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You Can't Beat The Draft
Pat Jordan
July 27, 1970
The bird dogs spot the bright young players first. Then come the scouts, the evaluators of baseball talent. The scouts used to be salesmen, wheedlers, con men, but the free-agent draft changed all that
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July 27, 1970

You Can't Beat The Draft

The bird dogs spot the bright young players first. Then come the scouts, the evaluators of baseball talent. The scouts used to be salesmen, wheedlers, con men, but the free-agent draft changed all that

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But in the long run you never signed with a farm director or a vice-president or even the clubs they represented. In those days you signed a contract with a man, and the man was usually the scout who had made the deepest impression on you. It did not matter how insincere you felt their previous acts of kindness might have been, you could not entirely forget them. You knew even then that an older man cannot spend two years of his life courting a boy without a little of himself rubbing off in the bargain, until even he is not so sure how much his original motives have been blurred and how much this boy really means to him. And you begin to wonder if maybe Jeff Jones did not really wish he could protect you at McCook and Davenport and Palatka and all those places you end up; and maybe Ray Garland would have held that umbrella for your mother even if you had been a .220-hitting second baseman; and maybe Jack Brown didn't want you to see him drink, not only because he wanted to sign you, but also because he wanted to protect you from a vice he thought you were too young to understand.

And if you never did make the big leagues, you did not feel badly that you let down the Braves or Yankees or some pasty-faced farm director. You felt badly because you had let down Jeff Jones or Ray Garland, as if your bonus money had been fished solely from their own shabby pockets.

I signed with Jeff Jones in 1959, when he was with the Braves; when I left baseball in 1962 because I lost my fastball, I seldom saw him or any of the other scouts again. Only Jack Brown used to pop up once in a while at a high school or American Legion game. I would see him behind home plate in the midst of a group of parents, rambling on in that indefinable drawl of his that could have been the faded remnants of a Southern past. And when his attention wandered from the action it invariably seemed to settle on his hatred of the free-agent draft. Jack did not really know how to hate, so when he came to the free-agent draft his tongue would knot in his mouth until he couldn't speak, just sputter. He hated the free-agent draft because, as he said, "It's taken all the heart out of scouting. It's made everything automatic and meaningless," and then he would fall sullen and silent.

It was difficult to see why Jack (and most of the other oldtime scouts) hated something that made his job easier. The free-agent draft was initiated in 1965 to prevent the scouts and clubs from cutting each other's throats in bidding wars over untried youngsters. To eliminate such wars, the major leagues made all free agents eligible for two drafts each year, one in June, the other in January. If the boy did not sign with the club that drafted him, he went back into the pool for the next draft. The process repeated itself until he either signed with a club that had drafted him, enrolled in a four-year college, in which case he could no longer be drafted until he was graduated, or had passed 21 or was no longer drafted.

At no point, however, was the boy free to bargain with any club other than the one that had drafted him. This kept his bonus demands within reason. The only thing the clubs had to do was make sure their offers were just tempting enough to convince a boy it was foolish to waste six months of his career until the next draft, especially since the second club might offer him an even smaller bonus than the first. Now, instead of prospects pulling in $175,000 bonuses like Rick Reichardt, the No. 1 pick in the country was lucky to get $70,000, and the fourth and fifth picks struggled to grab $30,000.

Jack Brown and the other scouts hated the draft not because they no longer had to spend large sums of money but because it made their occupations half-obsolete. Before the draft a scout's job consisted of evaluating talent (it did not take much insight to know a fastball that sounds like ripping silk is big-league stuff) and convincing (i.e., conning) the prospect into signing with the scout's club. If teams offered the prospect roughly the same bonus, what made him pick one team over another? It was usually a scout and the impression he'd made on a boy. But that's exactly what had become obsolete.

"It no longer mattered if the kid and his parents loved me," said Brown. "If we didn't draft him he couldn't sign with us no matter what."

I never understood just how much scouting—and maybe baseball—had lost because of the free-agent draft until a few weeks ago, when I drove to Stamford, Conn. to watch an 18-year-old Stamford Catholic High School pitcher named Art DeFilippis. A husky lefthander with thick arms, DeFilippis has a smooth sidearm motion and a fastball that behaves like a screwball. In four years of pitching he had won 35 games, lost two, struck out 451 batters in 248⅓ innings and allowed only 13 earned runs. The Sporting News ranked him as one of the top 12 prospects in the country, which made it likely he would be drafted in the first round. (He was eventually drafted second by the Washington Senators, which made him the 38th pick.)

It was not hard to spot Art DeFilippis' father on that hot May afternoon as his son took the mound against Xavier High School of Middletown in a state tournament game. He was sitting in an aluminum deck chair on a high rise that runs above the first-base line. He is a rugged-looking, olive-skinned man with a thin gray mustache, and he had a long green cigar clenched between his teeth. His pretty blonde daughter sat beside him, looking a little confused, as if not quite sure what to make of this fuss over her younger brother. Every so often she would look up and smile at the many friends who stooped to whisper in her father's ear. Their question was always the same. "Any news from the scouts?"

"What do I know?" said Mr. DeFilippis in disgust. "I see them at every game. I say hello and they don't even say a word to me. Look at them!" he said, gesturing with his cigar to the 16 or 17 older men clustered behind the homeplate screen. He said something in Italian and his friends laughed. His daughter watched the game as if she had not heard a thing.

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