|Monday, June 2
Updated: June 3, 12:37 PM ET
Fans deserve compelling amateur draft
By Jayson Stark
It's time once again for another June baseball draft. So grab that remote. Spread out your bowls of chips and pretzels.
Then print out your handy-dandy ESPN.com top-prospects list. Turn on that 42-inch flat panel in the entertainment room. And ...
At that point, our best advice is to pop in the nearest "Matrix" DVD because, for the 39th consecutive year, The Great American Baseball Draft will not be coming right up on any ESPN network on your cable dial.
Or anyone else's, for that matter.
We're sure there's some good reason why this draft is still the most clandestine non-extravaganza in any major sport. But what?
Because LeBron James doesn't own a glove?
Because Chris Berman is on vacation?
Because Mel Kiper still has laryngitis from the NFL draft?
Because Bud Selig doesn't feel like wearing a suit that day?
Well, whatever reason baseball is clinging to, it's time to shred it, trash it and burn it. Because people out there do care about this draft.
The draft-crazed geniuses over at Baseball America tell us the traffic on their Web site generally doubles on draft day -- and is expected to more than double this year. That's 2 million extra hits, by about a quarter of a million draftniks. What does that tell you?
They also have found many people who are willing to pay them actual money for their special Draft Plus coverage. So just leading up to this draft, they've had about 10,000 "page views" a day of their Draft Tracker. What does that tell you?
And over at Major League Baseball's Web site, there's more activity during the draft than there is during the World Series. What does that tell you?
Well, it tells us that if that many people are willing to work that hard for information about a draft that only an espionage agent could love, then think how many fans would get interested if this event was actually visible and compelling?
"I know the people at Major League Baseball are trying to generate more interest in the game in a lot of different ways," Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield said. "So it seems to me that building up interest in the draft would just fall in line with everything else they're trying to do."
Sure would. And the good news is, baseball is, inching in that direction. Nowadays at least, you no longer need to be a CIA operative to find out who got drafted.
It took a few decades, but a couple of years ago, baseball finally got around to the revolutionary concept of actually (better sit down for this) revealing who got picked and in what round. Amazing. That may sound like pretty basic stuff to a fan who hasn't paid attention. But it's cutting edge for this sport. Believe it or not, the picks used to be released only in alphabetic order -- a week after the draft.
Now, in another monumental breakthrough, the first round is (shudder) broadcast live on MLB's Web site. So if you're enough of a seamhead to click and turn on the speakers, you can find out when Delmon Young gets drafted the same time he does. Almost makes you proud just to own a computer.
But why, we wonder, should it even be that hard?
"This isn't a secret anymore," Indians scouting director John Mirabelli said. "So I don't understand why we want to cloak it with so much secrecy. We've got it on the Internet now. So I don't know why we wouldn't want to make it more of an event."
And that, friends, is exactly where we're coming from. In many ways, we hate this draft. In its present form, with those pesky signability issues often manipulating who gets drafted where, it's barely accomplishing what it's supposed to.
But if we're going to keep it around at all, why not make it better? Why not make it fun? Why not make it downright riveting? All that can do is create more interest in players, more interest in following prospects as they weave their way through the minor leagues, more interest in the sport of baseball.
"Anything you can do to create interest in the game should be embraced," agent Seth Levinson said. "It's that simple."
We've surveyed a bunch of general managers, scouting directors and agents this week. And we've concluded there's massive support for improving the draft in various ways. So here are three easy suggestions, absolutely free of charge.
So isn't it absurd for baseball's draft to be broadcast only to a bunch of diehard broadbanders with nothing else to do before lunch on a Tuesday in June?
"I'm not sure it's a made-for-TV thing to televise the whole deal," Mirabelli said. "It doesn't have to be all day, for six hours. Just do the first round. Anything would be better than what we've got now -- which is nothing."
If each team got five minutes to make its No. 1 pick, that's a 2½-hour block of programming. We want Seinfeld or Billy Crystal announcing every name. We want Peter Gammons and some former scouting director dissecting every option. And if Mel Kiper can't make it, we'd take Duane Kuiper.
We could actually let fans see real videotape of all these players in action, as opposed to seeing a name on a screen or a newspaper page, or praying they can hear the big choice in between those exhilarating "buffering" messages.
We can use the telecast as a forum for all the big draft debates -- college vs. high school, pitcher vs. position player, tools vs. stats, scouts vs. computer programmers. These are all fascinating issues that lie in the backdrop of every talent-evaluation discussion these days, from the draft room to the big-league locker room.
"I'm not saying our draft would ever be a smash TV hit like the other drafts," Mirabelli said. "But I know there's interest. In our market, there's considerable interest in our (No. 1) pick. Is it LeBron James interest? No. But our fans think it's kind of neat to see the guy you draft and then follow him."
In fact, though, that's more than kind of neat. It's the essence of true fanhood to track a hot prospect through your favorite team's minor-league maze. Real fans watch those prospects for the same reason people watched LeBron James' high school games -- so they can identify The Next Big Thing before he actually becomes The Next Big Thing.
We know the baseball draft is not the same high-visibility animal as the NBA and NFL drafts. But remember, the first two picks in the basketball draft are probably going to be a high school kid and a 17-year-old from Serbia. So the baseball draft crop isn't all that much more obscure anymore, now is it?
"Before Baseball America and ESPN, nobody knew who these guys were," said Mike Arbuckle, the Phillies' vice president for scouting and player development. "But now the landscape has totally changed."
Not that Delmon Young is quite the household name LeBron James is. And Rickie Weeks is no Carmelo Anthony, either. "But that doesn't mean," said Littlefield, "that there aren't things we can do to make our draft sexier and more fun."
No doubt. Which just brings us to our next proposal ...
Move it to the All-Star break
The one-time answer was that baseball was hell-bent on keeping the names secret so agents and college coaches didn't find out about them in advance. But nobody pretends that's possible anymore.
So the real answers now are: 1) Baseball has never pushed for it in its TV negotiations. Therefore, 2) the TV people have never volunteered to televise it, basically because they're afraid it might get lower ratings than a home-workout-system infomercial.
To change that mentality, baseball would have to do two things: 1) Agree to produce the telecast itself and essentially buy the time, and 2) move it to a time slot where it might fill a genuine programming need.
So Arbuckle is one of many baseball people who have lobbied to push the draft back to the All-Star break -- when, of course, no one except the All-Stars is playing.
That way, Arbuckle said, "you could bring maybe 40 or 50 of the top kids (the NCAA willing) to the site of the All-Star Game, make it part of all the hoopla and help use the draft to draw attention back to the game during the one window we've got to maximize attention, without competition from the NFL or the NBA or what have you."
But moving the draft back to July produces two complications. One is the fate of rookie or "short-season" leagues -- your Gulf Coast League, your New York-Penn League, etc. There are still many otherwise-open-minded baseball people vehemently opposed to moving back the draft because those leagues don't start until late June and are traditionally stocked with fresh, newly drafted players.
"Televising the first round -- I'm definitely in favor of that," said Dan Jennings, the Marlins' vice president for player personnel. "Getting that national exposure, that's good. But it would kill your short-season clubs, and that's bad. The bad would outweigh the good there for me."
Not everyone agrees with his system of weights and measures, however.
"We need to draw fans, and if we hold it during the All-Star break, it would get the attention we're looking for," Littlefield said. "There are problems (with the short-season leagues), but we can adjust. We've got enough players. How many guys do we all release every year? So you just hold onto those players and release them later."
Moving the draft back a month also reduces the time to get picks signed to only about six weeks. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, either.
"I really believe that 99 percent of the players have their minds made up by draft time whether to sign," Arbuckle said. "Most of the agents will use the time allotted, whether it's four weeks or eight weeks. But that doesn't mean they need more time. To me, shortening the period would improve the process for everybody."
Let teams trade picks
"The quickest way to liven this thing up," Jennings said, "is to give teams the opportunity to trade picks or trade up or down. That creates opportunities where, if the right club traded a certain player for one or two picks, it could see an immediate return instead of having to wait three, four, five years for that pick to pan out."
This is another one of those ideas that seems less complicated than Dennis Rodman's hair-color decisions if you're somebody who hasn't paid attention. But the reason for baseball's long opposition to trading picks did once make sense.
"At one point, I was strongly opposed (to trading picks)," Arbuckle said. "But I've done a 180 on this. I thought it would give the agents another tool to manipulate the draft. But the reality is, agents manipulate who gets picked where every year, anyway."
So if you allow teams to deal picks, you'd no longer see clubs at the top of the draft backpedaling away from the Mark Priors and Mark Teixeiras in the pool because they couldn't afford them. Those clubs could take those players, then make a deal that worked for them instead of just the player. Or they could auction off their pick to the highest bidder before the draft. Sounds like good, healthy fun to us.
"Right now," Jennings said, "the draft is a mental chess match with the 29 other clubs before the draft, then a game of chicken with the agent after the draft. If you make this change, then the guys who are creative in their thought processes, who think outside the box, have the opportunity to come up with ways to help their teams immediately."
Fortunately, all of these changes -- and more -- are finally being considered by a joint player-management committee negotiating the future of the draft. Whether these guys ever agree on anything is another matter. But if they get stuck on the trickier stuff, like the international draft, we don't want them to forget the basics.
They just need to ask themselves this: Is there any sensible reason that it's possible for your ordinary American to turn on a TV and see authors addressing book clubs, women sewing quilts or a French guy cooking chowder -- but not be able to watch the baseball draft? We hope nobody has to debate another 39 years to answer that question.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.