Defining a Baseball Bust

Mark Appel was a bust in baseball, but he might succeed in his post-baseball life. (via Eric Enfermero)

Joon Lee doesn’t know why Mark Appel was following him on Twitter. The Bleacher Report writer told me he figured that maybe he once tweeted something that the 26-year-old Phillies pitching prospect enjoyed, and thus earned the elusive follow. But whatever the reason, Lee wanted to write about how Appel, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 first-year player draft, was coping with not yet making a major league roster and, instead, enduring a tumultuous season in Triple-A Lehigh Valley, where his walk to strikeout ratio was nearly even.

Lee wasn’t expecting Appel to tell him he was about to leave baseball entirely, and there’s a chance he may never return.

The story was published at Bleacher Report on February 1 with the eye-catching headline “Why Mark Appel, Perhaps the Biggest Bust in MLB History, Is Stepping Away at 26.” In case you had no preconception of Appel, an editor at Bleacher Report was making sure you should know upfront that Appel was not just a bust, but of all the busts, basically the bustiest.

Lee posited this in the well-written story, qualifying a quote by saying “Appel freely accepts the label of biggest MLB bust of all time.” In the quote, Appel says he would agree with the term, but “it depends on how you define it.”

The rest of the quote is more revealing: “If I never get to the big leagues, will it be a disappointment? Yes and no. That was a goal and a dream I had at one point, but that’s with stipulations that I’m healthy, I’m happy and doing something I love. If I get to the big leagues, what’s so great about the big leagues if you’re in an isolated place, you’re hurt and you’re emotionally unhappy? How much is that worth to you?”

It’s easy to glance at Appel’s 5.8 walks per nine in 82 Triple-A innings, then read about his exit from baseball and say “bust.” It’s easy to drop Appel in a listicle with players like Bryan Bullington, Josh Booty and David Clyde, high-ranking prospects who reached the major leagues and sputtered, and players like Brien Taylor and Steve Chilcott, the only other No. 1 picks to never reach the majors. But we don’t often dig any deeper than we have to with these so-called busts. We discard them when, instead, we should be examining their plights, because their stories are much closer to our own than we realize, and their failures are the failures we all experience every day.

“There was one guy I sat on a porch with in Attalla, Alabama,” starts Rob Trucks, a freelance writer whose 2003 book Cup of Coffee: The Very Short Careers of Eighteen Major League Pitchers profiles players whose major league experience was fewer than 50 games. He’s talking here about pitcher Stacy Jones, whose career ledger includes four games in 1991 with the Orioles and two games in 1996 with the White Sox. “He started telling me about getting called up to the Orioles, and sitting on the bench in the locker room, and looking to his left, and he thought to himself ‘My God, that’s Cal Ripken Jr. and he’s putting on his socks.’”

Trucks finds players like Jones, a third-round pick out of Auburn who could be considered a bust, more empathetic than the Hall of Famers. They’re everymen. They’re all of us.

Cecil Butler is less a bust. In 1957, at age 19, the Braves signed him for $1,000 and a pair of shoes. He debuted at age 24 for the Braves, throwing 31 innings to a 2.61 ERA, then returned for another four innings in 1964 before retiring in 1965. The $1,000 contract was low on the scale in 1957, so there were no high expectations for Butler, but for him, $1,000 was a windfall. Trucks says that after signing the contract, Butler called a friend to ask about installing indoor plumbing in his mother’s house.

Around the same time, in 1961, the Braves signed 18-year-old pitcher Arnold Umbach for $100,000 as a bonus baby. While Umbach, who threw in the high 90s as a prep school student, struggled in his first three minor league seasons, he received a call to Milwaukee in 1964, going eight and a third in his only start. He’d head back to the minors and get another shot in 1966, then be traded to Houston in the offseason.

Compounding his mediocre numbers in the Braves system, at least to the Braves, was Umbach’s desire to finish a college education. He enrolled at Auburn University and, because he stayed in school through the academic year, arrived at Braves spring training later than his teammates, earning the ire of folks in the organization.

“They kind of thought that if they wrote him a check for $100,000 he would belong to them, and he didn’t really see it that way,” says Trucks.

Instead he earned his law degree from the University of Alabama in 1971. Today he’s partner at an Auburn law firm, Davidson, Davidson & Umbach. His biography mentions his time with the Braves and his offseason studies. In the context of his law firm’s website, which includes 50-year-old photos of the spry Braves pitcher, this duality looks quite impressive. Umbach knew baseball was a fleeting lifestyle, even if he was a bonus baby harboring high expectations, and even if he may regret that baseball didn’t go as well as he had hoped.

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As Trucks puts it: “You can’t tell a guy who got a law career and is still practicing and played in the majors that he did it wrong.”

The response to Appel’s sudden withdrawal from baseball was almost entirely positive, with thousands of people on social media wishing the pitcher luck and praising him for his candor. Still, there was a minority response that reflected a festering ignorance of Appel’s singular conflict, and the conflict of all athletes — heck, humans — who face difficult decisions about what they want out of their lives. But Appel’s decision was about one telling quote early in the story: “I’m pursuing other things, but also trying to become a healthy human.”

Appel underwent surgery in 2016 to remove a bone spur, then in 2017 suffered shoulder inflammation. But becoming a healthy human isn’t all about physical rehabilitation. On July 16, 2014, he was ambushed by the Visalia Rawhide while pitching in advanced-A Lancaster. He gave up seven runs in an inning and two-thirds, and after being pulled from the game, he told Lee that he wailed, then screamed and threw baseballs at 100 mph through a particle-board panel. It was a breaking point for Appel, who coped with the emotional outburst by reciting a Bible verse. Appel’s faith grounded him as he navigated a sputtering baseball career defined by failed expectations.

Was Appel upset that he didn’t reach the major leagues? Of course. But he added that emotional health became more important than achieving that goal. And in baseball he was finding it more difficult to remain emotionally healthy. That was his singular conflict.

“If I get to the big leagues, what’s so great about the big leagues if you’re in an isolated place, you’re hurt and you’re emotionally unhappy?” he told Lee. “How much is that worth to you?”

Many of the people who debated the bust question after Appel’s announcement were quick to mention Brien Taylor. The poster child of baseball busts, Taylor has been studied, analyzed and scrutinized, almost completely without his own input. Taylor has kept private about his baseball career and life, as his family once had to shoo away a New York Daily News reporter who visited his hometown in 2006 for a “where are they now” story.

The story is well known: Taylor, a lanky left-hander throwing in the high 90s at East Carteret High School in Beaufort, North Carolina, was drafted first overall in 1991 by the Yankees, signing for $1.5 million. In 1992 he pitched to a 2.57 ERA with 10.4 strikeouts-per-nine in advanced-A, and in 1993 put up a 3.48 ERA with 8.3 strikeouts-per-nine but 5.6 walks per nine in Double-A. He spurned suggestions to play in an instructional league that fall, claiming he was “too tired,” according to a 1994 New York Times story. Then, on December 18, 1993, he attempted to defend his brother against a longtime family friend. The story became somewhat mythic, maybe in an effort to conveniently twist the truth, but according to the family friend turned enemy, Taylor wound up and swung at him. The punch never landed, and instead Taylor tore the capsule and labrum in his throwing shoulder.

The story merited national attention considering Taylor was the No. 1 pick playing in the Yankees system. Tommy John surgery pioneer Dr. Frank Jobe, who performed the procedure on the shoulder, said the “dislocation wasn’t that severe,” but later was reported as saying it was one of the worst injuries he had ever seen. Agent Scott Boras reportedly called it a bruise. The Yankees dialed down the noise.

Taylor finally returned in 1995, pitching 40 disastrous innings of rookie ball. He’d spend four of the next five years trying to get out of the South Atlantic League. He retired in 2000 without a fallback; he reportedly worked for UPS and a beer distributor. He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2010, and while supporting five children, was convicted of distributing crack cocaine and served three years in prison.

At Taylor’s sentencing, U.S. District Judge Louise Flanagan put it succinctly: “He seemed completely unprepared for a life after baseball, which he was confronted with almost immediately.” Trucks echoed that sentiment when speaking about players who didn’t live up to expectations.

“The worst period of these guys’ lives to me, and this is a vast generalization, but that first two or three years … are horrible,” says Trucks. “Because the one thing that you can do better than anyone else is the one thing that you’re not allowed to do anymore, and you gotta figure out what the hell you got to do next.”

Taylor threw the high 90s fastball. He came up in the shadow of Dwight Gooden, who was pulled into the New York baseball circus and deemed the savior of the sport’s most storied franchise after 10 years of mediocrity. They gave him $1.5 million. They expected greatness. Everyone did.

But once he didn’t accomplish that greatness and found himself back home in North Carolina, he fell hard. Taylor’s story confirms our definition of a bust, standing as one of the more damaging paths a player can walk after leaving baseball without fulfilling expectations.

We don’t know how Taylor is faring today because of his desire to remain private, but that’s his story. He grew up in a double-wide trailer. Boras said in a 2014 story about Taylor that he had a learning disability. If he didn’t throw the high 90s fastball, Taylor could’ve been just anyone living in a double-wide trailer with a learning disability in North Carolina. In the 2006 story written by the Daily News reporter who attempted to track down Taylor, the family friend who was involved in the scuffle that reportedly ended with Taylor’s shoulder injury said it well: “If Brien didn’t have all that money, nobody would’ve cared. It would’ve just been another fight between two black guys in the ‘hood.”

He happened to throw the high 90s fastball, which led to the money, which led to the story that is told to this day.

Every story after baseball is different. Umbach has proven successful at practicing law, and it’s easy to imagine that he’s happy. Steve Chilcott, the first No. 1 draft pick never to play major league baseball, who was scouted by Casey Stengel himself and saw his career sputter after — you guessed it — injuring his shoulder, later worked in construction and real estate and, according to stories written about him years later, seems content.

Then there’s Appel. If he doesn’t return to baseball he’ll be grouped with Chilcott and Taylor in one of baseball’s more dubious clubs. He’ll face the challenge of waking up in the morning and realizing he won’t have to report to a ballpark. He won’t have to grab his glove and rip off a dozen warm-up pitches. He won’t have bullpens, meetings with catchers and sit-downs with coaches. One morning it’ll probably be extremely tough. But another morning it’ll probably be a lot easier.

All the while people will call him a bust. He didn’t meet their expectations. Hell, he didn’t meet his expectations.

“Would I have loved to be pitching in the World Series? Absolutely,” he told Lee. “Some people have real struggles. I played baseball. I thought I was going to be great, and I wasn’t.”

His expectations changed. Now he expects to find himself in life beyond baseball.

There’s a 1992 Fleer card, one of the Super Star Specials, that puts four former Auburn Tigers together: White Sox hitters Bo Jackson and Frank Thomas, and Orioles players Gregg Olson and Stacy Jones. Olson had a nice career as a late-innings reliever, while we don’t have to qualify Bo and the Big Hurt. In the photo Jackson, Olson and Thomas look jovial and comfortable, while Jones is standing a half-step too far from the guys, his face carrying a look of “Why am I here?”

That’s the question that drives Trucks when talking to these so-called busts and cup-of-coffee guys. He thinks back to Clyde, the wunderkind high school pitcher the Rangers chose No. 1 overall in the 1973 draft, signing him to a sizable $65,000 bonus. Rangers owner Bob Short demanded Clyde ascend directly to the majors for a two-game stint to sell tickets, so a week later, the 18-year-old started against the Twins. Clyde needed work in the minors, but hitters were fooled just enough to hand Clyde a 2.45 ERA in his those two games, so Short demanded that he stay in the majors. He finished 1973 with 93 major league innings, a 5.01 ERA, and 74 strikeouts to 54 walks.

In 1975 the Rangers finally moved Clyde to the minors, which began a mid-career stretch of injuries and false starts with Texas, then Cleveland, before landing with the Astros in 1981. While he enjoyed Double-A ball in the Astros organization, he wasn’t happy in Triple-A, serving up as many walks as strikeouts, disappointing coaches, teammates, fans and executives clamoring to finally see the great David Clyde come of age. He never did.

“At some point he’s on the mound, and they’re tossing the ball around and he says to himself ‘What am I doing here?’” says Trucks. “For a lot of us that may be a reasonable question, but for David Clyde, who had done nothing but throw the baseball as hard as he could his entire life and been the best he could be at it, and better than 99.9 percent of people on this Earth with right arms, the question ‘What am I doing here?’ meant it was over.”

Mark Appel just asked “What am I doing here?” and now, as the men he’s surrounded himself with for years are reporting to ballfields, he’ll be at home to, as Trucks put it, figure out what the hell he’s got to do next. Appel could travel down any path, and while we’ll make the assumption that he’ll steer clear of Taylor’s poor example, he isn’t guaranteed Umbach’s law career. Smaller tragedies and lesser tribulations exist as possible outcomes. Still, considering what he’s said and done to this point, it seems he prepared well for this step, as he graduated from Stanford University in 2013 and plans to apply to prestigious business schools. He and his brother share a home, and his parents are close by for support.

“Literally nothing is on my radar because nothing has ever been on my radar for life things, entertainment things, because I knew what I was doing,” he told Lee.

It’s as if Appel took four years after Stanford to be a professional baseball player, and once he decided it wasn’t fulfilling, he stopped and figured it was time to try something new. It’s certainly more complicated than that, but back in 2012 Appel was projected to be the No. 1 pick in the draft and reportedly rejected a $6 million signing bonus offer from the Astros before the draft. Chosen eighth that year by the Pirates, Appel rejected their $2.9 million offer and headed back to Stanford. He shunned a lucrative professional start for one final year of college, and despite criticism from experts and fans, he seemed to understand the weight of his decisions.

“If people (criticize me for the decision to return), that’s fine. I understand,” he told USA Today in 2013. “I’m not going to judge them for saying that.”

Mark Appel’s chances at success after baseball are good, but he did fall short like Umbach, Clyde, Taylor and Chilcott. He will be called a bust, and some will sigh at what could have been. That’s never going to stop. But we should also tell the story about the kid who returned to Stanford and finished his undergraduate education. Just as Taylor’s sparkling high school pitching career is forever followed up with his imprisonment, and just as Umbach happily writes about his 49 major league innings on his law firm’s website.

References and Resources


Timothy Malcolm is a writer focusing on travel and experiences, sports and nostalgia. His work has been featured in Paste, October, Chronogram, Westchester Magazine and PhilliesNation.com, and in 2019 his first book, a travel guide of the Appalachian Trail, will be published by Hachette Book Group. Visit his personal website and travel writing website, and follow him on Twitter @timothymalcolm.
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87 Cards
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87 Cards
David Clyde always had my sympathy as a monument to overwork and attendance-exploitation. In 1981, when he retired/was fired/non-renewed ( the work stoppage of that year blurs the lines of termination for me) he was four days shy of pension eligibility but demoted from AAA to AA that year. For years, I had the c’mon-man, promote-him-to-the -expanded-roster-for-a-week wish for him. In 2013, I was thumbing through the Dallas Morning News (thumbing dead-tree-file-format of the Dallas News is my habit when pinned down at the DFW airport) read that Clyde, with the help of the MLBPA and Commissioner Bud Selig, had… Read more »
Las Vegas Wildcards
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Las Vegas Wildcards
Naturally, there will be high expectations for these players given high salaries, before delivering at the professional level. It’s not difficult to define a baseball bust, but you hate to see someone throw away a career because of self-inflicted off field problems. In terms of life after baseball, getting a degree at a big name school is no guarantee of success. A top prospect usually has many chances to succeed, but in the real world, someone can lose their job because of one bad performance. Earning a degree is the easy part, grinding every day in your long term career… Read more »
Tim Hagerty
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Great article.

Alby
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Member
Alby

Very nicely done. Grab a glove, kid, you’re on the team.

Brian Reinhart
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Member

This is a great story.

For those who want to find a fictional exploration of similar themes, the movie “Sugar” is really extraordinary. Hard to say much more without giving away plot turns, but it is one of the most thoughtful baseball movies ever made.

harryhippie
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harryhippie

I can’t believe Appel graduated Stanford at 11. Dude is too smart for baseball.

njguy73
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njguy73

The bust factor is amplified when weighed against who a team could have picked:

Steve Chilcott over Reggie Jackson
David Clyde over Robin Yount and Dave Winfield
Brien Taylor over Manny Ramirez
Josh Booty over Nomar Garciaparra
Bryan Bullington over Zack Grienke and Cole Hamels
Mark Appel over Kris Bryant

And others were discussed in this old THT piece:

https://www.fangraphs.com/tht/draft-day-parallel-universes/

frank
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frank

Gavin Newsom played outfield for the University of Santa Clara, then spent a season in minor league ball , and quit soon after. So he was a minor bust. The former mayor of San Francisco is now California’s Lt. Governor, and is the favorite in the election for Governor this year.

Melky The Monkey
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Melky The Monkey

Great read!

HandsomeBoyModel
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HandsomeBoyModel

One of the biggest busts was Matt Harrington, drafted 5 times but never signed. I remember reading about him int he LA Times high school pages. He was considered a can’t miss Major Leaguer.

http://www.espn.com/espn/eticket/story?page=090423/harrington