, where he exceeded the league fielding percentage and range factor totals. He just got bit by bad luck at a worse time.
He was a two-time all-star and twice a Silver Slugger award winner at a position that pays for offense. He certainly never perp walked for dealing coke, and even featured in two movies 10 years apart.
In the classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, he has a brief scene right before Ferris catches the foul ball by Claudell Washington. More notably, he played a former all-star, playing out the string (much akin to his own later career) as Leon Alexander of the Minnesota Twins in Little Big League.
Ironically, when his career faded to black at 29, many who knew Leon whispered the same thing: drugs.
Billy’s ghosts, the scourge of their shared youth, did not discriminate.
Still, all in all, he would have been an ideal pick for a Rangers team in desperate need of early 80s—well, anything, really. He would never have become first hero, then goat, then redeemed character, in the Windy city. He might also have never left Chicago or found drugs.
But all that is “what if”. The Rangers of the 70s were grounded in reality and wowed by athleticism to dream on. So, instead of Leon Durham, they went with Billy Simpson, and both Billy and the Rangers paid a price well into the 80s.
1976 Draft Notes:
The ’76 draft was notable as the most talent-laden at least until 1985. The first 10 selections went on to play in the big leagues. Among those picked in the June draft were Rickey Henderson (Oakland), Alan Trammell, Jack Morris and Dan Petry (Detroit), Wade Boggs and Bruce Hurst (Boston).