- Marty Dobrow, ESPNBoston.com
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These are the glory days.
On Thursday, June 2, a little past 1 p.m., the seniors at Lawrence Academy are living it up at Kimball Farm in Westford, Mass. Graduation, the culmination of what feels like a long journey, is just a day away. A big future beckons. For now, though, it's time to let loose.
Some blast into each other on the bumper boats. Others compete for momentary honor in the arcade. There are spirited competitions in mini golf, home run derbies at the batting cages and huge waffle cones being downed by carefree 18-year-olds.
Tyler Beede hangs out at the pitch-and-putt course. It is as good a place as any to bask.
At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, he is all but glowing with the future. The long-awaited first Monday in June is now just four days away. In a Major League Baseball draft rich with New England talent -- perhaps the best at the high school level in three decades -- Beede is, for all appearances, "a can't-miss kid."
With command of a fastball that has reached 95 miles per hour, a devastating changeup, and what he calls "an 11:30-to-7 curveball," he has wowed the army of area scouts and national cross-checkers who have made his every start an event. One day, five members of the Texas Rangers organization alone came calling. When Beede fanned 15 batters in six innings against Middlesex, he did so under the watchful eye of Theo Epstein, general manager for the right-hander's beloved Boston Red Sox.
It's not just the eye-popping stuff or the numbers -- however impressive (8-0, 0.69 ERA; 102 strikeouts, 8 walks, 13 hits in 51 innings) -- that stand out. By all accounts, Beede is a young man with considerable poise, a true student of the game. He talks freely about "developing my craft as a pitcher."
Growing up in the small town of Auburn, Mass., just outside of Worcester, Beede began that study at a young age. "He was never just a thrower," says his father, Walter, a former minor leaguer who has coached the game at the college level. "Even in Little League, he had an ability to understand and implement the mechanics of separation in terms of a fastball and changeup."
Along with his dad and older brother Kyle (a catcher, conveniently), Tyler Beede began spending each summer, from mid-June until late August, following the circuit of top summer baseball opportunities. From Florida to California, the Beedes found the diamonds that glittered. Tyler played on the top AAU teams. He appeared in the best showcases, ones that trip easily off his tongue: Perfect Game, Area Code Games, the Aflac All-American Game.
Often Tyler's teams won championships. He and Kyle teamed up to lead Auburn High School to a state Division 2 title in 2009. He won a national AAU championship with the Virginia Canes. As a dominant pitcher and a leadoff hitter who batted .481 with six home runs, he helped propel Lawrence Academy this year to an undefeated romp through the highly competitive Independent School League.
And not just that. According to Chris Margraf, his coach at Lawrence, Beede is something of a renaissance man. "He was a finalist in the school's poetry recitation," Margraf says. "And after he pitched us to the championship, he had to race back to campus for a dance recital. He's one of the best dancers on campus."
Team Beede has surrounded Tyler with what his dad terms "all the right people." He works out under the direction of Eric Cressey, whose Cressey Performance Center includes Kevin Youkilis as a client. ("I've put on 40 pounds and added five to six miles an hour on my fastball," says Tyler, who does everything from long-toss programs to deep-tissue massage with Cressey.) He has a private pitching guru, Len Solesky, a former big league scout, who tells his clients, "Don't give me any of that little boy stuff." And after weeding through the presentations of all the game's top agents -- or "advisors," as they are known until a professional contract is signed -- the Beedes selected Alan Nero, managing director of Octagon's baseball division.
All systems are go. As Tyler Beede works on his short game at Kimball Farm, the spoils await. There is a scholarship waiting for him at Vanderbilt University. That will be one option. The other will flow from the draft on Monday, when he is projected to be a late first-round or early second-round pick.
What would that mean? For one thing, it would entail a hefty signing bonus. First-rounders, particularly at the high school level, routinely score seven-figure bonuses as big league teams essentially bribe them not to go to college. That would be a sweet payoff on this lifelong investment.
Presumably, it would be both small step and giant leap. Certainly, it seems that a big league career now awaits. That's always been not just the dream, but the plan.
Hanging by a thread
At the same moment, as Beede pitches and putts in Westford, Rick Asadoorian sits in the bullpen at Fitton Field in Worcester. Like Beede, Asadoorian comes from a small town in central Massachusetts, Whitinsville -- a village actually -- that sits near a state park known ominously as Purgatory Chasm.
A day after deadly twisters swept through western and central Massachusetts, there is no getting around this: Asadoorian plays for a team called the Worcester Tornadoes. It's professional baseball, to be sure, but far out on the fringe. Even among the outliers in independent leagues (unaffiliated with major league teams), the Canadian-American League stands at a distance, a dream hanging by a thread.
The Tornadoes' game against the Brockton Rox started at 11:05 a.m. as a special incentive for school groups. Here in the late innings, as the Tornadoes squander an early lead, a huge group from Forest Grove Middle School heads to their buses. That leaves maybe 200 people in the stands, as wrappers from ring pops, Swedish fish and Starbursts swirl all around.
The bullpen denizens are perched on folding chairs down the left-field line, highway traffic roaring past just beyond the fence, beneath the big backdrop of a huge sign for Rotman's Furniture and Carpet.
Though Asadoorian is 30, he still looks like a young ballplayer. His body is wiry and taut, his dark hair still thick. There are just a few lines carved around his brown eyes.
"Unless I was playing affiliated ball, this is the only place that I would like to play," he said immediately after the game. "I'm home with my family. Essentially, it's turned into my hometown team. It's pretty fun to be here."
Of course, it is hard not to look back. It was a dozen years ago -- almost to the minute -- on June 2, 1999, when Asadoorian awaited his fate in the 35th MLB amateur draft. As fate would have it, Asadoorian was on his senior class trip at the time. Along with his classmates from Northbridge High School, and seniors from many other area schools, Asadoorian was living it up at a park in Connecticut.
"We were all sitting around the pool, hanging out," Asadoorian remembers. "It was a really, really cool experience."
As he tells the story, his eyes lilt and his tone suggests that he can almost taste the nectar once again. He didn't have a cell phone back then, way back in the Paleolithic era at the turn of the century. Instead, he carried a pager borrowed from his cousin. Around 1:30 p.m. the message came through: "You're on the Red Sox. No. 17. Call home."
A center fielder considered by some to be a potential five-tool player, Asadoorian could hardly believe his good fortune. His lifelong devotion to baseball had paid off in a huge way. He was the top draft choice by the team he had grown up loving. He was brimming with confidence. A story by Gordon Edes in the next day's Boston Globe reads in part:
"I have no doubt in my mind," Asadoorian said when asked if he felt he would one day play in the big leagues.
That has not come to pass. Asadoorian's pro career has taken him through trades and releases and the Rule 5 draft. He has been converted to a pitcher. He has made it as far as Triple-A, but never so much as one inning at the big league level. He is now playing his third straight season of independent baseball. On the roster of the Worcester Tornadoes, he is the second-oldest player.
"It just didn't click for me," he says. "It was unfortunate. That was my lifelong goal: to play in the major leagues. Do I feel like I can? Yes, I feel like I can. Do I feel like I have the ability? Yes, I do. Will I get the opportunity? It's doubtful."
Can't miss? Not so fast
The cautionary tale of Rick Asadoorian is more than just a blip on the radar. True, top draft picks fill out lots of big league rosters. More than half the current Red Sox roster consists of former first-rounders (Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, J.D. Drew, Jason Varitek, Jacoby Ellsbury, Daniel Bard, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Clay Buchholz and Jed Lowrie) and second-rounders (Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Carl Crawford and John Lackey).
But it's also true that a significant percentage of top picks never make it at all. Analyzing the 25 drafts from 1981 to 2005 detailed on thebaseballcube.com, one finds some startling details. Of the 917 first-round picks, including sandwich-round selections (still considered first-rounders, but slotted in before the second round to compensate teams for the loss of elite free agents), exactly 300 (32.7 percent) never played in the bigs. Fourteen of the Red Sox' 38 first-rounders (36.8 percent) never made it.
In 22 of those 25 drafts, at least one top-10 pick in the nation didn't make it. In nine of those years, at least three top-10 picks failed to get the treasured call.
Overall, 48 of 250 top-10 picks (19.2 percent) and 17 of 125 top-five picks (13.6 percent) fell short of the dream. Two of the overall No. 1 selections (Brien Taylor by the Yankees in 1991 and Matt Bush by the Padres in 2004) never breathed the rarefied air of the major leagues.
Asadoorian's draft year of 1999 was by far the worst one for top picks. The draft started out with two high school players: Josh Hamilton (with whom Asadoorian played in high school showcases) and Josh Beckett. After that, things went downhill in a hurry. Twenty-eight of the 51 players selected in the first round (a whopping 54.9 percent) never made it to the big leagues.
The Red Sox's next first-rounder in 1999 was Brad Baker, selected as a sandwich pick at No. 40 from the tiny town of Leyden, Mass., and little Pioneer Valley Regional High School. Red Sox scouts had been on hand to see every single pitch he threw during his senior year. They gave Baker the battery of psychological exams that are routinely administered to prospective standouts. His every move on the field was fastened to a coverslip and looked at under high magnification. Some scouts took the information gathering to the edge of espionage: asking questions at the Pioneer Valley guidance office and inquiring about the family's financial status at Mim's Market, the general store in Northfield where signs on the porch advertised bait and tackle and the services of a "bagpiper for all occasions."
But for all that scrutiny, Baker never made it to the bigs, topping out at Triple-A.
Looking for more evidence about the uncertainty of the draft? Asadoorian was one of three young men from central Massachusetts picked in the first round in 1999, an unprecedented bounty for the region. Mike Paradis, at No. 13, made it only to Triple-A. So, too, Asadoorian, at No. 17.
The other first-rounder from the area in 1999, did make it. You can look it up in the Baseball Encyclopedia. Keith Reed had a single in five at-bats with the Baltimore Orioles in 2005, for a career batting average of .200.
For all the talent, for all the desire, for all the shrewd observations of the old-school scouts and the Moneyball mensas, baseball remains maddeningly unpredictable. The 472nd pick in the 1999 draft, Jake Peavy, went from being a 15th-rounder to a Cy Young Award winner. And from 1998, a 49th-rounder, No. 1,423 overall, plays big league ball right now for the Red Sox -- Scott Atchison.
"A lot of first-rounders don't make it," said Asadoorian, who has never made any real money from baseball after his $1.725 million signing bonus in 1999. "It's not that they don't have the ability. Things happen."
Injuries, of course, come with the territory. Matt Torra was the top pick in New England in 2005, No. 31 in the nation, by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Just 10 innings into his professional career in Yakima, Wash., he tore the labrum in his pitching shoulder. He has been fighting his way back ever since. He lacks the fastball he had as a junior at the University of Massachusetts. He can no longer throw his signature hammer curveball because he can't get the torque.
This past winter, Torra worked with his dad in Pittsfield, Mass., repairing roofs in single-digit temperatures and taking online courses to finish his degree. But the baseball dream lives on. At 4-0 with a 4.64 ERA for the Reno Aces (Triple-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks), perhaps this is the year.
There are first-rounders who struggle with demons that become more accessible once that first bonus check is cashed. Jeff Allison of Peabody, Mass., the No. 16 pick in the nation by the Florida Marlins in 2003, has -- like Josh Hamilton -- battled drug addiction that has often taken him off the field. Unlike Hamilton, Allison has yet to reclaim the vast potential that once made him Baseball America's national high school player of the year. Toiling at Double-A for the Jacksonville Suns (the highest level he has yet reached), Allison is currently 1-2 with an 11.05 ERA.
The grind of the minor leagues often takes its toll. Baker, who again lives in Leyden, admits that he had grown to love the hunting and fishing season more than the baseball season. Since retiring in 2007, he has studied toward his associate's degree at a community college, given private pitching lessons, and worked in various jobs, including bartending at the 99 Restaurant and serving as a security guard at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
There are times when the world of pro ball gets overwhelming. "I didn't understand how to let myself play," said Asadoorian. "Listening to everything. Just analyzing things too much."
On the one hand, Asadoorian believes, there is no substitute for ability. "The bottom line is if you're good, you're going to make it," he says. "The cream rises to the top, always."
But in the next breath, he acknowledges that there are lots of other factors besides talent that help determine one's fate in the game. Part of that is getting drafted by the right team (meaning a team with needs and one that is committed to player development). Part of that is avoiding injuries. Part of that is just being in the right place at the right time. Shrugging his shoulders, Asadoorian says, "You have to be lucky, in a way."
'There's still a chance'
Asadoorian has come to know the Beede family, and the walk-up to the draft has had a double-edged resonance for him. Kyle Beede, Tyler's older brother, was the bullpen catcher for the Tornadoes last year. Through Facebook, Asadoorian has had plenty of contact with Tyler. The two plan to play golf together soon.
"He's a good kid," Asadoorian says. "He's got that baseball look. In my opinion, he's got what it takes."
Tyler Beede has plenty of confidence, but he also has a clear sense that nothing is guaranteed. For all the master plan, for all the talent, for all the hard work, he knows that other great and well-prepared players have failed.
"There are people who deserve to make it, should make it, and then just don't make it," Beede says. "That's baseball. That's the odds you take when you play the game."
When his playing days are over, Asadoorian says he might try to establish a niche as a consultant to work with players who are dealing with draft preparation and the rigors of the minors. "I've basically been through every level of the minor leagues as a hitter and a pitcher," he says. "I did not get to the major leagues, unfortunately, but I definitely know what it takes to get there."
And deep down, he's not ready to give up the dream quite yet. "I still have a uniform," he says with a smile. "I'm still playing. There's still a chance."
Marty Dobrow is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com and the author of "Knocking on Heaven's Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream" (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010).