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Sunday, March 14, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wichita State Star Has Head To Match Million-Dollar Arm

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WICHITA, Kan. - Baseball scouts have seen a lot of pitchers with million-dollar arms and 10-cent heads who never got anywhere.

The reason many think Darren Dreifort will go places, big-league places, is his brain might be even a few pennies more valuable than the appendage attached to his right shoulder.

When the major-league draft comes along in June, the Seattle Mariners are expected to make Wichita State's junior All-American and Olympian the draft's No. 1 pick.

That is, unless something happens, as Dreifort's parents, John and Carol, will be happy to remind anybody who wants to listen.

"Baseball could end at any time," said John, a Wichita State history professor who always has been the catalyst behind Darren's love for baseball. "It could end with a line drive, a pulled muscle or after a 20-year major-league career. But it will end. And then what do you do?"

Darren will have an alternative. He is a liberal-arts major who is taking 15 hours this semester - maybe the busiest, craziest, topsy-turviest semester of his life - to get closer to his degree.

Take nothing for granted.

"Nothing has a guarantee," he said. "I think that's the way me and my family look at this."

It means nothing to the Dreiforts that almost every baseball publication worth the paper it's printed on has predicted Darren will be the No. 1 pick in June. And that if it happens, he will command a signing bonus that could approach $2 million, which would be the largest ever given.

Who knows what he could make with a long big-league career, given today's salaries.

Darren, whose collection of T-shirts and jeans could fill two closets, has never had more than a couple of thousand bucks in his bank account.

A change could be a-comin'.

"But if there's anybody who can handle all the hoopla that's going to come, it's Darren Dreifort," Brent Kemnitz, Wichita State pitching coach, said.

"The guy has almost a storybook brain. As a coach, you get a guy like this maybe once in a lifetime. But I've been through this with a lot of guys, and I've seen the pressure it puts on them their junior year."

College baseball players aren't eligible for the major-league draft until their junior season, and it can have an effect. Last season, for example, Wichita State pitcher Kennie Steenstra went into a midseason slump that Kemnitz says had to do with concern about the draft.

"I think Darren will be able to handle it," Kemnitz said. "But that doesn't mean he's immune to it or above it.

"Everybody in the world is going to want some of his time this year, and a piece of his mind. Everybody will have a question or comment on every move he makes. He's under a serious microscope."

It will be hard for Dreifort to stay focused.

Already, agents are calling in hopes of representing him. His father and Wichita State's coaches are handling them.

Scouts are swarming, and though most have been courteous, a few have been pushy.

"You always have a handful of village idiots who have no feeling for the individual," Kemnitz said. "They're just thinking of themselves and their team."

It's a lot of pressure for a pretty down-to-earth kid who used to make his summer money, $14 a day, by mowing lawns.

"My biggest worry is my grades," he said, "and keeping up with my course load this semester. Fifteen hours might not sound like much to a lot of people, but when you're also playing baseball, it's a lot."

As best as anybody can tell, Dreifort's oblivion toward the financial boost that could be in his future is genuine.

He is as middle class as middle class gets. He grew up playing all kinds of sports with his brother, Todd, and with neighborhood friends. Dreifort seemingly has no ego and is popular with his teammates and with fans.

"I think he's genuinely embarrassed by the attention he gets," Kemnitz said. "I think he would like it more spread out among everybody on the team."

The team.

That's what is most important to Dreifort. He would like to help the Shockers get to another College World Series in what probably will be his last college season.

"I'm really pumped up to get out there," he said. "I'm going to enjoy this."

Dreifort said his injured right knee, which required surgery last fall, is healthy. His arm is sound. He'll be back in the bullpen, which seems like a strange place for probably the most talented college pitcher in the United States.

It's a role he likes, though. Last season, Dreifort was 6-2 with 12 saves and pitched 81 innings in 24 games. Wichita State Coach Gene Stephenson isn't shy about using him.

When he's not playing baseball, there will be plenty of homework to keep his mind busy. And before he knows it, it'll be June.

Payday.

Remember, though, the Dreifort credo: Take nothing for granted.

Last summer, Dreifort's parents couldn't afford a trip to Barcelona to watch Darren pitch in the Olympics. Someone suggested they take out a loan, knowing that after Darren signed there would be plenty of money to pay it off.

Such an idea was never even considered.

"My sense about all this," John Dreifort said, "is that the first time Darren stumbles, everybody, whether it's major-league teams, agents or sports writers, will look the other way.

"I'm cynical enough to see that people love to get on board with a hot commodity, but the minute it becomes cold, they're off and looking for another hot commodity. I'm an academic, a born and raised skeptic."

Like father, like son.

"If I'm the No. 1 pick, then it happens," Darren said. "If it doesn't happen, it doesn't really matter. If I deserve to be the No. 1 pick, then I'm happy with it."

Dreifort remembers when the New York Mets picked him in the 10th round of the 1990 draft, just after his senior year at Wichita Heights. They offered $35,000, which seemed like the world then, and said they would pay for his college education.

He didn't sign, is glad he didn't and wouldn't consider it the end of the world if he didn't sign in June and came back to Wichita State for a senior season.

Dreifort's million-dollar head isn't spinning.

"I drive a 1985 Dodge Colt with about 78,000 miles on it," he said. "I really don't own much, but that's OK. I have my family and I have my health."

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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