Dispatch from the MLB Draft: A baseball graduation in MLB’s hall of mirrors

Sam Page, Contributor

That the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft occurs on a fake baseball field feels appropriate, given how manufactured the whole affair is. I’m talking here about the MLB draft, the media spectacle, not the MLB draft, the mechanism for assigning amateurs to pro teams (though one could make a good argument that the very system itself is a needless imposition on a free market that worked for 50 years). Regardless, the media sideshow spawned by the first televised draft in 2007 is undeniably a system more appropriate for other sports, fundamentally incongruous with the strange and unwieldy nature of MLB’s prospect pool.

Screen shot 2013-06-11 at 11.57.32 AMThe three other major professional leagues televise their drafts to rightly elevate it to the level of the games for which the draft holds equal significance. When an Edmonton Oilers fan watches Taylor Hall take the stage, or a fan of Washington Redskins Robert Griffin III, they literally watch the ascendency of their sport savior—a man who can alleviate the biggest disappointment in the fan’s life steps in front of the camera and puts on the fan’s favorite shirt as a symbolic gesture.

A single pick in the MLB draft rarely turns a franchise around, and if it does, it does just as often by happenstance than design. For every Matt Harvey, there’s a Mike Piazza, picked in the 62nd round (whereas there are only 60 selections total in the NBA draft). That such a small percentage of players drafted make the majors is not a surprise, given the sheer number of rounds. What surprises is that the talent is so spread out as to justify the 40+ rounds.

As I board the Secaucus-bound train at Penn Station Thursday, a couple, seemingly both Yankee fans, are trying to make sense of their favorite sport’s draft. That a pair of baseball fans are on this train talking draft is at first expected, later perplexing, when I realize fans can’t attend, unless they’re related to a draftee or Bud Selig.

The husband wonders aloud whether there’s a peanut gallery of surly New Yorkers like at the NFL draft (there isn’t). The wife then points out that the Yankees have several first round picks, because they traded away so many older players (that’s not the reason). He then asks whether the Yankees will retain the rights to the players if they don’t sign, as in the NHL draft, and his wife assures him they will (they won’t).

Their confusion is hardly unique, though. As the MLB continues to push its Rule 4 Draft as a marquee event, they must necessarily shine more light on its byzantine rules and strange scouting criteria. Whereas Mel Kiper Jr. can explain in very plain terms to fans how a player’s skills will help their team in the short term, even the most prized baseball prospect seemingly has some fundamental flaw that will take years of aggressive correction in the minors. For a sport supposedly so concerned with fundamentals, baseball players sure do accrue a ton of bad habits on their way to the big leagues. And unless you have a PhD in swing mechanics, your understanding of what goes on in the MLB draft will necessarily be filtered down through several second-hand sources.

I arrived at MLB Network’s Studio 42 ninety minutes before show time. As mentioned above, Studio 42 is a tiny fake baseball stadium, complete with astroturf carpet and padded walls, about the perfect size for a bunch of little kids to play wiffleball.

Bud SeligOn draft day, the team representatives (each franchise brings one symbolic and one actual) sit at tables in the infield. The Mets sent Darryl Strawberry and Marlin McPhail, which I initially assume is a fake name and a goof on their division rivals in Miami. (McPhail is actually an accomplished scout in the Mets organization, known for discovering Josh Edgin.) The players present and their folks wait to be called in the dugouts. Bud Selig’s draft lectern rests on home plate. The MLB Network commentary crew is in right field. Behind the walls, in bleachers, sit family and friends of the draftees and other official guests.

The media occupies three rows of tables in left field. There are about 50 reporters here. I am in the absolute back, sitting against the 385 sign in left center. I am sitting under a speaker, playing the coverage of the draft. When Harold Reynolds forgets to turn his mic off during commercial breaks at various points in the broadcast, his audio is piped right into my ear, giving my draft experience a weird “Being John Malkovich” bend.

This relatively small, oddly shaped studio with its many varied facades lends itself to the league’s 1A mission for the night: making the studio–and by proxy the draft itself–seem much bigger than it really is. Televisions playing the very coverage being shot and produced in this room line the various walls and ceilings. I spend most of the pre-draft time, while the various former MLB greats in attendance schmooze on the infield dirt, untangling the TV magic, deconstructing which camera points where and why.

For instance, in the pre-draft preview show, Greg Amsinger, the show’s host, chats at one point via a split-screen shot with MLB draft expert Jonathan Mayo, who is evidently in the undisclosed location of some mock draft bunker. Really, he’s just 8 or so yards away, sitting on a plank overlooking the entire room. If the cameraman would just pan up a little, the TV audience would see Mayo’s bald head overlooking Amsinger, reflecting the studio lights, like a benevolent sun of prospect minutia, shining rays of knowledge on the uninformed brains below.

Pumping their own show in the studio keeps the place alive and energetic. The threat of showing up on TV is enough to keep people awake, at least for the time being. Nine minutes before showtime, however, the music stops and the TVs go dark. Like the lights going down at a Broadway theater, everyone finds a seat and gets real quiet.

At 7:00 P.M. sharp, Harold Reynolds addresses everyone. His former player status gives him the authority to address a crowd that includes Peter Gammons and Darryl Strawberry with a single booming voice. Keep the walkway clear for the commissioner and thanks for coming, he instructs. Action!

The draft begins with everyone in the room holding up their smart phones to snap a picture of Bud Selig walking to the podium, which I really can’t figure. Darryl Strawberry has been walking around this place for an hour, and suddenly Selig comes out and he’s Justin Bieber.

MLB Network Studio BaseballWhen the first cut to commercial comes, there’s a collective exhale, as everyone in the room starts idle chit chat about whatever has just happened. Selig then returns to announce the first pick: the Astros have taken Mark Appel. A polite applause comes, but the enthusiasm is hampered by the entire audience being made up of the family and friends of a players who did not just go first overall. The reporters around me begin furiously filling Mark Appel’s name into their LEDES, noting his Houston background, and the Astros’ failure to sign him the year before.

An anticlimactic weirdness hangs in the air, as everyone grapples with the fact that Mark Appel, the single most important human being to the 2013 draft, isn’t in a room full of people trying to make the 2013 MLB draft seem important.

Harold Reynolds fills the empty space with nonsense analysis. According to Reynolds, every draft prospect is going to stick at his prep position and make the majors by July. He foresees the Astros calling up Appel this year, the kind of NFL fantasy that causes Astros’ GM Jeff Luhnow to politely say everything short of “you’re full of it” when Reynolds interviews him a bit later in the show.

There’s a lot of this pumping up of prospects. To be fair, no one wants these kids to fail; other leagues do it just as much and fans don’t want to hear their newest prize compared to Willie Bloomquist. Still, the tough reality of the big league draft is that many of these players, even the first rounders, will be lucky to become even a Willie Bloomquist.

Kohl Stewart, for instance, is compared to Josh Beckett, who is basically the Barry Bonds of pitchers drafted out of high school. Colin Moran draws the initial comparison to Dustin Ackley, the extremely disappointing second-overall pick, and Peter Gammons immediately corrects the comp to the great Robin Ventura. The Marlins could only be so lucky as to have the next grand-slam-singler.

After the top four picks go, the first player in the studio gets picked, Clint Frazier, a high school outfielder from Georgia. Upon hearing Frazier’s name called, a primordial yelp comes from the friends and family section, followed by a loud “I love you Clint”–the first person brave enough to audibly interrupt the talking heads.

I hate hearing my own voice on tape, so I can only imagine the sensation of Clint Frazier, who had to talk about his emotions on camera, while simultaneously being surrounded by TVs playing stock footage of him singing Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”

After getting picked, each draftee puts on his new jersey, completes a TV interview, and is then ushered into left field, where the reporters get one shot at asking him questions. The writer in front of me hurriedly follows Frazier on Twitter, then shoots out of his chair to jockey for good position in the interview huddle, not even bothering to close the tab in his browser. Surely, there’s some comment about sports writing in the modern age to be made here, though I won’t be the one to make it.

Next, the player is ushered by an MLB suit through a trap door in left field, surely an expression of the hope that each draftee will one day develop into a player of Manny Ramirez’s caliber. I ventured behind the trap door to use the restroom at one point and, on my way back the studio floor, was accosted by MLB security, probably quite reasonably mistaking me as the confused younger brother of one of the guys drafted.


Meanwhile, the first four picks start getting patched through for remote audio and video interviews. Kohl Stewart is set to Skype with the studio panel. But before the interview can happen there’s an awkward 10 seconds during a commercial break, in which Stewart sits quietly on camera, with his family’s sewing machine in frame, unknowingly staring down on a studio audience full of people. If Kohl Stewart ever makes the Majors, I will forever think of him as a Big Brother-type figure who menacingly watched down over me on a panopticon of screens.

Finally, the Mets’ pick comes, and much to my surprise, they pick an in-studio guest: Dominic Smith, as you’ve all heard by now. His mom is from Queens and his dad watched Darryl Strawberry as a high schooler growing up, so, with Strawberry present, the reporters have great story lines to follow. Still, when someone on the panel comments on what a perfect mentor and role model Strawberry will be for the young Smith, the more veteran reporters cringe.

For what it’s worth, Smith seems like a very nice guy, if not a bit of a mumbler. If, in five years, Duda, Wright, and Smith form the middle of the Mets batting order, I want to get out in front of nicknaming that team the “speak softly and carry a big stick” Mets.

When the panel starts to break out the old “Was Moneyball literally about college hitters or undervalued sources of talent?” and “Does W-L record matter for pitchers?” debates, you know things are dragging. And when the room is largely populated by reporters writing about the top picks on deadline and family of the draftees present, nobody seems to pay attention much during the second round. Feeling the life sucked out the room, Tommy Lasorda takes the opportunity to scream “Wake up everybody!” into the mic, before announcing a Dodgers pick. It’s the biggest laugh of the night.

The intro video the MLB Network rolled before the show said something along the lines of, “Welcome to your baseball graduation,” and it’s a more apt line than they probably even anticipated. For while there is a very graduation feel to these high school seniors receiving their hats from Superintendent Selig while their siblings and cousins holler in the back. There’s also the lingering reality that–like at a real graduation–this day could be the final big achievement in an individual’s life.

After the Marlins pick Colby Suggs 73rd overall, the graduation vibe becomes a tad literal. Like college undergrads handing in their rented caps and gowns, the draftees are made to return the first jerseys they ever wore of their new teams. They’ll just have to earn the next one.

My final image of the draft is a familiar one. The prospects, glued to their iPhones and returning texts of congratulations, are trailed by moms and dads in their Easter best clothes, carrying their sons’ MLB gift bags for them. It’s a rare moment when prospects don’t seem like assets to be leveraged for a franchise’s gain, but nervous kids whose every achievement is really the achievement of a family. And I can’t help but hope Harold Reynolds is right about every single one.