No LeBron's in hardball
While some have flourished going right from high school to the NBA, don't expect to ever see it in baseball.
Brien Taylor and I were walking down the halls of East Carteret High School in May 1991 when he told me his career plans.
"I want to be like one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived," he said.
He was not delusional. A few weeks later, Taylor and his 98-mph fastball were picked No. 1 overall in the amateur draft by the Yankees. The North Carolina phenom got showered with an unheard-of $1.55 million signing bonus and immediately got sucked up in a whirlwind of hype that fitted him for an All-Star jersey before he threw his first Rookie League pitch. He was the best left-handed pitching prospect they had ever seen, scouts said. The best Yankee left-hander since Guidry and Ford, the writers said.
Fate said something else. After his second minor league season, during which he evidenced serious control problems in Double-A, Taylor got in a fight outside a bar near his hometown of Beaufort, N.C. and crashed to the ground on his left shoulder, damaging it forever. He never threw the same again. His velocity went down, his potential down even further, and he finally hung 'em up a few years ago, having never stepped on a major league mound. Thirteen years after all the commotion about Brien Taylor, about all the Cy Young Awards and World Series games he was destined to win, he doesn't have even one line in The Baseball Encyclopedia. Homer Spragins does. Kennie Steenstra does. But Brien Taylor is nowhere to be found.Todd Van Poppel, a Texas high school pitching phenom, has never lived up to his hype in the big leagues.
If anyone could have been baseball's LeBron James, it was Taylor. Preternatural talent. Panting, New York hype. But try as it might sometimes, baseball ain't basketball. High school phenoms simply do not step off of prep diamonds into major league stadiums and dominate. And they never will.
The evidence is endless. When you consider that the biggest high school phenoms of the past 20 years have included the likes of Taylor, Josh Booty, Matt White, the immortal Todd Van Poppel ... you notice that other forces are at work here.
Baseball prospects, whether we like it or not, require an incubation period before being ready for prime time -- call it the minor leagues. Major league skills are too esoteric to be grasped at a summer minicamp; sheer athleticism won't cut it when a Mariano Rivera cutter is slicing past your wrists. (Put it this way: When LeBron squares up, the hoop isn't moving 95 mph.) Baseball is a game of repetition, of honing movements down to the millimeter and millisecond, and prospects almost always need at least two or three seasons of 500 at-bats or 150 innings before developing the weapons required for the major league jungle. Those who have tried to skip this apprenticeship invariably fall on their faces.
The most famous of these has to be David Clyde, in 1973. The left-hander was the prototypical prep phenom -- good fastball, great curve, control and poise -- and was simply scintillating for Westchester High in Houston, going 18-0 with 14 shutouts his senior year. His home-state Rangers picked him No. 1 overall and, to help boost attendance, started him 19 days after his high school graduation. Clyde did win that first start, but finished the year 4-8 with a 5.03 ERA.
"It was the worst thing for him, mentally and physically," his manager, Whitey Herzog, later recalled. "He didn't have a chance to learn the game and how to conduct himself ... He was into something he couldn't handle."
Still hoping to cash in at the turnstiles, the Rangers kept Clyde in Texas the next year but he went 3-9, 4.38. He finally got sent to the minors, got hurt, and was never the same. He was out of the majors by 1979.
Similarly poor results followed when the A's plopped high school pitchers Mike Morgan and Tim Conroy into the majors in 1978, and since then no prep player has made the jump directly to the bigs.
Many of the best high school prospects, the ones for whom stardom is all but guaranteed, initially struggle even in the low minors. J.R. Richard, the No. 2 overall pick of the Astros back in 1969, posted a 6.59 ERA in his Appalachian League debut and led the loop in walks. In 1990, Chipper Jones was drafted No. 1 overall by the Braves, and proceeded to hit .229 with one home run in the Gulf Coast League. Derek Jeter did even worse two years later, batting .202 for rookie-level Tampa. For all of these future All-Stars -- and dozens more -- they had to fail in the bush leagues before having any chance of succeeding in the majors.
Because they disappear for so long before resurfacing to relevance -- if they even do -- top baseball phenoms are not showered with the hype of football and basketball players. In fact, it's barely a drizzle. The baseball draft isn't nearly the pickled-in-pique event that basketball and football trot out every year. There are no weekend-long ESPN specials, complete with video clips and coiffed hosts. Bud Selig doesn't shake the hand of Johnny Armchucker at any podium and freeze for the flashbulbs. The baseball draft isn't televised at all; in fact, until very recently, Major League Baseball conducted the draft via private conference call and kept the names of draftees past the first round secret for a week. (Don't ask.) Though the draftniks would prefer more attention, the market has spoken, most fans saying they'll focus on this season's upcoming rookies, not kids who might never reach Double-A.Derek Jeter, a career .317 hitter in the major leagues, batted just .202 for rookie-level Tampa in his first pro season.
Of course, some baseball phenoms do hit it big -- and fast. In 1984, a year and a half after graduating high school, Dwight Gooden exploded on the major league scene and won the NL Rookie of the Year award, the next year the NL Cy Young, and became the biggest thing to hit New York since the Stage Deli. It took Ken Griffey Jr., the No. 1 overall pick in 1987, less than two years of minor league seasoning before becoming a sensation in Seattle. Alex Rodriguez followed him in even less time -- just over a year -- but even A-Rod spent another season getting his major league footing before exploding in 1996.
Then there's the hype. While basketball and football turn out Next Big Things on assembly lines, baseball is reluctant to hold premature coronations. Part of that derives from how famous other sports' phenoms -- who have been trumpeted in college, high school and now even junior high -- become before striding into the NBA and NFL. Part of it comes from those leagues' savvier marketing departments. But there's another factor more silently at play.
Baseball has a much longer history than those other sports do, its Ruthian legends casting a long shadow over even today's best players. Compare any modern superstar to Willie Mays and traditionalists shudder as if you're burning baseball's flag. This undertow of nostalgia has held baseball back while other sports have moved forward and beyond it. (When you sell the past, it's harder to sell the present.) Baseball is conditioned not to celebrate too early, to revere its past stars until there's no other choice.
For proof, we need look only to St. Louis, where a phenomenally young baseball player has played at a level of which LeBron James should dream. Albert Pujols spent just one year in the minor league obscurity before, at age 21, starting what is perhaps the most spectacular beginning of any major league career in history. Pujols has averaged .334-38-127 numbers his first three seasons; last year he won his first batting title (at .359) and hit 43 home runs. Try to find another player since 1947 who has dominated so much, so fast, and you simply can't. But in terms of national buzz, no one has particularly cared. Had Pujols done this straight out of his Missouri high school, the reaction might have been heightened, but probably not that much.
Which brings us to another interesting point: Slowly but surely, basketball is starting to imitate baseball by drafting kids straight out of high school, then asking them to contribute immediately. This allows for some spectacular success stories like James and Kevin Garnett, but guys like Jonathan Bender, Kwame Brown and Tyson Chandler struggle early, drop into relative obscurity, and make everyone question what all the fuss was for. In crying wolf a little too often, the NBA will almost certainly get a taste of what baseball has dealt with for decades.
In baseball, the term "phenom" usually winds up affixed to guys who eventually accomplished very little; that's just the way it is. The stories are more often about those who don't make it than those who do.
I can still remember one May afternoon, in 1998, when I watched the nation's top high school slugger take batting practice. This kid, with long and powerful limbs that would clearly grow muscles upon muscles, grabbed his wood bat and slammed pitch after pitch over the left-field fence. Some balls traveled over 500 feet -- I walked them off -- and plunked into a distant, backyard swimming pool like chorine tablets. A scout who witnessed the display was so overcome he asked the future All-Star for his autograph.
Six years later, that baseball player has struggled mightily in the minors, played in eight major league games, and will not be playing any more. He has decided to get as far away as possible from baseball, from its persistent, sadistic failure. His name is Drew Henson.
Alan Schwarz is the Senior Writer of Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His first book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," will be published by St. Martin's Press in July.
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