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Godwin Gave It the Old College Try

Drafted High, He Chose UNC Over Big Contract

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page D08

VIERA, Fla. -- Some players would be bitter about it all. Pass up a $1.9 million signing bonus -- from the New York Yankees, no less -- and attend college instead. Three years later, get offered a $1.2 million bonus from the Texas Rangers, then have them question an old knee injury. Finish school, fall to the third round of the draft, spend four years toiling in the Toronto Blue Jays' system. And now, this: The outskirts of the Washington Nationals' spring training camp, fighting for a roster spot that might be unattainable.

Tyrell Godwin, though, says he is unfazed. He walks around Space Coast Stadium looking straight ahead, focused. He is here because he refuses to be done with baseball, even if other people believe he turned his back on the sport when he spurned the Yankees' offer in 1997, electing instead to attend the University of North Carolina on an academic scholarship. The valedictorian of his high school class, people from the outside saw him as one thing: an athlete.

A 1997 first-round draft pick, Tyrell Godwin went to college instead of signing a contract. Now, he is fighting for a roster spot but doesn't have any regrets. (Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)

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"Don't waste your gifts," baseball people told him, when he was all of 17. "Don't waste your ability. Don't waste your talent."

Those people, Godwin said, were an easy read.

"I was thinking, 'I'm the fastest kid in my school, but I'm also the smartest kid in my school,' " Godwin said. "Am I not wasting my talent if I don't try to at least pursue this [education]? It's kind of a one-sided thing. People want you to use what's in [your] best interest to help their best interest as well. So they're going to lean on you and say, 'Hey, you should play baseball, because I'm a scout and I want to pick you.' "

The Yankees chose Godwin in the first round, the 24th pick overall. He didn't sign, instead playing baseball and football at UNC. In 2000, the Rangers chose him with a supplemental pick between the first and second rounds, the 35th choice. He didn't sign, instead rehabilitating his knee, which he injured twice playing football. In 2001, the Blue Jays selected him in the third round. Third-round picks aren't offered millions. Godwin, though, is pointed when asked if he regrets the path he chose.

"Best decision I ever made," he said.

He looked around the clubhouse at spring training, and thought about the grind of being a pro ballplayer. "Seventeen years old, this right here, it's hard," he said. "This lifestyle's hard enough on a guy 21, jumping into it. Seventeen years old? I see now why these teams do question jumping out and getting [a high school player]. I'd really want somebody to do their research on it for me to go get a high school guy -- not on ability, on mentally, if he's capable of handling it."

Godwin, 25, said he is mentally capable of handling his current situation. After hitting .253 and stealing 42 bases for Class AA New Hampshire last season, Toronto left him off its 40-man roster, and the Nationals snatched him in December's Rule 5 draft. Such a move costs the Nationals $50,000. But the catch to the Rule 5 draft is this: A team must keep such a player on its major league roster for an entire season, or offer him back to his former club for $25,000.

"I've never had a Rule 5 guy work out," Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden said. "But you roll the dice. Godwin, he could be a Dave Roberts-type guy for us."

Roberts is the havoc-creating outfielder-pinch runner who famously stole second in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series for Boston, helping the Red Sox stay alive. But Godwin's chances of becoming the Nationals' version of Roberts appear to be slim. He has had just five plate appearances this spring, with one hit and one walk. And there are so many people fighting for the two or three roster spots that appear open.

"He does intrigue me," Manager Frank Robinson said. "When you have a guy with speed, speed comes to the ballpark every day. It can put an awful lot of pressure on the defense. He has to learn. . . . He's a swinger. He has to use his speed more."

Godwin calls his speed "my number one tool." That, though, refers just to his baseball tools. Clearly, he feels like he can offer more. He has thought, already, about politics. "I know that baseball is a step in my life," he said. "It's not the idea of the gimmick -- use baseball to run [for office]. I thought about it before I really had an opportunity to play at the major league level."

Whether he has that opportunity with the Nationals this season will be determined over the rest of March. "I want to feel like my life was more than dollars and cents," he said.

Staff writer Dave Sheinin contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company