Ricciardi's goal -- remain invisible

Author Rob Bradford went behind the scenes with J.P. Ricciardi as the Blue Jays' GM prepared for the 2003 amateur draft.

Originally Published: June 2, 2004
By Rob Bradford | From "Chasing Steinbrenner"

The following excerpt from Rob Bradford's book, Chasing Steinbrenner, picks up the story when Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi is on the road scouting prior to the 2003 amateur baseball draft.

J.P. already knew whom he wanted to pick with his first pick. It was just a matter of knowing if any other of the twelve general managers slotted before him were placing the same name atop their draft room's depth chart. Ricciardi didn't think so, but he knew from his years in Oakland that one couldn't be too careful.

Enter The Claude Rains Project.

It was a safe assumption that Claude Rains had never been affixed to the world of major league baseball in seventy-eight years of life. He had stood at just 5-foot-5 and was almost blind in one eye because of a gas attack suffered in World War I, not exactly the stuff of hardball legends.

What Rains did do was play a character near and dear to Ricciardi's movie memory-The Invisible Man.

For J.P., Rains' character was the be all and end all when it came to exemplifying secrecy. How much more clandestine can you get than being invisible? And that was exactly what Ricciardi and his troupe were going to be in the days leading up to the draft when it came to a shortstop named Aaron Hill -- invisible. Wherever the LSU infielder went, the Blue Jays were going to head in the other direction. As far as Toronto's crew was concerned, Hill was its top guy; it was just that they wanted every other team to believe anything but.

Chasing Steinbrenner

Invisibility was the Blue Jays' ally. The word came down: Up until the June 2 draft, The Claude Rains Project would be in effect.

The plan was hatched in the midst of every team's late-May right of passage-a scouting trip. For Ricciardi, scouting trips were like a whirl on a roller coaster-do it once, have some fun; and remember why you don't like repeating the process over and over again. They did sure bring back some memories, though. Hundreds of thousands of miles of pavement, hardly-groomed baseball fields, and endless trips through drive-through windows will do that.

There were days in which Ricciardi witnessed five games in one sixteen-hour span, and weeks that strung together a series of ten-hour trips. J.P. still remembered seeing shortstop Rod Correia play three days in a row, all at 7 a.m., or joining former Oakland A's scouting director Grady Fuson in driving over medians and past 'Do Not Enter' signs just to see the first pitch of a high school game in Michigan. The thrill, thankfully, was gone.

It was all the life of a scout, a life Ricciardi had put behind him until the middle of May had rolled around.

First stop: Houston, Texas.

J.P., McCleary and Toronto scouting director Chris Buckley joined the Epstein-led Boston contingent in viewing the University of Houston's finest, Brad Sullivan. While they were at it, there were three kids from the Cougars' opponent, Southern Mississippi, who were going to get the evaluation once-over.

Ricciardi saw what Epstein witnessed, a pitcher in Sullivan who was topping out at eighty-five miles-an-hour while allowing a constant stream of baserunners. J.P, however, saw something else. When you've made your living on evaluating talent, there's always more than the radar gun. That's why the kid who had just thrown the worst game of his collegiate career was in the process of being labeled as Toronto's realistic Plan B first-round option.

Second stop: Starkville, Mississippi.

When the heavy-set convenience store worker encountered Ricciardi on the other side of the counter buying a bottle of water, she probably thought nothing more than to give back the right amount of change. The problem for the Mississippi resident was that she couldn't decipher exactly what form of currency J.P. had placed in front of her.

"What is that?" the clerk said, pointing to the five dollars of Canadian money Ricciardi had tested her with.

"That's Confederate money," J.P. said with just enough seriousness to be believable.

"What?" she said.

Finally, Ricciardi relented, "It's Canadian money."

"That's real money?" the confused clerk continued. That was it for J.P. There was still scouting to be done and energy couldn't be wasted explaining the merits of the one and two dollar coins Canadians called the 'Loonie' and 'Toonie.' Another pitcher, this time a Mississippi State student by the name of Paul Maholm, was waiting to be looked at.

Maholm was a Georgia-bred left-hander who pitched like the big leaguer he idolized, Tom Glavine. The stuff wasn't eye-popping, but the method to the pitcher's madness was. By the time Ricciardi and his co-workers joined the other 4,802 in attendance in exiting Dudy Noble Field, they had seen the object of their attention strike out ten in just six innings against the maroon and white of Alabama. An impression was made.

Now, the Jays were placing Maholm as their No. 1 wish-list candidate. Reality, however, suggested they had better get another name up on the top of that list, because the Glavine-worshiping lefty was going well before Toronto's turn up on the draft room's speakerphone.

Invisibility was the Blue Jays' ally. The word came down: Up until the June 2 draft, The Claude Rains Project would be in effect.

Third stop: Fayetteville, Arkansas.

To get to Razorbacks' Country, Ricciardi, McCleary, and Buckley first had to drive their blue Buick LeBaron three hours to the Memphis airport. That also meant navigating Interstate 55.

The road was as dark as dark could be, leaving whatever was out on the horizon unknown to the three travelers. What were out there were tornadoes, lots of them. Ricciardi heard the warnings coming over the radio, but they really didn't mean much since the Toronto trio had no idea where the twisters and their LeBaron might meet. So reinforcement was brought in via a cell phone call. Keith Law to the rescue.

By now, it was 11:30 p.m. in Law's Massachusetts' residence, but it didn't matter. The organization's hierarchy was potentially in danger and it was up to the team's stat man to guide his co-workers to safety. So Law went to work, first dialing up weather web sites to pinpoint nature's wrath. But the problem was that the weather service only designated its natural-disaster-immersed sites by counties, and since Ricciardi was having a hard time seeing the road's mile-markers, never-mind a town boundary, the computer wasn't serving as much of a help.

Law improvised, grabbing an encyclopedia to find a map of wherever a road intersected Mississippi and Memphis. By now books and web pages were flying through the Law household, leaving Keith's wife with the expression asking what exactly was this world of baseball her husband had gotten into. Rule 5 drafts and deadly gusts of wind - that's what it is all about.

Finally, a midnight solution was passed in a final phone call to Ricciardi - keep going straight and you will be all right. Nobody said rebuilding a franchise was going to be easy.

Ricciardi, Buckley, and McCleary got to their Baum Stadium's green, plastic seats in time for the Louisiana State University's 1:04 p.m. game against Arkansas, a feat appreciated by each one of tornado survivors. But, as the Jays' trio soon discovered, their reward for not being caught up in nature's fury was much more than just admittance to a Southeastern Conference baseball game. The pot of gold was a shortstop with the name of "Hill" on the back of his white, gold and purple uniform.

Ricciardi should have known that Saturday afternoon was going to be worth the trip when he passed through the stadium's gate. There waiting for him, and the other 4,000-or-so fans of the Hogs, were the likenesses of Toronto, and former Arkansas, third baseman Eric Hinske in the form of bobblehead dolls. Evidently, Blue Jay Fever had spread 1,127 miles south.

The storm chasers' good fortune only increased in the third inning, when on a 1-and-1 count the player responsible for J.P.'s attendance turned a 92 mile-an-fastball into a solo home run over the left-field fence. The 5-foot-11 shortstop was now standing ten-feet-tall as far as the pack of scouts was concerned.

The homer was nice to see; they always are. But it wasn't until two innings later that Hill's place atop the Blue Jays' non-wish-list draft board was cemented. With the count worked to 3-and-1, the shortstop drew a fourth ball to increase his already league-leading on-base percentage.

In his five at-bats, Hill had walked once, gotten two hits and made the opposing pitchers throw him 18 pitches while not once swinging at the first offering. In Ricciardi's mind, this kid was just waiting to be drafted by the Blue Jays, and J.P. wasn't going to let him down. It was time to get invisible.

For the seventeen days leading up to the draft, all attention was going to be thrown at Sullivan. The message given to the rest of baseball was going to be that the Blue Jays wanted the Houston pitcher, first and foremost, and had developed a case of cold feet when it came to Hill.

Ricciardi and Claude Rains hadn't been linked together since the 1936 production of "Anthony Adverse," which co-starred a man by the first name of William who shared J.P.'s bloodlines. Now the two families were back at it again.

The scouts had returned to Toronto complete with stories of confused convenience store workers, deadly spinning gusts of wind, bobblehead dolls and, most important, a plan hatched by the invisible man.

Chasing Steinbrenner has been published by Brassey's, and will be released in mid-June. The book can be ordered from barnesandnoble.com.