By Dirk Hayhurst
Most of the young men who play baseball in this country would do anything to turn professional. Part of it is the glory associated with wearing a pro jersey, and part of it is the desperation a young man feels when, as school wraps up and the real world beckons, a pro contract is the only way to keep childhood alive.
I knew that feeling well. I didn't sign until I was a senior in college, and by the time the 2003 draft rolled around, as the waiting drew out like a blade, I found myself wondering: Why, if steroids were so bad, did someone invent them?
I didn't go on the juice to get drafted, but Lord knows I thought about it. In 1999, when I was in high school, I was told I'd get drafted. It didn't happen. Then, during my junior year of college, after leading Kent State to the regional bid and putting up some of the best numbers in my conference, I was told I would get drafted again, and, again, it didn't happen.
But during my senior year of college, with one chance at the draft left, I'd tried something new. Not steroids -- I never was much for needles -- but good, old fashioned lying.
Baseball is all about luck and opportunity. The right man in the right spot at the right time. In fact, there is a common saying around baseball circles that goes something like, "You only need one guy to like what he sees enough to pull the trigger. Once you're in, you can go back to being you."
Simply put, the draft is a gamble. A gamble based on scouting reports, which, in turn, are based on small, eyes-on sample sizes. Do something that draws the interest of the right scout at the right time, and you may have punched your ticket, even if what you did in that moment isn't necessarily how you normally play.
Scouts are peculiar animals. They all want to see something the other doesn't, but they also know that if they stick their neck out too far, and an organization drafts a kid for oodles of money just to watch said money crash and burn, the scout can be out of a job. To mitigate the risk, most scouts will bandwagon on big names, with scores of them showing up to watch the same prospect. For the amateur player hoping to get noticed, it can be a bitter pill to swallow when you find yourself in a game with a super prospect being treated like royalty by all manner of pro-labeled, radar gun-toting henchmen. But you swallow that pill because you want to play in a game with that kid -- he's your ticket to a free audition.
The higher-round slot prospects will get seen a lot because the pro organization that ultimately drafts them needs to be sure that they're forking over a couple million to the right guy. The next group of guys, the middle rounders, will be seen less often, usually as a supporting character to the lead draft pick's role. Late-rounders will be acknowledged as existing, but they will not be seen in the sense that the other two categories of players will. They will have to wow to get their names on someone's radar.
In short, you, the player, are a stock. High-rounders, your Googles and Apples of the baseball prospect world, will make their money because they are widely considered sure things too big to fail. Middle-rounders will get paid middling bonuses because they don't have the same ceiling that the other stocks do, and more risk. The low-rounders are like penny stocks that a scout believes has hidden potential for a big upside.
Every scout wants to land the next low-cost, big-upside talent. After all, verifying that a high-round talent is indeed a high-round talent isn't really scouting, it's job security. But taking a risk on a talent you believe will blossom even though none of your peers is making the same bet, that is scouting -- and when it's only costing the organization a grand, it's safe scouting.
Unlike stocks, however, players can speak for themselves.
After my junior year in college, 2002, the year in which I was stood up at the draft for the second time, I was crushed. I spent the whole summer wondering was wrong with me, that I could do so well yet still not get so much as a sniff. Everyone on my team at Kent State thought I was going to get to go pro. In fact, most of the guys on the team wanted me to go. I had draft-itus; an unhealthy fixation with turning pro. Symptoms included obnoxious behavior, compulsive checking of career stats, radar gun fixations and an obsession with men in collared shirts with MLB insignias on their breast.
I came into my 2003 season angry. I wanted answers for why I didn't get drafted, but even more so, I wanted answers for why I was told to think I'd get drafted, and drafted when I wasn't on anyone's radar. I asked the scouts I'd made acquaintances with, but all I got were clichés: "It's the league," "The timing wasn't right," "That draft is a funny thing, you know how it is." No, I didn't know how it was, but I was learning. I was learning that if it was going to tell me something it didn't mean, I might as well do the same thing back. I'd be damned if I was going to end my playing career on a baseball's version of, "It's not you, it's me."
My college coaches and I did a complete assessment of the situation: video, mechanics and game charts. My velocity was well within the draft's happy zone. My command was excellent. My results were worthy. What was the issue?
We came to the consensus that I needed to showcase more potential tools to leave something up to the imagination, and create something for scouts to project.
This is the only time I would violate one of baseball's oldest doctrines: don't fix what isn't broken. I was a two-pitch pitcher -- fastball and curveball. I had broken Kent State's all-time innings pitched and strikeout records with just those two pitches. I could run and sink my fastball, raise and lower my hook, go inside and outside, up and down, and throw any pitch in any count. It was enough to get me into Kent State's Athletic Hall of Fame, but it wasn't enough to get me drafted. To do that, I had to fix what wasn't broken.
I started throwing pitches I'd never thrown before in my life. When the right counts and situations presented themselves, I reached back, gripped the ball funny, and made sure scouts could write down more than "fastball/curveball." I even threw a fastball about 10 feet up the backstop just to see if I could really light up the radar gun. I only had to hit 95 mph once to have scouts write down, "has the potential to throw 95!"
My entire 2003 season was one of waste pitches that looked like backed-up sliders and tumbling splitters, and changeups that were about as deceptive from my fastball as a fake mustache. During warm-ups between innings, when I had to flash hand signals to tell my catcher what was coming, I'd flash signs for pitches I didn't know how to throw. Hell on my catcher, but great for the body of work that the scouts were penning next to my name.
Suddenly I was a right-handed pitcher throwing in the low 90s with great control and solid results, but with 4-5 different pitches, all of which had room for improvement.
But throwing mystery pitches was only part of it. I had to talk the talk. That's why, when a certain scout from the San Diego Padres plopped down next to me in the stands of my college (while I ran the game chart and radar gun), asking why I didn't throw my slider during the previous day's game, instead of telling him I didn't have one to throw, I told him it was because I had a blister on my finger. As fate would have it, I had a Band-Aid on my middle finger. Not from a blister, but because throwing my sinking two-seamer caused my fingernail to split. Damn thing was split all the way into the center of my nail and kept catching on my jacket and pulling open. Hurt like hell. A Band-Aid kept it closed until it grew out.
It also made a hell of a prop for my blister story.
"Ah," the scout said, "sorry to hear that. I saw you down in Vanderbilt. I wrote down that you had good command, nice plane on your pitches and a budding slider."
I thought back to the day in question. I actually threw four curves sideways that day, just for the hell of it.
"Yeah," I said, "I wish I had it yesterday. Would have made the day a lot smoother, but," I held up my finger and shook my head at it, "this stupid blister, ya know?"
"Let it heal up, son," the scout said. "I'm just glad to know you still got it. I think it could be a real separator for you."
On draft day in 2003, my phone rang. It was the Padres. They were calling to tell me they'd selected me in the eighth round of the amateur player draft.
Two days later I signed a contract to play professional baseball, made it to the big leagues six years after that, and wrote a best-seller about life in professional baseball the year after that.
All thanks to a slider I didn't throw, a Band-Aid and the power of small sample sizes.
* * *
Dirk Hayhurst is a former pitcher who spent nearly a decade in professional baseball between MiLB and MLB. He is also a best-selling author, and has appeared on Baseball America, Bleacher Report, Deadspin, The Score, ESPN, TBS' MLB postseason broadcasts, Sportsnet Canada and more. More from Dirk at www.dirkhayhurst.com. Follow him on Twitter at @thegarfoose.