|Wednesday, May 14
Updated: May 15, 3:11 PM ET
Scouts saw Beane as can't-miss prospect
By Michael Lewis
From "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game"
Editor's note: This book is published by W.W. Norton, 2003 and can be ordered on Amazon.com by clicking here.
Chapter One: The Curse of Talent
Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising. -Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise
The first thing they always did was run you. When big league scouts road-tested a group of elite amateur prospects, foot speed was the first item they checked off their lists. The scouts actually carried around checklists. "Tools" is what they called the talents they were checking for in a kid. There were five tools: the abilities to run, throw, field, hit, and hit with power. A guy who could run had "wheels"; a guy with a strong arm had "a hose." Scouts spoke the language of auto mechanics. You could be forgiven, if you listened to them, for thinking they were discussing sports cars and not young men.
On this late spring day in San Diego several big league teams were putting a group of prospects through their paces. If the feeling in the air was a bit more tense than it used to be, that was because it was 1980. The risks in drafting baseball players had just risen. A few years earlier, professional baseball players had been granted free agency by a court of law, and, after about two seconds of foot-shuffling, baseball owners put prices on players that defied the old commonsensical notions of what a baseball player should be paid. Inside of four years, the average big league salary had nearly tripled, from about $52,000 to almost $150,000 a year. The new owner of the New York Yankees, George Steinbrenner, had paid $10 million for the entire team in 1973; in 1975, he paid $3.75 million for baseball's first modern free agent, Catfish Hunter. A few years ago no one thought twice about bad calls on prospects. But what used to be a thousand-dollar mistake was rapidly becoming a million-dollar one.
Anyway, the first thing they always did was run you. Five young men stretch and canter on the outfield crabgrass: Darnell Coles. Cecil Espy. Erik Erickson. Garry Harris. Billy Beane. They're still boys, really; all of them have had to produce letters from their mothers saying that it is okay for them to be here. No one outside their hometowns would ever have heard of them, but to the scouts they already feel like household names. All five are legitimate first-round picks, among the thirty or so most promising prospects in the country. They've been culled from the nation's richest trove of baseball talent, Southern California, and invited to the baseball field at San Diego's Herbert Hoover High to answer a question: who is the best of the best?
As the boys get loose, a few scouts chitchat on the infield grass. In the outfield Pat Gillick, the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, stands with a stopwatch in the palm of his hand. Clustered around Gillick are five or six more scouts, each with his own stopwatch. One of them paces off sixty yards and marks the finish line with his foot. The boys line up along the left field foul line. To their left is the outfield wall off which Ted Williams, as a high school player, smacked opposite field doubles. Herbert Hoover High is Ted Williams's alma mater. The fact means nothing to the boys. They are indifferent to their surroundings. Numb. During the past few months they have been so thoroughly examined by so many older men that they don't even think about where they are performing, or for whom. They feel more like sports cars being taken out for a spin than they do like young men being tested. Paul Weaver, the Padres scout, is here. He's struck by the kids' cool. Weaver has seen new kids panic when they work out for scouts. Mark McLemore, the same Mark McLemore who will one day be a $3-million-a-year outfielder for the Seattle Mariners, will vomit on the field before one of Weaver's workouts. These kids aren't like that. They've all been too good for too long.
Darnell Coles. Cecil Espy. Erik Erickson. Garry Harris. Billy Beane. One of the scouts turns to another and says: I'll take the three black kids [Coles, Harris, Espy]. They'll dust the white kids. And Espy will dust everyone, even Coles. Coles is a sprinter who has already signed a football scholarship to play wide receiver at UCLA. That's how fast Espy is: the scouts are certain that even Coles can't keep up with him.
Gillick drops his hand. Five born athletes lift up and push off. They're at full tilt after just a few steps. It's all over inside of seven seconds. Billy Beane has made all the others look slow. Espy finished second, three full strides behind him.
And as straightforward as it seems-what ambiguity could there possibly be in a sixty-yard dash?-Gillick is troubled. He hollers at one of the scouts to walk off the track again, and make certain that the distance is exactly sixty yards. Then he tells the five boys to return to the starting line. The boys don't understand; they run you first but they usually only run you once. They think maybe Gillick wants to test their endurance, but that's not what's on Gillick's mind. Gillick's job is to believe what he sees and disbelieve what he doesn't and yet he cannot bring himself to believe what he's just seen. Just for starters, he doesn't believe that Billy Beane outran Cecil Espy and Darnell Coles, fair and square. Nor does he believe the time on his stopwatch. It reads 6.4 seconds-you'd expect that from a sprinter, not a big kid like this one.
Not quite understanding why they are being asked to do it, the boys walk back to the starting line, and run their race all over again. Nothing important changes. "Billy just flat-out smoked 'em all," says Paul Weaver.
When he was a young man Billy Beane could beat anyone at anything. He was so naturally superior to whomever he happened to be playing against, in whatever sport they happened to be playing, that he appeared to be in a different, easier game. By the time he was a sophomore in high school, Billy was the quarterback on the football team and the high scorer on the basketball team. He found talents in himself almost before his body was ready to exploit them: he could dunk a basketball before his hands were big enough to palm it.
Billy's father, no athlete himself, had taught his son baseball from manuals. A career naval officer, he'd spend nine months on end at sea. When he was home, in the family's naval housing, he was intent on teaching his son something. He taught him how to pitch: pitching was something you could study and learn. Whatever the season he'd take his son and his dog-eared baseball books to empty Little League diamonds. These sessions weren't simple fun. Billy's father was a perfectionist. He ran their pitching drills with military efficiency and boot camp intensity.
Billy still felt lucky. He knew that he wanted to play catch every day, and that every day, his father would play catch with him.
By the time Billy was fourteen, he was six inches taller than his father and doing things that his father's books failed to describe. As a freshman in high school he was brought up by his coach, over the angry objections of the older players, to pitch the last varsity game of the season. He threw a shutout with ten strikeouts, and went two for four at the plate. As a fifteen-year-old sophomore, he hit over .500 in one of the toughest high school baseball leagues in the country. By his junior year he was six foot four, 180 pounds and still growing, and his high school diamond was infested with major league scouts, who watched him hit over .500 again. In the first big game after Billy had come to the scouts' attention, Billy pitched a two-hitter, stole four bases, and hit three triples. Twenty-two years later the triples would remain a California schoolboy record, but it was the way he'd hit them that stuck in the mind. The ballpark that day had no fences; it was just an endless hot tundra in the San Diego suburbs. After Billy hit the first triple over the heads of the opposing outfielders, the outfielders played him deeper. When he hit it over their heads the second time, the outfielders moved back again, and played him roughly where the parking lot would have been outside a big league stadium. Whereupon Billy hit it over their heads a third time. The crowd had actually laughed the last time he'd done it. That's how it was with Billy when he played anything, but especially when he played baseball: blink and you might miss something you'd never see again.
He encouraged strong feelings in the older men who were paid to imagine what kind of pro ballplayer a young man might become. The boy had a body you could dream on. Ramrod-straight and lean but not so lean you couldn't imagine him filling out. And that face! Beneath an unruly mop of dark brown hair the boy had the sharp features the scouts loved. Some of the scouts still believed they could tell by the structure of a young man's face not only his character but his future in pro ball. They had a phrase they used: "the Good Face." Billy had the Good Face.
Billy's coach, Sam Blalock, didn't know what to make of the scouts. "I've got this first-round draft pick," he says, "and fifteen and twenty scouts showing up every time we scrimmage. And I didn't know what to do. I'd never played pro ball." Twenty years later Sam Blalock would be selected by his peers as the best high school baseball coach in the country. His teams at Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego would produce so many big league prospects that the school would come to be known, in baseball circles, as "The Factory." But in 1979 Blalock was only a few years into his job, and he was still in awe of Major League Baseball, and its many representatives who turned up at his practices. Each and every one of them, it seemed, wanted to get to know Billy Beane personally. It got so that Billy would run from practice straight to some friend's house to avoid their incessant phone calls to his home. With the scouts, Billy was cool. With his coaches, Billy was cool. The only one who ever got to Billy where he lived was an English teacher who yanked him out of class one day and told him he was too bright to get by on his athletic gifts and his charm. For her, Billy wanted to be better than he was. For the scouts-well, the scouts he could take or leave.
What Sam Blalock now thinks he should have done is to herd the scouts into a corner and tell them to just sit there until such time as they were called upon. What he did, instead, was whatever they wanted him to do; and what they wanted him to do was trot his star out for inspection. They'd ask to see Billy run. Sam would have Billy run sprints for them. They'd ask to see Billy throw and Billy would proceed to the outfield and fire rockets to Sam at the plate. They'd want to see Billy hit and Sam would throw batting practice with no one there but Billy and the scouts. ("Me throwing, Billy hitting, and twenty big league scouts in the outfield shagging flies," recalls Blalock.) Each time the scouts saw Billy they saw only what they wanted to see: a future big league star.
As for Billy-Sam just let him be. Baseball, to Blalock's way of thinking, at least at the beginning of his career, was more of an individual than a team sport, and more of an instinctive athletic event than a learned skill. Handed an athlete of Billy's gifts, Blalock assumed, a coach should just let him loose. "I was young and a little bit scared," Blalock says, "and I didn't want to screw him up." He'd later change his mind about what baseball was, but he'd never change his mind about Billy's talent. Twenty-two years later, after more than sixty of his players, and two of his nephews, had been drafted to play pro baseball, Blalock would say that he had yet to see another athlete of Billy's caliber.
They all missed the clues. They didn't notice, for instance, that Billy's batting average collapsed from over .500 in his junior year to just over .300 in his senior year. It was hard to say why. Maybe it was the pressure of the scouts. Maybe it was that the other teams found different ways to pitch to him, and Billy failed to adapt. Or maybe it was plain bad luck. The point is: no one even noticed the drop-off. "I never looked at a single statistic of Billy's," admits one of the scouts. "It wouldn't have crossed my mind. Billy was a five-tool guy. He had it all." Roger Jongewaard, the Mets' head scout, says, "You have to understand: we don't just look at performance. We were looking at talent." But in Billy's case, talent was a mask. Things went so well for him so often that no one ever needed to worry about how he behaved when they didn't go well. Blalock worried, though. Blalock lived with it. The moment Billy failed, he went looking for something to break. One time after Billy struck out, he whacked his aluminum bat against a wall with such violence that he bent it at a right angle. The next time he came to the plate he was still so furious with himself that he insisted on hitting with the crooked bat. Another time he threw such a tantrum that Blalock tossed him off the team. "You have some guys that when they strike out and come back to the bench all the other guys move down to the other end of the bench," says Blalock. "That was Billy."
When things did not go well for Billy on the playing field, a wall came down between him and his talent, and he didn't know any other way to get through the wall than to try to smash a hole in it. It wasn't merely that he didn't like to fail; it was as if he didn't know how to fail.
The scouts never considered this. By the end of Billy's senior year the only question they had about Billy was: Can I get him? And as the 1980 major league draft approached, they were given reason to think not. The first bad sign was that the head scout from the New York Mets, Roger Jongewaard, took a more than usual interest in Billy. The Mets held the first overall pick in the 1980 draft, and so Billy was theirs for the taking. Word was that the Mets had winnowed their short list to two players, Billy and a Los Angeles high school player named Darryl Strawberry. Word also was that Jongewaard preferred Billy to Strawberry. (He wasn't alone.) "There are good guys and there are premium guys," says Jongewaard. "And Billy was a premium premium guy. He had the size, the speed, the arm, the whole package. He could play other sports. He was a true athlete. And then, on top of all that, he had good grades in school and he was going with all the prettiest girls. He had charm. He could have been anything."
The other bad sign was that Billy kept saying he didn't want to play pro baseball. He wanted to go to college. Specifically, he wanted to attend Stanford University on a joint baseball and football scholarship. He was at least as interested in the school as the sports. The baseball recruiter from the University of Southern California had tried to talk Billy out of Stanford. "They'll make you take a whole week off for final exams," he'd said. To which Billy had replied, "That's the idea, isn't it?" A few of the scouts had tried to point out that Billy didn't actually play football-he'd quit after his sophomore year in high school, to avoid an injury that might end his baseball career. Stanford didn't care. The university was in the market for a quarterback to succeed its current star, a sophomore named John Elway. The baseball team didn't have the pull that the football team had with the Stanford admissions office, and so the baseball coach asked the football coach to have a look at Billy. A few hours on the practice field and the football coach endorsed Billy Beane as the man to take over after John Elway left. All Billy had to do was get his B in math. The Stanford athletic department would take care of the rest. And it had.
By the day of the draft every big league scout had pretty much written off Billy as unobtainable. "Billy just scared a lot of people away," recalls scout Paul Weaver. "No one thought he was going to sign." It was insane for a team to waste its only first-round draft choice on a kid who didn't want to play.
The only one who refused to be scared off was Roger Jongewaard. The Mets had three first-round picks in the 1980 draft and so, Jongewaard figured, the front office might be willing to risk one of them on a player who might not sign. Plus there was this other thing. In the months leading up to the draft the Mets front office had allowed themselves to become part of a strange experiment. Sports Illustrated had asked the Mets' general manager, Frank Cashen, if one of the magazine's reporters could follow the team as it decided who would become the first overall draft pick in the country. The Mets had shown the magazine their short list of prospects, and the magazine had said it would be convenient, journalistically, if the team selected Darryl Strawberry.
Strawberry was just a great story: a poor kid from the inner-city of Los Angeles who didn't know he was about to become rich and famous. Jongewaard, who preferred Billy to Strawberry, argued against letting the magazine become involved at all because, as he put it later, "we'd be creating a monster. It'd cost us a lot of money." The club overruled him. The Mets front office felt that the benefits of the national publicity outweighed the costs of raising Darryl Strawberry's expectations, or even of picking the wrong guy. The Mets took Strawberry with the first pick and paid him a then fantastic signing bonus of $210,000. The Blue Jays took Garry Harris with the second pick of the draft. Darnell Coles went to the Mariners with the sixth pick, and Cecil Espy to the White Sox with the eighth pick. With their second first-round draft pick, the twenty-third overall, the Mets let Roger Jongewaard do what he wanted, and Jongewaard selected Billy Beane.
Jongewaard had seen kids say they were going to college only to change their minds the minute the money hit the table. But in the weeks following the draft he had laid a hundred grand in front of Billy's parents and it had done nothing to improve the tone of the discussion. He began to worry that Billy was serious. To the chagrin of Billy's mother, who was intent on her son going to Stanford, Jongewaard planted himself in the Beane household. That didn't work either. "I wasn't getting the vibes I would like," Jongewaard now says. "And so I took Billy to see the big club."
It was 1980. The Beane family was military middle class. Billy had hardly been outside of San Diego, much less to New York City. To him the New York Mets were not so much a baseball team as a remote idea. But that summer, when the Mets came to San Diego to play the Padres, Jongewaard escorted Billy into the visitors' clubhouse. There Billy found waiting for him a Mets uniform with his name on the back, and a receiving party of players: Lee Mazzilli, Mookie Wilson, Wally Backman. The players knew who he was; they came up to him and joked about how they needed him to hurry up and get his ass to the big leagues. Even the Mets' manager, Joe Torre, took an interest. "I think that's what turned Billy," says Jongewaard. "He met the big league team and he thought: I can play with these guys." "It was such a sacred place," says Billy, "and it was closed off to so many people. And I was inside. It became real."
The decision was Billy's to make. A year or so earlier, Billy's father had sat him down at a table and challenged him to arm-wrestle. The gesture struck Billy as strange, unlike his father. His father was intense but never physically aggressive. Father and son wrestled: Billy won. Afterward, his father told Billy that if he was man enough to beat his father in arm-wrestling, he was man enough to make his own decisions in life. The offer from the Mets was Billy's first big life decision. Billy told Roger Jongewaard he'd sign.
What happened next was odd. Years later Billy couldn't be sure if he dreamed it, or it actually happened. After he told the Mets he planned to sign their contract, but before he'd actually done it, he changed his mind. When he told his father that he was having second thoughts, that he wasn't sure he wanted to play pro ball, his father said, "You made your decision, you're signing."
In any case, Billy took the $125,000 offered by the Mets. He appeased his mother (and his conscience) by telling her (and himself) he would attend classes at Stanford during the off-season. Stanford disagreed. When the admissions office learned that Billy wouldn't be playing sports for Stanford, they told him that he was no longer welcome in Stanford's classrooms. "Dear Mrs. Beane," read the letter from the Stanford dean of admissions, Fred A. Hargadon, "we are withdrawing Billy's admission . . . I do wish him every success, both with his professional career in baseball and with his alternate plans for continuing his education."
Just like that, a life changed. One day Billy Beane could have been anything; the next he was just another minor league baseball player, and not even a rich one. On the advice of a family friend, Billy's parents invested on their son's behalf his entire $125,000 bonus in a real estate partnership that promptly went bust. It was many years before Billy's mother would speak to Roger Jongewaard.