The Angels' recent penchant for surprise moves - see Buck Rodgers, Marcel Lachemann - continued Thursday when the team ignored conventional wisdom by drafting high school outfielder McKay Christensen of Clovis, Calif., with the No. 6 pick overall in baseball's amateur draft.
The move raised eyebrows because prior to the draft, indications were that the Angels would pick an accomplished college pitcher, much like last season when they selected left-hander Brian Anderson with the third pick.Assistant vice president of scouting and player personnel Bob Fontaine admitted the Angels were intent on selecting a right-handed pitcher, possibly Pepperdine's Cade Gaspar, as late as Wednesday afternoon.
"We decided to go in a different direction," Fontaine said. "He was the best high school athlete available ability-wise."
Christensen, officially listed at 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, already had the Angels on their heels Thursday by missing a scheduled conference call with reporters.
He was actually on his way to Anaheim, but not to see the Angels. The first thing he did after being drafted was go to Disneyland. Christensen boarded a bus in Clovis bound for Anaheim with his classmates to attend grad-night festivities at the theme park Thursday night.
Christensen, 18, was listed as the nation's fastest high school baserunner by Baseball America and the 47th-best prospect in the nation. The publication listed him as one of the "three or four best athletes in the draft."
But Christensen was considered a risky choice. He's said he will go on a two-year Mormon mission and had signed a letter of intent to play football at Brigham Young University. Six weeks ago, he mailed every team a letter stating that he would not delay or forgo his mission.
Christensen's father, Steve, said his son is giving up football as a contract stipulation with the Angels. McKay Christensen decided only three days ago he would quit playing football if drafted high enough, no doubt eliminating a major stumbling block for the Angels and explaining their 11th-hour change of heart over whom to draft.
"If everything was right - the money was right, the commitment was there - he agreed he would (stop playing football)," Steve Christensen said. "He really hadn't thought about it. We just thought the mission would be too hard to overcome and teams wouldn't draft him."
But Fontaine thought otherwise.
"He's worth taking and coming back in two years," Fontaine said. "If you look at the first round (of the draft) in this day and age, very few kids sign to play the first season anyway.
"We're looking for him by 1996 to play maybe half a season. We don't think it's that much time to give up for a person of that kind of talent."
A left-hander, Christensen batted .500 at Clovis West High School, with six home runs and 23 RBI his senior season. It's his speed that drew scouts' attention, however, with 28 stolen bases. Christensen was a perfect 62 for 62 stealing in his high school career.
"To go as the sixth player, that's good, but it's pretty high," said Stan Bledsoe, Christensen's high school baseball coach. "Every time we needed him to do something in a crucial game, he'd do it."
A running back on Clovis West's football team, Christensen tied a Northern California record last year with 44 touchdowns. He selected BYU over Stanford.
Steve Christensen said he already had worked out a "gentleman's agreement" with the Angels and expected his son to sign a contract next week.
Fontaine denied that financial considerations were a factor in picking a high school player over a more highly touted college pitcher. Going on a mission lowered Christensen's bargaining power despite being the No. 6 pick.
"We agreed we needed to discount the asking price for going on a mission," Steve Christensen said.
Another possible doubt for the Angels was that Christensen underwent major reconstructive surgery for a torn knee ligament suffered his sophomore year but returned in time to play baseball his junior year. He injured the knee playing basketball in a high school physical education class.
The injury didn't prevent him from earning a perfect 8 by the Major League Scouting Bureau for his base-running skills. Scouts in Fresno said his time to first base was comparable with former Dodger and Fresno State outfielder Tom Goodwin.
Among the Angels' other picks Thursday was UC Davis shortstop Greg Morris (6-4, 210). Morris, who will switch to third base, hit .338 with five home runs and 43 RBI for the Division II Aggies.