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“After baseball, nothing in real life will ever be as completely, simply and viscerally gratifying.”

 

July 24, 2014

AN IDIOT IN EXILE

By Pat Jordan

He was physically a man at 13 -- big -- 6-foot-2, 185 pounds. In all other ways, he was a child. He has lived a child's fantasy life for 38 years. His older brother, James, said he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, like Zelig. "He had such a charmed life," said James. "When he played at Oakland, I said,This is as good as it gets. Then he signs with the Red Sox, and they win a World Series, and I knew, That'sas good as it gets. [Then] he signs with the best franchise in sports, and I keep waiting for the good times to stop. But they never do."

Johnny Damon was a major league baseball player for 18 years. He won a World Series with the Red Sox in 2004 and another one with the Yankees in 2009, which is why he once said, "Being a baseball player is so great." He said the game "was fun," and winning championships was even more "fun." He learned how to have "fun" with the A's and then taught his teammates with the Red Sox and Yankees how to have "fun." His concept of "fun" was mostly that of a young boy. "I could buy different toys," he said. "Jet Skis, boats, motorcycles, all the stuff that baseball affords you the privilege to buy." His first wife, Angie Vannice,explained that her husband "plays better when he's buying things. He likes to shop more than anybody."

He also liked to play childish pranks. He dropped water balloons from the upper floor of hotels on passing pedestrians below. He and his teammates held down other teammates and poured ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard all over their clean uniforms, which he thought was hilarious. In the clubhouse he performed pull-ups naked, his penis dangling in his teammates' faces. He liked to "party" after games with his teammates, drink booze, smoke pot. He collected women as if they too were toys. Some might say that his sense of "adult fun" was a lot like his sense of childlike fun.

In early March, I met Johnny Damon for breakfast at an IHOP near Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., where Johnny has lived most of his life. The restaurant was packed, yet no one seemed to recognize Damon. He said that was because people in Orlando respect his privacy, but no one even glanced his way. Maybe it was because his black hair was cut short, and his face was clean-shaven. For years, Damon's trademark was his wildly flowing hair and scruffy beard, along with his broad, vaguely Eurasian, slanting cheekbones and eyes. (His mother was Thai, his father an American serviceman.) He resembles Drogo, the Kahl of Dothraki on Game Of Thrones. He always had Drogo's muscular body, too, which he liked to flash in tight T-shirts and shorts, just like he was dressed this morning. Damon calls his biceps "my guns" -- without irony -- and says that fans loved his "long, flowing hair, chicks digging it. Hey, what can I say? I'm blessed with good hair … [my] Samson thing. My hair is my strength."

Damon, at 40 years old, had nary a white hair in his coal black mane on this morning. His broad, handsome face was as unlined as it had been in his 20s. His body looked as buff as it had been in his 20s, too, when he played the game with a youthful, reckless abandon, certain that nothing bad could ever happen to him. His fans loved the way he crashed into the centerfield wall to rob hitters of doubles, the way he stole second base with his hair flying behind him. "I did stuff I shouldn't have," he said. Damon speaks softly, hesitantly, searching for his words. "I crashed into walls. I never worried about getting hurt."

He still looks like the same man who "partied" with his teammates all night long after each glorious victory. When Damon signed with the Yankees and learned that Alex Rodriguez worked out every morning at six, Damon told the press that there were a lot of mornings "when I might not have been in at six in the morning." Damon thought that "partying" would never end, but it did. He hasn't partied with teammates in two years. He hasn't played a game in two years, since the Cleveland Indians released him after three months of the 2012 season. Damon's agent, Scott Boras, who once demanded an $85 million contract for Damon, now offered him around both leagues. "One team offered me $50,000 to teach their minor league players how to run bases," said Damon. "Come on! $50,000 for eight months! I won't beg for a job." Which is not quite true. He begged the Yankees for a job last year, when Curtis Granderson got hurt. He told the Yankees, who once paid him $13 million a year, that he would play for the league minimum until Granderson returned. The Yankees didn't want him at any price. "I wasted two years waiting for a call," Damon said. "Now I don't expect one."

It confused Damon, embittering him. The Yankees signed Nick Johnson, who had a reputation for always being hurt, and not Damon, who always played hurt. "And then of course, Johnson got hurt," Damon said. "I woulda been perfect for Tampa, too. I played for the Rays in 2011, and it was fun. Guys kicked a soccer ball in the clubhouse and did cartwheels. On road trips, I cut the sleeves of my shirt to show my guns. But then the Rays messed up and signed Luke Scott instead of me." I asked him who Luke Scott was. "Exactly! Baltimore released him. He's a guy who hits a few home runs when they don't count. I could still play 120 games. Maybe not nine innings, but I could gas it up for six innings and be as good as anybody." If he had only played the last two years, he said, "I woulda got my numbers up, maybe 30 doubles a year, 100 runs scored. Then I woulda' been on the fence for the Hall of Fame. But, hey, a lot of brilliant players aren't in the Hall. Gibson, Mattingly."

"It's not like I need another job," he said. "But you want to keep playing, not just keep taking money out all the time." Damon's pleasures were never cerebral. He joked that the only magazine he ever read wasPlayboy, and he really just looked at the pictures. His satisfactions were always physical, both at the ballpark and away from it. Baseball, volleyball, jet skiing, women. He missed that regular physical activity of baseball. But even more than that, he missed the simplistic order of the baseball life, the routine that never changes. The pleasures of batting practice, when you could "show your balls, to try to show how much of a man you are" by hitting the ball into the seats. The endless, repetitive card games at the long table in the clubhouse. He had new friends now, who never played in the majors. "I tell them, 'Come on, guys, let's go play cards,'" he said. "But they don't want to." His new friends' lives were, like his, filled with mundane activities. "There's no set schedule in my life anymore," he said. "There's always these little things to do. Pay the insurance. Close on a house. Have a business meeting. Take the kids to school."

When he was a player, Damon said, he couldn't wait to go on the road after an argument with his first wife. They were such trivial arguments, like the time she asked him to go with her to pick out furniture. "I bust my butt playing baseball," he said, and he wanted to "go surfing, fishing, boating. I wanted to live, have fun, not pick out furniture." That's why, he said, most players never wanted the season to end. "They didn't want to start to carpool." They wanted to play baseball and have "fun," like the time they were scheduled to visit the Playboy Mansion, but it got cancelled because of the 9/11 attacks. He admitted that "complaining about not getting to go to the Playboy Mansion sounds ridiculous."

The game has always been an escape from real life for ballplayers, which is why so many dread leaving the game. The game offers a kind of constant certitude; wins and losses are fathomable in a way that real life's problems aren't. Real life's problems aren't clearly defined and don't ever seem to get resolved. They linger, frustratingly. After baseball, nothing in real life will ever be as completely, simply and viscerally gratifying.

When Damon was still playing, he once said, "When I retire, what I want most out of the game is for teammates to call me up, wanting to get together and do things." But now that he was away from the game, his teammates didn't call. He brushed it off, saying, "If it was a big thing, I'd hang out at the park with the guys. The players love to see me. They miss me. They can't believe I'm still not playing. But I'm OK with it. I thought about going to spring training games, but there's really no reason. It would be a shit storm, people coming up to me, Why aren't you still playing? I find it tough to watch games now, not because I don't like it, but because I don't have ties to it." Damon had nothing in common with former teammates who were still playing. They were still living in that childhood fantasy, and Damon would remind them of the real world awaiting them after it's over. Maybe that's why he still held out hope that some team might call him mid-season to pick up a bat again. That's why, after two years, he still had not officially retired from the game. He just floated around in limbo, waiting …

It ate at Damon. He formulated conspiracy theories in his mind, grasping at straws. He'd been blackballed."Why?" he asked. "My managers, coaches, players always loved playing with me. Even the press liked me, 'cause I always respected the job they had to do. I gave them my time while other players avoided them. They didn't want to be held … what's the word?" I told him. "Yeah, that's it. Accountable."

Back when he was playing, Damon had once said, "Reporters' questions are mostly negative. The press tends to have bad things to say." That's why it was harder for him to play in New York than in Boston: "The Yankees have a lot more newspapers not to read than [the Red Sox] do."

Finally, Damon broached a possible reason why he might be getting blackballed, though it wasn't easy for me to wrap my mind around his logic. He explained, "I mean, guys who were busted for performance-enhancing drugs are still playing with big contracts. Guys like me who have always been clean are sitting at home. For me to get a job again, I'd have to cheat, get my testosterone up so I can have a chance." Damon said that he refused to cheat, because he wanted to be remembered for playing the game "clean." Damon's first wife, Angie, whom he trashed as a nag in his autobiography Idiot, hinted to reporters that maybe her husband wasn't as "clean" as he claimed. She said that his body and personality began to change in 2002, when he became obsessed with putting on muscle fast. She said, "It's all about him, his haircut, his facial hair, [his body]."

During his playing days, Damon was not critical of teammates like Jason Giambi who took PEDs. In Idiot,Damon wrote that, "the character assassination [Giambi was] undergoing … hurts me, because he's the kind of guy who'd never do anything to hurt anyone." Damon claimed that he was not the kind of guy "who looks at guys who take steroids as cheaters" -- especially Giambi, because "I love him like a brother." Giambi had taken the younger Damon under his wing when Damon arrived with the A's in 2001, teaching him to "party" like a major leaguer should. Damon had almost worshipped Giambi, "his long hair" and his "rock star status." In his first spring training with Oakland in Phoenix, Damon, still married, couldn't believe all the girls flocking around him because of his long hair, and he "decided there no longer was any reason not to go out and have some fun."

Under Giambi's leadership, the A's clubhouse "was like a frat house," wrote Damon. "We played hard on the field and harder off it," he continued, adding that the A's were "cra-zee." Giambi ruled the clubhouse "and took us to dinner … and made sure we had a drink in front of us. He was a tough guy who loved life." Damon "was in awe" of Giambi's lifestyle, his tattoos, his old Porsche, his Lamborghini, his motorcycle, his boat, his full-length mink coat. Other teammates impressed him, too. Eric Chavez was "Mr. Smooth … the way he wore his pants," and Barry Zito had his Zen mysticism and cool hipster lingo. Even the manager, Art Howe, impressed Damon with the way he handled criticism of his players' nighttime peccadilloes. Howe told the press that he'd discipline his players only if they both "messed around at night" and "don't get the job done" on the field.

When Damon signed a $38 million, four-year contract with the Red Sox, after only one year with the A's, he was shocked at the sour attitude of his new teammates, a miserable bunch of guys. One player told him he should have stayed in Oakland. Damon wrote, "No one was having fun. No one wanted to grab dinner. I couldn't believe it." The players went back to their hotel rooms after a game and ordered room service. In Oakland, he wrote, "15 or 20 of us had gone out together … to have a good time. We weren't trying to hide from anyone." So Damon stepped into the role Giambi had served with the A's. He talked a few players into going out to dinner with him, then to clubs. When they hesitated, he told them, "You're major league ballplayers. They expect us to show everyone a good time."

By the time the Red Sox had clinched a wild-card spot in 2003 at Fenway Park, Damon was leading his teammates out onto the street in their uniforms and into bars, where they celebrated with worshipping fans who "were going nuts. It was pretty wild." Within a few short years, the Red Sox' team persona had made a 180-degree pivot, from sullen hermits sitting alone in their hotel rooms to wild men: cowboys and idiots. Damon was proud of his accomplishments with the Red Sox, and not only because he had helped win the team's first World Series in 86 years in 2004. He was also proud to have taught them to party like major league players were supposed to, "to go out and have fun."

After breakfast, Damon and I got into his big SUV and drove out to his house in Windemere, a wealthy suburb of Orlando. He had stopped talking now, as if his attention span had just reached its limit. I tried to nudge him out of his silence with a funny story about Buck Showalter. Damon did not laugh. He was too busy texting on his iPhone. Then, belatedly, he looked up and gave me a weak grin. Damon was not an easy person to talk to, except when he had something he wanted to say. I asked him to talk about his childhood while we drove. That seemed less stressful, so while he drove and texted, he told me how he'd grown up.

His parents had gotten married in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. His older brother James was born in Thailand, and then Johnny was born in the U.S. Eventually, the family settled in the Orlando area, after his father left the service. His father was a big man, 6-foot-2, 285 pounds. "He was a hard man until he stopped drinking and smoking," Damon said, "and then he softened and just watched his TV shows. He didn't work much, was never an athlete." His father let his son grow up without much supervision. If Damon fell and hurt himself, his father didn't comfort him. When he smoked pot as a 12-year-old, his father told him that he'd smoked pot, too, so who was he to tell his son not to do it? His father's only admonition about schoolwork was, "Just don't get D's and F's, and you'll be fine."

By the time Damon was in eighth grade, he was a big, handsome kid whose only ambition was to smoke pot and chase girls. The following year, as a freshman in high school, he met Angie Vannice, a sophomore who "wowed" him, he wrote in his book. "We hung out and did a lot of things together." One of the things Damon and Vannice apparently did not do was talk a lot. Damon distrusted talk, having had a debilitating stutter as a child. Even now, at age 40, he made a point of talking slowly, pausing for a long moment before he answered each question, putting all his ducks in a row before he spoke. "I thought too much as a kid," he said. "I'd talk without knowing what I was saying. I had to learn to slow my words down." Years later, when Damon and Angie argued a lot, she wanted to talk things out. He didn't.

Damon was the starting centerfielder as a freshman on his high school baseball team. By his senior year, he was considered one of the best amateur players in the country. The Kansas City Royals drafted him in the first round and gave him a $250,000 bonus. He played half a season of rookie ball and then came home and got engaged to Angie. They were married when he was 19. A mistake, he says now, because he didn't realize what he was giving up in his baseball life at the time. All those women who were attracted to the exotic good looks of a young man who "loved women."

I asked Damon if he'd ever visited Thailand, his mother's birthplace. He said he had, with his mother, seven years before. "A lot of Thais knew about me," he said. "I did some clinics. The people were very laid back, hard workers, respectful. Maybe that's where I got it from." When Damon was out of baseball in 2013, he returned to Thailand to play on its national baseball team in the World Baseball Classic. "I just wanted to leave baseball on a positive note," he said, "if this was the end." When Damon went to his first practice with the Thai team, he said, he looked around and thought, "What have I got myself into? The infield grass was two feet high. There were big snakes. The Thais were tiny and not very strong. But it was a great experience. I was like a baseball ambassador."

When we reached Windemere, we drove down a narrow street bordered on either side by old growth, Florida trees and Spanish Moss that blocked out the sun. Damon turned right into his driveway. Looming ahead was his huge, Gothic stone mansion, with a circular turret like the castle of Westeros. We drove under an archway and parked close to the kitchen door. There were about eight bikes in a rack by the door. "For the kids who come to play with my kids," Damon said. He has high-school-age twins with Vannice -- a boy and a girl. He has four younger girls, including another set of twins, with his second wife, Michelle Mangan, who is something of a beauty queen. Damon called Mangan a "wild woman, very passionate, very much in love with me, a great cook and a great mother." Vannice called Mangan "a home wrecker." Damon said that, for all intents and purposes, his marriage to Angie was already over when he met Mangan.

Damon's older brother said that Mangan "seemed to like to party a lot." She was Damon's co-conspirator when they dropped water balloons on pedestrians from a high floor of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Boston. When confronted by the hotel staff, Mangan said, "It couldn't be us. I was having sex with my fiancé." Once Damon was divorced and engaged to marry Mangan, she got into a verbal catfight with Shonda Schilling, wife of Damon's teammate Curt Schilling. It seemed that Mangan had taunted Shonda by flashing an eight-carat diamond engagement ring in her face. Asked about the incident, Damon said that "Shonda was not a very nice lady," and if you were married to Curt, "you wouldn't be, either."

Damon and Mangan were married in 2004. "She was awesome, like a five-tool player," Damon said. He wanted to have more kids, but she was terrified of the pain of childbirth. Finally, around 2006, Damon began telling everyone that he planned to "knock up" Mangan soon. In 2007, they had their first daughter. By that point, Mangan had begun a metrosexual makeover of her husband, who up until then had dressed like a surfer dude. She got him to start wearing designer suits and convinced him to appear on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. When I asked Damon about his experience on that show, fluttered over by a host of gay fashionistas, he said, "It was a fun show, but I wasn't at my best. I'd gotten bitten by a black widow." I said, "A woman?" He did not laugh. "No, a black widow spider," he said. "I'd gotten bitten in spring training with the Red Sox, when I was chasing an alligator barefoot. My lymph nodes got huge. I spent two days in a hospital, so I couldn't partake of the show as much as I would have liked." How did he get along with the guys on the show? "Obviously, they wanted me as their boyfriend," he said. "Gay guys like my look, my hair and muscles, but I made sure they kept their distance."

We went inside the mansion into a huge kitchen, which led to a living room the size of a banquet hall in Westeros. There were big flat-screen TVs, a massive bar and barbecue, an arcade room, a wrestling mat, a ping-pong table and a painting that mimicked Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" -- Damon takes the part of Christ, and his Red Sox teammates are the 12 disciples. (In Boston, Damon's teammates and fans used to chant, "WWJDD. What Would Johnny Damon Do?") We went through sliding glass doors outside. His five-acre backyard spread out before us like a fantasy playground or amusement park. Tennis court, volleyball net, basketball court, tree house, rock pool, golf-putting course, jungle gym, tiki hut.

Damon's amusement-park house and backyard is not only for his kids. It's mostly for him. When he charitably let a young teammate and his family live with him until they found their own digs, he said he did it because "now I had someone to play ping-pong with." Just a few days before I arrived, he said, he and a friend had "played volleyball for hours while we drank 60 beers." Not 59 or 61. Sixty. I said that it must be hard to teach his kids about life in the real world, when they have such a fantasy amusement park to play in. He said, "Oh, I make them help me out here. When Michelle and I are out on the deck at night, I make my kids go get our margaritas."

He led me to a wooden walkway, past sea grass and tall cedar trees, out to the deck overlooking one of the Butler Chain of Lakes. It was a beautiful setting to sip a drink at night with his wife, while the moon shimmered off the waters. Mostly, Damon loved it because he could go kayaking, jet-skiing, water skiing and fishing on the lake. I looked at the water and said to Damon, "Are there alligators?" He said yes, but his yard was fenced off, so it was alligator-proof. We stood out on the deck for a few minutes, admiring the view, while Damon texted on his iPhone. When he was finished, we walked back across the wooden walkway, past the sea grass and cedar trees, and emerged into the sunshine of his amusement-park backyard.

Damon said, "This is my lifestyle. I certainly never had anything like this when I was a child. But this is what I always wanted to be. A kid. I always wanted to stay young at heart." He looked at me, with my white hair and white beard, and said, "Nobody wants to grow old." I remembered the movie Big, starring Tom Hanks as a 12-year-old boy who longed to be a grownup. When his wish was granted, and he became a 30-year-old, his life was not so wonderful as he thought it would be. All those adult "real world" problems that never really seem to get resolved. Damon was a grownup who always wanted to be a boy and still does. His wish was granted for 38 years, until two years ago.

Late in the afternoon, Damon drove me back to my hotel. While he texted, I asked him what he was doing to make money now that he was (unofficially) retired. "I always wanted to run a company," he said. "Or be on a reality TV show. I'm going up to New York City tomorrow to audition for Donald Trump's Apprentice." He said that he and his wife would stay in a Trump Hotel with the other actors, Vivica Fox, Geraldo Rivera and Kate Gosselin. Then he added proudly, "I've matured enough to know how to dress in New York now." Damon said that appearing on Apprentice would be free advertizing for his other companies. He's involved in the kind of businesses that attract many retired athletes, propositions that require little from them other than a name and a face -- no talent, no business acumen, no hard work, no creative ideas. Nothing but their fame and ability to be amiable in front of an audience. He has a small stake in an energy-drink company ("so kids won't die of heat exhaustion during summer football practice in Orlando") and a small piece of a muscle-tape company. Kinesio muscle tape was invented in the '70s by a Japanese chiropractor and is quite the rage among some athletes. Michelle Wie wore it on her calf when she won the U.S. Women's Open recently. It's supposed to alleviate pain, reduce inflammation and relax muscles, enhancing an athlete's performance or rehabilitation. Some medical journals say that it's not clear yet if the tape is anything more than a placebo. Still, its slashing, multi-colored stripes look smashing on an athlete's bare arms and legs, like a colorful tattoo.

Damon pulled up in front of the hotel entrance and left the motor running. It was obvious he'd had enough of talking. Damon seems curiously absent from his own conversations, but it's hard not to like him. He is so purely what he is, like an affectionate puppy, an innocent child. We got out and sat on a bench across from the hotel entrance, in the late afternoon sun. I lit a cigar; Damon texted on his iPhone. I asked him again why he thought no team would sign him. He said again that he couldn't understand it. "My teammates loved me," he said. "I did cool things for them. I was unselfish. I never worried about my stats. I always helped guys who hit behind me. I took a lot of pitches, fouled off balls to tire the pitcher out for them. I always played hard to help the team win."

When he played for the Royals from 1995-2000, Damon said, he did whatever the team asked of him. When the Royals brought up Carlos Beltran and wanted him to play centerfield, Damon's position, he selflessly moved over to leftfield. The next year, at contract time, the Royals told him they could no longer pay him the higher rate of a centerfielder, now that he was a leftfielder. "Naturally, that year Beltran got hurt," said Damon, "and I moved back to center. When it was time to sign a new contract in 2000, I told them I wanted centerfield money, and they traded me to Oakland."

In Oakland, he learned how to be a great teammate off the field as well as on the field. He learned to foster team camaraderie after the game at night in restaurants, bars and clubs. "I knew how to get the best out of people," Damon said. "But times have changed today." Many teams now frown on their high-priced players hanging together after a game. "When I was playing," he said, "I always took the young guys out after a game to have a good time. I felt the kids had a good time hanging out with me, shooting pool, having dinner, whatever. I saw nothing wrong with that. I was just teaching them to have a good time. I taught young kids how to drink like a major leaguer. If they got pounded on a few beers, I told them they needed to practice more in the offseason. But some organizations don't want their players out partying for hours after a game. They worry they might get in trouble. But hey, I'm not a robot, I'm gonna enjoy being a player."

He went silent for a moment, as if a new thought had crossed his brow. Finally, he said, "I guess teams worried that my partying was a bad influence with young players."

* * *

Pat Jordan is a freelance writer living in Abbeville, S.C. He is the author of A False Spring and 10 other books, and has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New YorkerHarper's, Sports Illustrated, Playboy, GQ, Rolling Stone, Men's Journal and many others. http://www.sportsonearth.com/article/86025432/johnny-damon-baseball-red-sox-yankees-idiot-in-exile#!blpeYl

“After baseball, nothing in real life will ever be as completely, simply and viscerally gratifying.”

 

July 24, 2014

AN IDIOT IN EXILE

By Pat Jordan

He was physically a man at 13 -- big -- 6-foot-2, 185 pounds. In all other ways, he was a child. He has lived a child's fantasy life for 38 years. His older brother, James, said he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, like Zelig. "He had such a charmed life," said James. "When he played at Oakland, I said,This is as good as it gets. Then he signs with the Red Sox, and they win a World Series, and I knew, That'sas good as it gets. [Then] he signs with the best franchise in sports, and I keep waiting for the good times to stop. But they never do."

Johnny Damon was a major league baseball player for 18 years. He won a World Series with the Red Sox in 2004 and another one with the Yankees in 2009, which is why he once said, "Being a baseball player is so great." He said the game "was fun," and winning championships was even more "fun." He learned how to have "fun" with the A's and then taught his teammates with the Red Sox and Yankees how to have "fun." His concept of "fun" was mostly that of a young boy. "I could buy different toys," he said. "Jet Skis, boats, motorcycles, all the stuff that baseball affords you the privilege to buy." His first wife, Angie Vannice,explained that her husband "plays better when he's buying things. He likes to shop more than anybody."

He also liked to play childish pranks. He dropped water balloons from the upper floor of hotels on passing pedestrians below. He and his teammates held down other teammates and poured ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard all over their clean uniforms, which he thought was hilarious. In the clubhouse he performed pull-ups naked, his penis dangling in his teammates' faces. He liked to "party" after games with his teammates, drink booze, smoke pot. He collected women as if they too were toys. Some might say that his sense of "adult fun" was a lot like his sense of childlike fun.

In early March, I met Johnny Damon for breakfast at an IHOP near Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., where Johnny has lived most of his life. The restaurant was packed, yet no one seemed to recognize Damon. He said that was because people in Orlando respect his privacy, but no one even glanced his way. Maybe it was because his black hair was cut short, and his face was clean-shaven. For years, Damon's trademark was his wildly flowing hair and scruffy beard, along with his broad, vaguely Eurasian, slanting cheekbones and eyes. (His mother was Thai, his father an American serviceman.) He resembles Drogo, the Kahl of Dothraki on Game Of Thrones. He always had Drogo's muscular body, too, which he liked to flash in tight T-shirts and shorts, just like he was dressed this morning. Damon calls his biceps "my guns" -- without irony -- and says that fans loved his "long, flowing hair, chicks digging it. Hey, what can I say? I'm blessed with good hair … [my] Samson thing. My hair is my strength."

Damon, at 40 years old, had nary a white hair in his coal black mane on this morning. His broad, handsome face was as unlined as it had been in his 20s. His body looked as buff as it had been in his 20s, too, when he played the game with a youthful, reckless abandon, certain that nothing bad could ever happen to him. His fans loved the way he crashed into the centerfield wall to rob hitters of doubles, the way he stole second base with his hair flying behind him. "I did stuff I shouldn't have," he said. Damon speaks softly, hesitantly, searching for his words. "I crashed into walls. I never worried about getting hurt."

He still looks like the same man who "partied" with his teammates all night long after each glorious victory. When Damon signed with the Yankees and learned that Alex Rodriguez worked out every morning at six, Damon told the press that there were a lot of mornings "when I might not have been in at six in the morning." Damon thought that "partying" would never end, but it did. He hasn't partied with teammates in two years. He hasn't played a game in two years, since the Cleveland Indians released him after three months of the 2012 season. Damon's agent, Scott Boras, who once demanded an $85 million contract for Damon, now offered him around both leagues. "One team offered me $50,000 to teach their minor league players how to run bases," said Damon. "Come on! $50,000 for eight months! I won't beg for a job." Which is not quite true. He begged the Yankees for a job last year, when Curtis Granderson got hurt. He told the Yankees, who once paid him $13 million a year, that he would play for the league minimum until Granderson returned. The Yankees didn't want him at any price. "I wasted two years waiting for a call," Damon said. "Now I don't expect one."

It confused Damon, embittering him. The Yankees signed Nick Johnson, who had a reputation for always being hurt, and not Damon, who always played hurt. "And then of course, Johnson got hurt," Damon said. "I woulda been perfect for Tampa, too. I played for the Rays in 2011, and it was fun. Guys kicked a soccer ball in the clubhouse and did cartwheels. On road trips, I cut the sleeves of my shirt to show my guns. But then the Rays messed up and signed Luke Scott instead of me." I asked him who Luke Scott was. "Exactly! Baltimore released him. He's a guy who hits a few home runs when they don't count. I could still play 120 games. Maybe not nine innings, but I could gas it up for six innings and be as good as anybody." If he had only played the last two years, he said, "I woulda got my numbers up, maybe 30 doubles a year, 100 runs scored. Then I woulda' been on the fence for the Hall of Fame. But, hey, a lot of brilliant players aren't in the Hall. Gibson, Mattingly."

"It's not like I need another job," he said. "But you want to keep playing, not just keep taking money out all the time." Damon's pleasures were never cerebral. He joked that the only magazine he ever read wasPlayboy, and he really just looked at the pictures. His satisfactions were always physical, both at the ballpark and away from it. Baseball, volleyball, jet skiing, women. He missed that regular physical activity of baseball. But even more than that, he missed the simplistic order of the baseball life, the routine that never changes. The pleasures of batting practice, when you could "show your balls, to try to show how much of a man you are" by hitting the ball into the seats. The endless, repetitive card games at the long table in the clubhouse. He had new friends now, who never played in the majors. "I tell them, 'Come on, guys, let's go play cards,'" he said. "But they don't want to." His new friends' lives were, like his, filled with mundane activities. "There's no set schedule in my life anymore," he said. "There's always these little things to do. Pay the insurance. Close on a house. Have a business meeting. Take the kids to school."

When he was a player, Damon said, he couldn't wait to go on the road after an argument with his first wife. They were such trivial arguments, like the time she asked him to go with her to pick out furniture. "I bust my butt playing baseball," he said, and he wanted to "go surfing, fishing, boating. I wanted to live, have fun, not pick out furniture." That's why, he said, most players never wanted the season to end. "They didn't want to start to carpool." They wanted to play baseball and have "fun," like the time they were scheduled to visit the Playboy Mansion, but it got cancelled because of the 9/11 attacks. He admitted that "complaining about not getting to go to the Playboy Mansion sounds ridiculous."

The game has always been an escape from real life for ballplayers, which is why so many dread leaving the game. The game offers a kind of constant certitude; wins and losses are fathomable in a way that real life's problems aren't. Real life's problems aren't clearly defined and don't ever seem to get resolved. They linger, frustratingly. After baseball, nothing in real life will ever be as completely, simply and viscerally gratifying.

When Damon was still playing, he once said, "When I retire, what I want most out of the game is for teammates to call me up, wanting to get together and do things." But now that he was away from the game, his teammates didn't call. He brushed it off, saying, "If it was a big thing, I'd hang out at the park with the guys. The players love to see me. They miss me. They can't believe I'm still not playing. But I'm OK with it. I thought about going to spring training games, but there's really no reason. It would be a shit storm, people coming up to me, Why aren't you still playing? I find it tough to watch games now, not because I don't like it, but because I don't have ties to it." Damon had nothing in common with former teammates who were still playing. They were still living in that childhood fantasy, and Damon would remind them of the real world awaiting them after it's over. Maybe that's why he still held out hope that some team might call him mid-season to pick up a bat again. That's why, after two years, he still had not officially retired from the game. He just floated around in limbo, waiting …

It ate at Damon. He formulated conspiracy theories in his mind, grasping at straws. He'd been blackballed."Why?" he asked. "My managers, coaches, players always loved playing with me. Even the press liked me, 'cause I always respected the job they had to do. I gave them my time while other players avoided them. They didn't want to be held … what's the word?" I told him. "Yeah, that's it. Accountable."

Back when he was playing, Damon had once said, "Reporters' questions are mostly negative. The press tends to have bad things to say." That's why it was harder for him to play in New York than in Boston: "The Yankees have a lot more newspapers not to read than [the Red Sox] do."

Finally, Damon broached a possible reason why he might be getting blackballed, though it wasn't easy for me to wrap my mind around his logic. He explained, "I mean, guys who were busted for performance-enhancing drugs are still playing with big contracts. Guys like me who have always been clean are sitting at home. For me to get a job again, I'd have to cheat, get my testosterone up so I can have a chance." Damon said that he refused to cheat, because he wanted to be remembered for playing the game "clean." Damon's first wife, Angie, whom he trashed as a nag in his autobiography Idiot, hinted to reporters that maybe her husband wasn't as "clean" as he claimed. She said that his body and personality began to change in 2002, when he became obsessed with putting on muscle fast. She said, "It's all about him, his haircut, his facial hair, [his body]."

During his playing days, Damon was not critical of teammates like Jason Giambi who took PEDs. In Idiot,Damon wrote that, "the character assassination [Giambi was] undergoing … hurts me, because he's the kind of guy who'd never do anything to hurt anyone." Damon claimed that he was not the kind of guy "who looks at guys who take steroids as cheaters" -- especially Giambi, because "I love him like a brother." Giambi had taken the younger Damon under his wing when Damon arrived with the A's in 2001, teaching him to "party" like a major leaguer should. Damon had almost worshipped Giambi, "his long hair" and his "rock star status." In his first spring training with Oakland in Phoenix, Damon, still married, couldn't believe all the girls flocking around him because of his long hair, and he "decided there no longer was any reason not to go out and have some fun."

Under Giambi's leadership, the A's clubhouse "was like a frat house," wrote Damon. "We played hard on the field and harder off it," he continued, adding that the A's were "cra-zee." Giambi ruled the clubhouse "and took us to dinner … and made sure we had a drink in front of us. He was a tough guy who loved life." Damon "was in awe" of Giambi's lifestyle, his tattoos, his old Porsche, his Lamborghini, his motorcycle, his boat, his full-length mink coat. Other teammates impressed him, too. Eric Chavez was "Mr. Smooth … the way he wore his pants," and Barry Zito had his Zen mysticism and cool hipster lingo. Even the manager, Art Howe, impressed Damon with the way he handled criticism of his players' nighttime peccadilloes. Howe told the press that he'd discipline his players only if they both "messed around at night" and "don't get the job done" on the field.

When Damon signed a $38 million, four-year contract with the Red Sox, after only one year with the A's, he was shocked at the sour attitude of his new teammates, a miserable bunch of guys. One player told him he should have stayed in Oakland. Damon wrote, "No one was having fun. No one wanted to grab dinner. I couldn't believe it." The players went back to their hotel rooms after a game and ordered room service. In Oakland, he wrote, "15 or 20 of us had gone out together … to have a good time. We weren't trying to hide from anyone." So Damon stepped into the role Giambi had served with the A's. He talked a few players into going out to dinner with him, then to clubs. When they hesitated, he told them, "You're major league ballplayers. They expect us to show everyone a good time."

By the time the Red Sox had clinched a wild-card spot in 2003 at Fenway Park, Damon was leading his teammates out onto the street in their uniforms and into bars, where they celebrated with worshipping fans who "were going nuts. It was pretty wild." Within a few short years, the Red Sox' team persona had made a 180-degree pivot, from sullen hermits sitting alone in their hotel rooms to wild men: cowboys and idiots. Damon was proud of his accomplishments with the Red Sox, and not only because he had helped win the team's first World Series in 86 years in 2004. He was also proud to have taught them to party like major league players were supposed to, "to go out and have fun."

After breakfast, Damon and I got into his big SUV and drove out to his house in Windemere, a wealthy suburb of Orlando. He had stopped talking now, as if his attention span had just reached its limit. I tried to nudge him out of his silence with a funny story about Buck Showalter. Damon did not laugh. He was too busy texting on his iPhone. Then, belatedly, he looked up and gave me a weak grin. Damon was not an easy person to talk to, except when he had something he wanted to say. I asked him to talk about his childhood while we drove. That seemed less stressful, so while he drove and texted, he told me how he'd grown up.

His parents had gotten married in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. His older brother James was born in Thailand, and then Johnny was born in the U.S. Eventually, the family settled in the Orlando area, after his father left the service. His father was a big man, 6-foot-2, 285 pounds. "He was a hard man until he stopped drinking and smoking," Damon said, "and then he softened and just watched his TV shows. He didn't work much, was never an athlete." His father let his son grow up without much supervision. If Damon fell and hurt himself, his father didn't comfort him. When he smoked pot as a 12-year-old, his father told him that he'd smoked pot, too, so who was he to tell his son not to do it? His father's only admonition about schoolwork was, "Just don't get D's and F's, and you'll be fine."

By the time Damon was in eighth grade, he was a big, handsome kid whose only ambition was to smoke pot and chase girls. The following year, as a freshman in high school, he met Angie Vannice, a sophomore who "wowed" him, he wrote in his book. "We hung out and did a lot of things together." One of the things Damon and Vannice apparently did not do was talk a lot. Damon distrusted talk, having had a debilitating stutter as a child. Even now, at age 40, he made a point of talking slowly, pausing for a long moment before he answered each question, putting all his ducks in a row before he spoke. "I thought too much as a kid," he said. "I'd talk without knowing what I was saying. I had to learn to slow my words down." Years later, when Damon and Angie argued a lot, she wanted to talk things out. He didn't.

Damon was the starting centerfielder as a freshman on his high school baseball team. By his senior year, he was considered one of the best amateur players in the country. The Kansas City Royals drafted him in the first round and gave him a $250,000 bonus. He played half a season of rookie ball and then came home and got engaged to Angie. They were married when he was 19. A mistake, he says now, because he didn't realize what he was giving up in his baseball life at the time. All those women who were attracted to the exotic good looks of a young man who "loved women."

I asked Damon if he'd ever visited Thailand, his mother's birthplace. He said he had, with his mother, seven years before. "A lot of Thais knew about me," he said. "I did some clinics. The people were very laid back, hard workers, respectful. Maybe that's where I got it from." When Damon was out of baseball in 2013, he returned to Thailand to play on its national baseball team in the World Baseball Classic. "I just wanted to leave baseball on a positive note," he said, "if this was the end." When Damon went to his first practice with the Thai team, he said, he looked around and thought, "What have I got myself into? The infield grass was two feet high. There were big snakes. The Thais were tiny and not very strong. But it was a great experience. I was like a baseball ambassador."

When we reached Windemere, we drove down a narrow street bordered on either side by old growth, Florida trees and Spanish Moss that blocked out the sun. Damon turned right into his driveway. Looming ahead was his huge, Gothic stone mansion, with a circular turret like the castle of Westeros. We drove under an archway and parked close to the kitchen door. There were about eight bikes in a rack by the door. "For the kids who come to play with my kids," Damon said. He has high-school-age twins with Vannice -- a boy and a girl. He has four younger girls, including another set of twins, with his second wife, Michelle Mangan, who is something of a beauty queen. Damon called Mangan a "wild woman, very passionate, very much in love with me, a great cook and a great mother." Vannice called Mangan "a home wrecker." Damon said that, for all intents and purposes, his marriage to Angie was already over when he met Mangan.

Damon's older brother said that Mangan "seemed to like to party a lot." She was Damon's co-conspirator when they dropped water balloons on pedestrians from a high floor of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Boston. When confronted by the hotel staff, Mangan said, "It couldn't be us. I was having sex with my fiancé." Once Damon was divorced and engaged to marry Mangan, she got into a verbal catfight with Shonda Schilling, wife of Damon's teammate Curt Schilling. It seemed that Mangan had taunted Shonda by flashing an eight-carat diamond engagement ring in her face. Asked about the incident, Damon said that "Shonda was not a very nice lady," and if you were married to Curt, "you wouldn't be, either."

Damon and Mangan were married in 2004. "She was awesome, like a five-tool player," Damon said. He wanted to have more kids, but she was terrified of the pain of childbirth. Finally, around 2006, Damon began telling everyone that he planned to "knock up" Mangan soon. In 2007, they had their first daughter. By that point, Mangan had begun a metrosexual makeover of her husband, who up until then had dressed like a surfer dude. She got him to start wearing designer suits and convinced him to appear on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. When I asked Damon about his experience on that show, fluttered over by a host of gay fashionistas, he said, "It was a fun show, but I wasn't at my best. I'd gotten bitten by a black widow." I said, "A woman?" He did not laugh. "No, a black widow spider," he said. "I'd gotten bitten in spring training with the Red Sox, when I was chasing an alligator barefoot. My lymph nodes got huge. I spent two days in a hospital, so I couldn't partake of the show as much as I would have liked." How did he get along with the guys on the show? "Obviously, they wanted me as their boyfriend," he said. "Gay guys like my look, my hair and muscles, but I made sure they kept their distance."

We went inside the mansion into a huge kitchen, which led to a living room the size of a banquet hall in Westeros. There were big flat-screen TVs, a massive bar and barbecue, an arcade room, a wrestling mat, a ping-pong table and a painting that mimicked Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" -- Damon takes the part of Christ, and his Red Sox teammates are the 12 disciples. (In Boston, Damon's teammates and fans used to chant, "WWJDD. What Would Johnny Damon Do?") We went through sliding glass doors outside. His five-acre backyard spread out before us like a fantasy playground or amusement park. Tennis court, volleyball net, basketball court, tree house, rock pool, golf-putting course, jungle gym, tiki hut.

Damon's amusement-park house and backyard is not only for his kids. It's mostly for him. When he charitably let a young teammate and his family live with him until they found their own digs, he said he did it because "now I had someone to play ping-pong with." Just a few days before I arrived, he said, he and a friend had "played volleyball for hours while we drank 60 beers." Not 59 or 61. Sixty. I said that it must be hard to teach his kids about life in the real world, when they have such a fantasy amusement park to play in. He said, "Oh, I make them help me out here. When Michelle and I are out on the deck at night, I make my kids go get our margaritas."

He led me to a wooden walkway, past sea grass and tall cedar trees, out to the deck overlooking one of the Butler Chain of Lakes. It was a beautiful setting to sip a drink at night with his wife, while the moon shimmered off the waters. Mostly, Damon loved it because he could go kayaking, jet-skiing, water skiing and fishing on the lake. I looked at the water and said to Damon, "Are there alligators?" He said yes, but his yard was fenced off, so it was alligator-proof. We stood out on the deck for a few minutes, admiring the view, while Damon texted on his iPhone. When he was finished, we walked back across the wooden walkway, past the sea grass and cedar trees, and emerged into the sunshine of his amusement-park backyard.

Damon said, "This is my lifestyle. I certainly never had anything like this when I was a child. But this is what I always wanted to be. A kid. I always wanted to stay young at heart." He looked at me, with my white hair and white beard, and said, "Nobody wants to grow old." I remembered the movie Big, starring Tom Hanks as a 12-year-old boy who longed to be a grownup. When his wish was granted, and he became a 30-year-old, his life was not so wonderful as he thought it would be. All those adult "real world" problems that never really seem to get resolved. Damon was a grownup who always wanted to be a boy and still does. His wish was granted for 38 years, until two years ago.

Late in the afternoon, Damon drove me back to my hotel. While he texted, I asked him what he was doing to make money now that he was (unofficially) retired. "I always wanted to run a company," he said. "Or be on a reality TV show. I'm going up to New York City tomorrow to audition for Donald Trump's Apprentice." He said that he and his wife would stay in a Trump Hotel with the other actors, Vivica Fox, Geraldo Rivera and Kate Gosselin. Then he added proudly, "I've matured enough to know how to dress in New York now." Damon said that appearing on Apprentice would be free advertizing for his other companies. He's involved in the kind of businesses that attract many retired athletes, propositions that require little from them other than a name and a face -- no talent, no business acumen, no hard work, no creative ideas. Nothing but their fame and ability to be amiable in front of an audience. He has a small stake in an energy-drink company ("so kids won't die of heat exhaustion during summer football practice in Orlando") and a small piece of a muscle-tape company. Kinesio muscle tape was invented in the '70s by a Japanese chiropractor and is quite the rage among some athletes. Michelle Wie wore it on her calf when she won the U.S. Women's Open recently. It's supposed to alleviate pain, reduce inflammation and relax muscles, enhancing an athlete's performance or rehabilitation. Some medical journals say that it's not clear yet if the tape is anything more than a placebo. Still, its slashing, multi-colored stripes look smashing on an athlete's bare arms and legs, like a colorful tattoo.

Damon pulled up in front of the hotel entrance and left the motor running. It was obvious he'd had enough of talking. Damon seems curiously absent from his own conversations, but it's hard not to like him. He is so purely what he is, like an affectionate puppy, an innocent child. We got out and sat on a bench across from the hotel entrance, in the late afternoon sun. I lit a cigar; Damon texted on his iPhone. I asked him again why he thought no team would sign him. He said again that he couldn't understand it. "My teammates loved me," he said. "I did cool things for them. I was unselfish. I never worried about my stats. I always helped guys who hit behind me. I took a lot of pitches, fouled off balls to tire the pitcher out for them. I always played hard to help the team win."

When he played for the Royals from 1995-2000, Damon said, he did whatever the team asked of him. When the Royals brought up Carlos Beltran and wanted him to play centerfield, Damon's position, he selflessly moved over to leftfield. The next year, at contract time, the Royals told him they could no longer pay him the higher rate of a centerfielder, now that he was a leftfielder. "Naturally, that year Beltran got hurt," said Damon, "and I moved back to center. When it was time to sign a new contract in 2000, I told them I wanted centerfield money, and they traded me to Oakland."

In Oakland, he learned how to be a great teammate off the field as well as on the field. He learned to foster team camaraderie after the game at night in restaurants, bars and clubs. "I knew how to get the best out of people," Damon said. "But times have changed today." Many teams now frown on their high-priced players hanging together after a game. "When I was playing," he said, "I always took the young guys out after a game to have a good time. I felt the kids had a good time hanging out with me, shooting pool, having dinner, whatever. I saw nothing wrong with that. I was just teaching them to have a good time. I taught young kids how to drink like a major leaguer. If they got pounded on a few beers, I told them they needed to practice more in the offseason. But some organizations don't want their players out partying for hours after a game. They worry they might get in trouble. But hey, I'm not a robot, I'm gonna enjoy being a player."

He went silent for a moment, as if a new thought had crossed his brow. Finally, he said, "I guess teams worried that my partying was a bad influence with young players."

* * *

Pat Jordan is a freelance writer living in Abbeville, S.C. He is the author of A False Spring and 10 other books, and has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New YorkerHarper's, Sports Illustrated, Playboy, GQ, Rolling Stone, Men's Journal and many others. http://www.sportsonearth.com/article/86025432/johnny-damon-baseball-red-sox-yankees-idiot-in-exile#!blpeYl

“The extra selections take on added importance under the revised Draft rules”

 

7/20/2014 9:31 P.M. ET

Twelve teams to receive supplemental '15 Draft picks

Competitive Balance Lottery to be held Wednesday in New York

By Jim Callis / MLB.com

Major League Baseball's version of the Draft lottery doesn't attract nearly as much attention as its NBA and NHL counterparts, mostly because baseball's top picks aren't determined randomly like they are in the other sports. But for 12 big league clubs, the Competitive Balance Lottery on Wednesday will provide them with a valuable extra selection in 2015.

Introduced when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement came into play in December 2011, the Competitive Balance Lottery gives teams who have either one of the 10 smallest markets or 10 smallest revenue pools one of six additional choices after each of the first and second rounds. Additionally, any other clubs that are eligible to receive revenue-sharing funds are eligible for the supplemental second-round selections.

This year, the Athletics, Brewers, Cardinals, D-backs, Indians, Marlins, Orioles, Padres, Pirates, Rays, Reds, Rockies and Royals have a shot at the supplemental first-round picks. Whichever teams from that group don't get one of those will be eligible for the supplemental second-rounders, as will the Mariners and Twins. The lottery will be held Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, at the Commissioner's Office in New York.

The extra selections take on added importance under the revised Draft rules, which assign bonus pools for each club to cover the first 10 rounds and impose the loss of future draft picks if the allotments are exceeded by more than 5 percent. In 2013, the six lottery picks after the first round added an average of $1,484,500 to their teams' pools, while those after the second round augmented their clubs by an average of $790,350.

Competitive Balance Lottery picks have been part of the Draft for only two years, but they've already produced one Major Leaguer. The Tigers selected Corey Knebel 39th overall in June 2013 and signed him for $1,433,400. He made his big league debut on May 24.

Detroit acquired the choice it used on Knebel via a trade, highlighting something unique about the Competitive Balance Lottery. The dozen selections it creates are the only Draft selections permitted to change hands. Teams can deal the lottery choices, subject to some restrictions.

Each lottery pick can be traded only once and cash can't be involved in the transaction. The choices can be dealt only during the regular season, up until 5 p.m. ET, on the first day of the Draft.

The Tigers and Marlins made the first-ever Draft pick trade in July 2012. Detroit acquired Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez from Miami in exchange for prospects Rob Brantly, Brian Flynn and Jacob Turner. Additionally, the Marlins swapped their Lottery choice after the first round (which became Knebel) for the Tigers' after the second.

There have been three other deals involving Draft selections. Also in July 2012, the Pirates traded Gorkys Hernandez and a supplemental first-rounder to the Marlins for Gaby Sanchez and Minor Leaguer Kyle Kaminska.

In July 2013, the Orioles sent prospects Josh Hader and L.J. Hoes and a supplemental first-rounder to the Astros for Bud Norris and an international bonus slot. Miami was involved in a third draft-pick trade this June, when it gave up a supplemental first-rounder to Pittsburgh for Bryan Morris.

The Royals are the only team to win Competitive Balance choices after the first round in each of the first two lotteries. They were awarded the top pick (No. 34) in 2013, which they used on left-hander Sean Manaea, who currently ranks 94th on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects list. Kansas City also received the No. 40 selection in 2014 and tabbed catcher Chase Vallot.

http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article/ari/12-teams-to-receive-supplemental-2015-draft-picks-in-competitive-balance-lottery-on-wednesday?ymd=20140720&content_id=85517450&vkey=news_ari

 

"What follows is a summary of the players involved in this drama"

 

July 23, 2014

2014 Draft

The Anatomy of an Astros Breakdown

by Nick J. Faleris

 

As the clock struck seven on the evening of June 5th, the Houston Astros stared with wide eyes at a deep draft board. The organization held a handful of early picks and $13,362,200 in available spending, the most of any team, putting it in an position to load up its minor-league system with high-level draft talent. But 42 days and 22 hours after the Astros announced the first selection of the 2014 draft, the front office somehow found itself with one of the lightest pulls of the draft, a bruised reputation, and public scorn from both the MLB Players’ Association and one of the game’s most high profile agents.

This was only the third time in the history of the draft, and the first time in 30 years, that the first overall pick had failed to come to terms with his drafting organization. The impasse was especially notable because the two sides had appeared to agree to terms quickly after the draft, a month before the signing deadline.

What follows is a summary of the players involved in this drama, an analysis of the sequence from draft day to the signing deadline, and some conjecture as to what lies ahead for each of the participants.

The Players

Brady Aiken (LHP, Cathedral Catholic (San Diego, CA)), a UCLA commit, was a consensus top three talent in the 2014 draft class, considered by many to be the top overall draft-eligible prospect. He entered June offering potential front-end stuff, good athleticism on the mound, physical projection, projection in his arsenal, and advanced feel for a prep product, all from the left side.

Jacob Nix (RHP, Los Alamitos (Los Alamitos, TX)), also a UCLA commit, was considered a developmental project, but one with solid upside, drawing mid-rotation projections from some. Due to the perceived strength of his commitment to UCLA, most figured it would take seven figures, and perhaps as much as $2 million, to buy him away from the Bruins, making him a likely target later in the draft for teams with a spending pool surplus.

Casey Close, agent and advisor with Excel Sports Management, is one of the most highly decorated, and respected, agents in the game, and served as advisor to the Aiken and Nix families in connection with the draft. NCAA rules stipulate that in order for students to maintain eligibility they must not (among other things) engage an agent to represent them in negotiations with professional sports teams. Accordingly, a player may hire an “advisor” to step them through the process and give advice in negotiations, but the only individuals who may interact directly with the team and its representatives are the player and his parents or rightful legal guardians.

The Houston Astros. Outside of the Miami Marlins, no team in baseball could even come close to Houston’s ability to add significant talent from the 2014 pool of draft-eligible players. The Astros were allowed more than $13 million in potential spending. Further, the combination of picks gave them more “opportunity leverage” than any other team, as they could expect to receive more value at some draft spots than they would pay in bonuses. Overall, the organization had the first overall selection, three selections in the top 42, and five selections in the top 106—all in a very deep draft class.

Setting the Stage

Breaking Down Houston’s Draft Class
Through their first 22 picks in the 2014 draft (carrying through the 21st round selection of Mac Marshall), the Astros grabbed just four high school players—Aiken, Nix, Marshall, and 19th rounder Rueben Castro (C, Puerto Rico Baseball Academy (Gurabo, PR)). This is consistent with the front office’s approach, which places a premium on college talent—a cross-section of the draft that better lends itself to statistical analysis (though many would consider the utility of that analysis limited; a discussion for another day).

One upshot of the strategy this year is that it provides a clear tell of where the organization expected to spend its pool allotments. Upon completion of the draft on June 7th, it was announced that Aiken and the Astros had agreed in principle to a deal for $6.5 million, strongly hinting that the two sides were on the same page prior to Aiken’s selection, common for a first overall selection.

With around $7.9 million allotted to the Astros for the first overall pick, Houston would thus save $1.4 million, which could be spent elsewhere in the draft to help sign a player who required more money than his draft slot allotment otherwise allowed. There were only two candidates in Houston’s first 22 picks that would reasonably require such a bonus: Nix (fifth round) and Marshall (21st).

Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, only draft picks in the first three rounds are “protected,” such that a team failing to sign the player receives a compensation pick in the following draft year. Because the Astros elected to use a non-protected, relatively early round pick on Nix, we can safely assume that selection was made with a high level of confidence that a deal could be reached.

The other evidence that the Astros believed they would sign Nix is that we don’t see any sort of “backup plan” for that $1.4 million, outside of Marshall. What’s interesting about this is that Marshall was selected a good five to 10 rounds later than you would generally see a team choose a “backup” for a potentially difficult early-round sign. That is, if a team truly expects there might be a chance that an early round pick will not sign, you generally see that team provide itself an out with a specific target just outside of the top 10 rounds (the top 10 rounds being the rounds that produce the organization’s pool allotment, and therefore generally reserved for players the team is confident it will ink). In order for the Astros to end up with Marshall, 29 teams had to pass on him roughly 20 times apiece—hardly an indication that Marshall, as a specific target, was a high priority.

We saw the Astros take this “fallback” approach in 2012 when they popped Hunter Virant in the 11th round as insurance for Rio Ruiz, a fourth round selection believed to require an over-slot investment in order to sign. (The Astros ultimately secured his services at a cost of around $1.8 million). Conversely, in 2013 Houston had relative cost certainty in their top 10 picks, with 10th rounder Austin Nicely the only selection likely to require significant over-slot investment. (He signed for around $600,000, with around $475,000 of that bonus available thanks to first overall selection Mark Appel’s below-slot deal.)

Without belaboring the point, the composition of Houston’s 2014 draft class, and the lack of a traditional “backup plan” selection in the first few rounds outside of the top 10, point to three facts: 1) The Astros had relative cost certainty with their picks in the top ten rounds, 2) the Astros were not looking to significantly leverage back-up options in closing the deal with Nix, and 3) Houston really wanted Nix and Aiken. And it expected to sign them.

June Timeline

A deal in principle between the Astros and Aiken was announced just days after his selection. Shortly thereafter, news leaked that Nix was believed to also have a deal in place for $1.5 million, which left a few hundred thousand dollars of wiggle room for the Astros to complete the remainder of their negotiations.

Aiken and his family flew to Houston to complete his physical and sign his paperwork, with the Astros undoubtedly excited to announce his formal signing and introduce him to the Houston fan base. But an MRI revealed “issues” with Aiken’s elbow and the Aikens left Houston without a deal. Sources have indicated the issue with Aiken’s elbow is structural, intrinsic to Aiken’s elbow—not a matter of existing injury or damage. The Astros have not claimed Aiken is injured, and the SoCal prep product closed his year throwing comfortably in the mid-90s, both in high school game action and in pre-draft workouts.

After the physical, the formal offer of $6.5 million was pulled. Houston instead submitted the minimum formal offer required to ensure a 2015 compensation pick if Aiken didn’t sign (40 percent of the slot allotment, around $3.2 million in this case), as well as an informal offer of $5 million, a further $1.5 million discount from the initially agreed upon bonus.

More on the Astros draft

That specific discounted amount would free up just enough money to make an earnest run at signing Mac Marshall. Per John Manuel of Baseball America,Houston did just that, reaching out to Marshall around the time that Aiken’s $6.5 million offer was pulled off the table. The inference is that the Astros were still very much interested in signing Aiken, but only for an amount that would allow them to sign Marshall, as well.

At this point the breakdown in negotiations took a hard turn, as Casey Closeescalated the dispute to a public matter, stating that “we are extremely disappointed that Major League Baseball is allowing the Astros to conduct business in this manner with a complete disregard for the rules governing the draft and the 29 other clubs who have followed those same rules.” Houston countered by noting they believed they were acting in accordance with MLB rules and had been careful to ensure compliance throughout the negotiating process.

The signing deadline passed on Friday, July 18th. Per Major League Baseball’s draft rules, the failure to sign Aiken meant the Astros lost their access to the entire $7.9 million allotment for the first overall selection. With that allowance gone, Houston no longer had the savings needed to sign Nix and, accordingly, pulled his offer as the deadline passed.

While this is not the first time a high draft pick has failed to sign, this is by far the ugliest such incident under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, with the top overall selection and his drafting team disagreeing about an MRI, and a third party (Nix) caught in the fallout. From the failed physical onward, the negotiations were dysfunctional enough to cause the player’s advisor to go public, and to cause the MLBPA to issue a scathing statement after the signing deadline passed:

“Today, two young men should be one step closer to realizing their dreams of becoming Major League ballplayers. Because of the actions of the Houston Astros, they are not. The MLBPA, the players and their advisers are exploring all legal options.” —Tony Clark, Union Head

The ultimate resolution left no party happy, and it left the Astros’ front office with yet another piece of bad PR to add to the growing pile. So who is to blame, and how could this have been prevented?

Understanding BATNA; Where the Astros Lost Their Leverage 
In any high-leverage negotiation—indeed in any “basics of negotiation” class—the first task of the negotiators is to identify their best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or “BATNA.” Essentially, this is a party’s best case scenario if they are unable to come to terms with the person with whom they are negotiating.

At the top of the draft, leverage is fairly balanced, as a general matter. Teams are seldom, if ever, interested in risking the loss of their largest slot allotment and highest valued talent acquisition, while players are highly incentivized to grab the big payday that comes at the top of a draft, rather than risk injury or poor performance in subsequent years. Because both parties are highly incentivized to reach an accord, a great deal of resources are put into vetting potential draftees to make sure their bonus expectations and the drafting team’s spending expectations align.

As variables are introduced to a negotiation, that leverage can skew to one side or the other. One example of a variable resulting in the drafting team having extra leverage would be a late season injury, like we saw this year with Jeff Hoffman (drafted 9th overall) and Erick Fedde (drafted 18th overall). Because of the timing of those injuries, neither pitcher had a good alternative to signing. They are unlikely to be back at full strength in time to demonstrate their health before next year’s draft. Accordingly, we saw both Fedde and Hoffman fall deeper in the draft than a healthy version of each would have lasted, and both drew bonuses well below what was expected prior to their injuries. The drafting teams get the big upside at a discounted price in order to account for the shift in leverage.

Conversely, a high school player or underclass collegiate draftee might have natural leverage due to his ability to head to a four-year school and attempt to grow his draft value (though the closer the top of the draft, the less that leverage matters, as the player will have a harder and harder time improving his stock the next time around).

One recent example of a player creating leverage for himself is Kevin Gausman.

Gausman was drafted fourth overall by the Baltimore Orioles in 2012. He and his advisors were able to drag out negotiations until late in the process, eventually identifying a point when Baltimore looked unlikely to reach agreement with some late round over-slot draftees. That left an excess of pool allotment, which Gausman demanded and ultimately received. The argument, in flat language, goes something like this: “We both know you are a rebuilding club that can’t afford to lose your top draft pick, and we both know you don’t have anything else to spend that pool allotment on. Give it to me.”

This can be a tricky argument to make, but Gausman had some built-in leverage as a draft-eligible sophomore, and the excess he demanded was not so much that it would sour Baltimore on its investment. This year we saw the White Sox short-circuit any ability of the player and his advisor to create leverage by signing all of their picks before turning to their first selection, Carlos Rodon (who went third overall). The Sox knew Rodon was looking for an over-slot deal, even at third overall, and by signing their other picks they were able to create a cap on what Rodon could ask for. He ultimately ended up with a bonus that was roughly 10 percent over slot, giving him and his advisor a deal they could happy with while avoiding a hard-nosed negotiation as they moved toward the signing deadline.

The Astros seem to have done a solid job of identifying their targets, and the aggregate expense of those targets. The selection of Aiken and Nix, as well as the relatively quick announcement that agreements were reached in principle, indicate that all parties were on the same page. However, Houston’s comfort with its plan was also its undoing.

Because the Astros were so comfortable with the demands of their draftees and the amount of money the organization had to spend, the front office failed to build in an adequate failsafe for a complication that should be foreseeable, especially when selecting a pitcher: What if something unexpected comes back in the medicals?

There is currently no formal mechanism for teams to get access to pre-draft medicals (something that will likely be remedied in future CBAs), so organizations are left to review whatever the player decides to make available. Anything a player elects to be made available to one team must be made available to all teams. Because of this huge unknown hanging over these draft picks—particularly pitchers—it is incumbent on a front office to cover its bases and account for the possibility that the goods they plan to buy might have some unseen defects. To say this game planning is of paramount import when dealing with the no. 1 selection in an entire draft class would be a massive understatement.

As noted above, the Astros had essentially one fallback option in their draft class, and that was Mac Marshall. His demands seemed to match up with those of Nix, making him a fine fit to check the box on that front, but the team had no plan whatsoever to account for the scenario they were actually presented with. What if there was something non-catastrophic in Aiken’s medicals that added to the risk profile?

All medical concerns are not created equal, and while the industry has found some level of consensus that, say, a frayed tendon is a significant concern, there is a large gray area. Multiple medical experts could disagree on the level of risk that should be assigned. That is where Aiken’s “structural issue” falls. The result is additional leverage on the team’s side, but that leverage is limited because the player's side might not agree on the level of risk—and, therefore, might not agree on how much leverage was lost. So long as there is relative uncertainty there, parties have to be reasonable as to the extent to which leverage in the negotiations has shifted.

The final piece here is the idea that simply saving money on the pick has limited utility. We will flesh this out below, but the best case scenario when additional risk surfaces with respect to a drafted player is that player is willing to take a discount such that you can now sign other players you have drafted, giving you a shot at bringing in and developing another asset that could save your organization millions down the line.

While we can’t be certain that Aiken and the Astros would have reached an agreement at $6 million or $5.5 million, having one or two other backup options willing to sign for various bonus amounts would have given the Astros something else worth pursuing—options that split the difference between the full agreed-upon $6.5 million and a 20 percent slash.

The Astros painted themselves into a corner by not taking the simple step of spending even one additional pick in the top 20 or so rounds on a college bound player whose profile they found interesting and who could potentially be signed for somewhere between maybe $500,000 and $1 million. Instead, they put themselves in a position where only an indisputably significant condition uncovered in Aiken’s medicals would free up enough money for the team to hedge its bets with additional acquisitions. When the Astros neglected to adequately plan for unknown medical complications they ceded any opportunity to leverage the results of those medicals.

Advising Aiken
It’s a big deal for a player to turn down $5 million. History shows us that passing on big seven-figure deals seldom, if ever, works out for the player. So did Aiken, be it on his own or through advice from Close, misstep in turning down the Astros, even if it meant taking a 45 percent discount on slot?

Let’s take a step back and look at Aiken’s BATNA. He could go to UCLA with the hopes of following in the footsteps ofGerrit Cole, who was likewise drafted in the first round and turned down seven figures to honor his college commitment, emerging three years later as the top overall selection in the draft. That route carries with it three years of risk: potential injury, developmental blips, or even something as simple as dissatisfaction or discomfort with life in college or the coaching staff. (Note, in no way am I suggesting Coach Savage or his staff have any reputation for being difficult or not providing a fertile ground for development in the Bruins program.)

Aiken could also go the JuCo or independent-league route were he interested in retaining eligibility for next year’s draft. This shortens the window wherein injury or developmental blips might sprout up, but also limits his exposure. That could impact his draft stock when organizations get limited views against inconsistent competition, while other draft-eligible players are in more traditional situations against top collegiate contemporaries.

In a vacuum, none of those options is particularly appealing when compared to a $6.5 million bonus, or even the $5 million “final offer” put on the table by Houston. So again we ask, should Aiken have simply sucked it up and grabbed the money?

Were the Astros able to create more leverage as a result of the medical findings, I have to think Aiken almost certainly would have been forced to sign a deal. That leverage could have come in the form of a more clearly discernable risk associated with the medical findings or a better BATNA for the organization. In each case, assuming that Aiken is indeed currently healthy and that there is indeed legitimate uncertainty about the level of risk that should be assigned to the “structural quirks“ in Aiken’s elbow, there just is not enough here for the Astros to shift gears from an agreed upon deal to a significant slash in bonus. There’s not enough leverage to justify a hard line approach to negotiations.

The other side of that coin is that a healthy Aiken might be supremely confident in his ability to stay healthy for one more season, be it at a JuCo or with an independent team (likely working out for big-league clubs leading up to the independent-league seasons, which tend to start later than the early February start for JuCos). Add to that the fact that Aiken is one of the younger members of his draft class and you get a situation where Aiken would enter the 2015 draft younger than some of the top high school seniors.

Is that alone enough to make him pass on the $5 million final offer? Maybe not, but it certainly pushes the needle in that direction. The final variable to take into account: Is there anything specific to the drafting organization that would discourage Aiken from deciding to commit the next six to nine years, minimum, of his baseball life to the folks in charge in Houston. This is where the specifics of the negotiations, and the mounting bad press surrounding the organization, likely ultimately undid the Astros, and eviscerated any perceived leverage the organization thought it held.

Were I advising Aiken, the purported squishy nature of the Astros’ concerns with his medicals would give me pause before swallowing a 45 percent discount on the slot allotment for the best player in the class. Adding to my wariness would be the coincidence that the team is adding an increased risk value that coincides exactly with the amount that another draftee is rumored to be asking for, and the team is rumored to have reopened talks with that player.

It would be impossible for me to move forward with advising negotiations thinking anything but that the organization is placing a higher importance on landing this other player than it is on reaching a good faith agreement with my client (Aiken). Assuming we were all in agreement that the agreed upon $6.5 million bonus should be reopened for further discussion, the idea that those negotiations should center around a figure that gives a 21st rounder his desired bonus would be highly frustrating at best, and devastatingly insulting at worst. The focus should be on reaching an amicable resolution with Aiken, then working to see if you can convince Marshall to sign for whatever is left over.

An ancillary issue to consider would be the struggles the Astros developmental staff has encountered in bringing along last year’s no. 1 draft pick, Mark Appel, and the deliberate nature in which the Astros have been developing and promoting their prospects. Add to that the piggy-back approach to developing arms in the lower levels and you have a situation that has the potential to be less than welcoming. That is not to say the Astros are doing anything wrong on the developmental side. Only that there is at least enough here for Aiken and Close to have seriously considered whether waiting to be drafted by another club was ultimately a tolerable outcome.

Where Aiken and Close outmaneuvered the Astros, creating enough leverage to make walking away a worthwhile option, was in getting the MLB Players Association involved, putting added pressure on the Astros and the commissioner’s office. While it’s highly unlikely Aiken will be granted free agency, that is an option that the commissioner’s office has utilized in certain circumstances in the past. By getting the Players Association on board for the fight, Aiken and Close strengthened the odds of Aiken being given the opportunity to avail himself to the market, even if it was only from, say, a two percent chance to a seven percent chance (both figures hypothetical examples).

The sum of the factors in Aiken’s favor in a potential grievance hearing include (1) the Astros requesting a larger discount in bonus than we have otherwise seen in cases involving indeterminate medical conditions, (2) the Players Association commenting during negotiations that it was troubled by the way the Astros were conducting business, then releasing a statement after Aiken failed to sign indicating it would be looking into taking on Aiken’s cause, (3) the Players Association having previously expressed concern with the Astros’ treatment of service time issues and general payroll concerns, (4) Aiken by all accounts being fully healthy at this point in time, and (5) a general feeling of frustration in the industry with certain modes of operations employed by the Astros, including most recently the security slip-up that resulted in a database filled with private discussions with other organizations being made public. All of this is underscored by the virtual lotto ticket that is the commissioner’s office’s ability to grant Aiken free agency, which would likely land him a contract in excess of $30 million.

Taking all of this into account, was Aiken right to pass on $5 million? Time will tell. What we do know is the Astros seem to have completely botched the draft from beginning to end. First, by not building in adequate fallback options to give themselves a satisfactory outcome should something less than $1.5 million in additional risk pop up on the Aiken front. Then, by taking a hard-lined approach to negotiations while simultaneously slashing Aiken’s bonus an additional 20 percent post-medicals—an approach that completely undersold the viable option Aiken had to walk away, healthy, and re-enter the draft next year as one of the youngest non-high school talents in the class.

Finally, Houston seems to have not even taken into account the fact that there is a non-zero chance that Major League Baseball could force them to honor their agreement with Nix. Were that to happen, the Astros would be well above their permitted draft spending per MLB rules, thanks to Aiken’s slot allotment evaporating. This would cost them seven figures in penalties and the loss of their next two first-round picks. While this outcome, like Aiken being declared a free agent, seems unlikely, the fallout from such an occurrence would be such a disaster that its mere possibility actually tips the leverage further toward Aiken and Close. In other words, by the time last Friday rolled around Houston was somehow operating as if it had a clear upper hand in negotiations, while reality shows us no one needed a deal more than the Astros.

The totality of facts, as we know them, seem to indicate that Aiken might not be in such a bad position re-entering the draft in 2015. He also has an outside shot at free agency and a huge payday, and will not be shackled to an organization which he and his advisor have clearly come to feel operates in a craven and disingenuous manner. I hesitate to say I’d ever advise any amateur to turn down a significant seven-figure bonus, but in this instance I can’t say I disagree with anything that Aiken and Close have done. In any negotiation, once you have reached a point where you feel the other side is not negotiating in good faith (whether that is perception, reality, or both) it is very difficult to get comfortable with any deal.

Should the Nix Agreement be Upheld?
Nix was collateral damage, and as an unrefined and less heralded prospect finds himself in a much less enviable position than does Aiken. Many talking heads have insisted that the only equitable outcome for Nix is Major League Baseball forcing the Astros to honor the agreed-upon deal, the argument being that it is unfair for one player’s deal to be contingent upon the consummation of another player’s deal. Others have asserted he had a verbal contract in place and should be awarded damages in an amount equal to his agreed-upon bonus. Unfortunately for Nix, I have a hard time finding any merit in either of these assertions.

Tackling the latter first: while a verbal agreement may be enforceable as a matter of contract law, Nix would first have to show evidence that the Astros’ offer was unconditional and that he reasonably relied on the agreement to the extent that he suffered damages (e.g., that he told other teams not to draft him).

Were that the case, evidence of that arrangement would require the Astros and Nix to have reached a formal pre-draft agreement, which runs counter to MLB rules. Further, I would be shocked if the exchanges between the Astros and Nix showed no indication, explicitly or implicitly, that the bonus was contingent on that amount being available within the pool allotment.

Further complicating Nix’s case is the fact that he was receiving advice from an experienced agent/advisor, whose expertise should have been such that he explained to Nix that being drafted does not ensure that a deal will get done, and that variables (including Nix’s own physical) could lead to an agreed-upon deal falling through. Because of the nature of draft negotiations, it seems unlikely that a court would find an enforceable agreement in place until such time as the team and player have in place a signed deal approved by the commissioner’s office.

As to whether Major League Baseball should, or could, force the Astros to honor their agreement with Nix, the case is a little stronger, but only because the commissioner’s office can essentially do whatever it wants within reason. The big issue I see is with establishing precedent. The commissioner’s office certainly doesn’t want to give players and agent advisors incentive to try and subvert the pool allotment process. Further, as frustrated as Nix and Close must be with the fallout from the Aiken negotiations, absent a signed and submitted agreement it seems clear on its face that the Astros did not consider the Nix deal formal and had no intention of formalizing the Nix deal until Aiken was signed and the organization was certain to have adequate pool space to pay Nix the agreed-upon amount.

What’s next for Aiken and Nix
The best-case scenario for each is to be declared a free agent. This seems unlikely, as Major League Baseball doesn’t want to encourage the filing of grievances on the grounds that a drafting team was not negotiating in good faith. By all accounts outside of some general comments from Close and the MLBPA, it does not appear the Astros violated any rules, and I have to believe it would take a special set of circumstances for the commissioner’s office to open up that can of worms.

Ideally Aiken and Nix will be able to attend UCLA or a junior college of their choosing, though the public nature of these disputes may push the NCAA to investigate the situation to make sure there was no violation of the “no agent rule.” One would hope that the NCAA does not elect to go that route, but there is certainly a real threat that either or both of these UCLA commits could be suspended from participation with the Bruins baseball team for a period time, or even prevented from playing ball at UCLA. Junior colleges have looser eligibility rules, but it’s conceivable they could be barred from pitching there, too.

If the college door is closed, Aiken and Nix will be forced to work out privately (or publicly) for pro teams next year and perhaps find an independent club with whom they can spend some on-field time in April and May leading up to the draft. This is less than ideal, but would still afford each player the opportunity to showcase his stuff and carve out an early round spot in next year’s class.

We should also note that while there have been no public comments dealing directly with any negotiations between the Astros and Marshall, the public nature of these disputes could also lead the NCAA to take a cursory look into the matter.

What’s the fallout for the Astros?
The Astros continue to take it on the chin in the arena of public opinion. As noted several times earlier, there isn’t any way to spin this for Houston. You simply cannot allow your entire draft to implode over a perceived medical issue that is insignificant enough to determine the player is still worth a $5 million investment. Also as noted above, this series of events exposed a hole in Houston’s process, whereby the organization left itself little room to maneuver when it was determined that the team should be doing something to counterbalance Aiken’s perceived risk.

Houston takes a very college-centric approach to its draft, and as a matter of process time will tell whether they are investing their resources in the best manner. But if that is to be their focus, the organization is doing itself a disservice by not allowing for some flexibility in its negotiations with the high schoolers it does elect to draft. Of course, this becomes a non-issue if the team is comfortable with leaving some money on the table.

The impasse arose when the Astros decided (my assumption based on the facts before us) that it needed to be able to make a run at signing Marshall in order to make the Aiken and Nix signings worthwhile. They misunderstood Aiken’s BATNA, soured Aiken on the organization, and have once again given fodder to critics who feel the organization is run in too analytical a fashion at the expense of relationship building and recognition of the human element.

That critique is one reserved for a different time and place. What should be evident to everyone, regardless of where you come down on the various issues at play in this odd draft drama, is that Houston’s process failed this time around, turning best situation in all of baseball into one of the lightest talent pulls in the league, on paper. The organization has further estranged its relationship with the MLBPA and has put the commissioner’s office in a situation where it will likely have to make some uncomfortable decisions as to the fate of Aiken and Nix, with the MLBPA watching closely and publicly invested in the outcome.

Failure to sign the top talent in the draft class over $1.5 million? Check. Lose the ability to sign your second or third most valuable draft asset (measured by bonus amount)? Check. Draw the ire of one of the most successful agents in the game as well as the further scorn of the MLBPA? Check. Leave open the possibility that the commissioner’s office will force you to honor an agreement with your fifth rounder that will effectively cost you seven figures in draft tax and the loss of your next two first rounders? Check.

You would be hard pressed to script a believable failure larger in scope, and more sweeping in potential fallout, than what we’ve seen with the 2014 draft efforts of the Houston Astros.

Nick J. Faleris is a practicing structured finance attorney and Sports Industry team member in the Milwaukee office of Foley & Lardner LLP. The views he expresses at Baseball Prospectus are his own, and not necessarily
those of the law firm.

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=24223

 

     

 

“there’s a lot of heartbreak sometimes in baseball, and it can have its ups and downs.”

Whiff on Aiken tests Astros scouting director’s wit

Posted on July 20, 2014 By Evan Drellich

CHICAGO — Mike Elias’ job is the draft: the execution of it and the acquisition of knowledge before it through a group of scouts he leads. The Astros’ director of amateur scouting has no other charge, save for signing the occasional undrafted amateur free agent, and those pick-ups are not what he’ll be judged on.

What happens, and what has already happened, in a four-year run from 2012-2015 could and likely will define the direction of his career. That’s especially true for what happens next June, when the Astros are virtually guaranteed to have two of the first five picks in the draft.

 “The only way I can put it is the entire situation, is extremely unfortunate all around,” Elias said of the Astros’ 2014 signing deadline, which passed Friday with first overall pick Brady Aiken unsigned and reputations shattered. “And personally, you know, since this has gone on and these negotiations have dragged on, and now that it’s over, I haven’t been very happy about anything to do with it, because of just the unfortunate situation that I think all parties found themselves in. It’s something that I think we, and everyone involved with, will look forward to ultimately having behind us at some point.”

If it is necessary, general manager Jeff Luhnow has the final call on whom the Astros draft. He also handles the negotiations of the highest profile pick in the draft. Brady Aiken isn’t picked without Luhnow’s approval.

However, the Astros have yet to be in a situation where there was last-minute disagreement on the top choice. All three picks are said to have been the product of consensus among Luhnow, Elias and top lieutenants.

“Ultimately, if it’s a bad pick, the scouting director gets the blame, if it’s a good pick, I’ll take the credit,” Luhnow joked in the Astros’ pre-draft press conference at Minute Maid Park. “Just kidding, guys.”

Those were lighter times.

Beyond the big boss sits Elias, and he has reason to be unhappy lately. Aiken went unsigned, as did fifth-rounder Jacob Nix and 21st rounder Mac Marshall, all high school pitchers. A possible and expected grievance from the player’s union looms because of alleged manipulation by team.

The first pick in 2012, Carlos Correa, suffered an unlucky season-ending leg fracture, while last year’s top choice, Mark Appel, continues to struggle, perplexingly.

“Yeah,” Elias said when asked if this is the toughest time he’s endured in his professional career. “It felt very unlucky. … Correa’s injury was a fluke thing that could happen to any player at any moment. Certainly, to have it happen in the middle of the wonderful campaign he was having, and right before he was bound to be promoted for Double A, it was a real shame. The good news is he’s going to be back, he’s going to be totally fine. There’s no worries there.

“Mark has gotten off on an odd foot, and I have full faith that he’s going to be fine too. But the timing of having that, both of those, happen right around the time of each other, and having complications with signing our pick this year — yeah, it seems a little crazy, and it’s unfortunate for us. But it’s also a reminder for me that a big part of our philosophy about the game, and about the draft, is that we want depth, strength in numbers. You can’t get too invested in any one player. The health of an organization goes up and down the rosters, and up and down the levels.”

Elias believes the Astros can move beyond a weakened draft class. An outfielder from the University of Virginia and the 37th overall pick, Derek Fisher, becomes the headlining name now. He’s a do-it-all outfielder.

Second-round pick A.J. Reed, a slugging first baseman from the University of Kentucky, was just announced as this year’s Golden Spikes award winner, given to the best amateur player in the country.

Elias said that Reed entered the Astros system with perhaps more raw power than anyone.

“The game is fraught with injuries and variations in performances and strange occurrences all the time, and the teams and the organizations that withstand that are the ones that have depth and competition up and down their system,” Elis said. ” I do think we are in that position, and it’s very exciting to see all those players. And there’s almost too many to count right now that have a big league future.

“The No. 1 pick is a huge opportunity, we want to get as much value as we can out of them, they’re very important, but they’re not everything.”

Elias was scouting the prestigious Cape Cod league this weekend, working remotely on Friday. He said he was kept abreast of everything but his personal engagement was very limited with outside parties.

In other words, he wasn’t working the phones with Casey Close, the super agent who was advising Aiken and Nix. That was Luhnow’s task.

The fact that the Astros receive the No. 2 pick in next year’s draft doesn’t make up for development time lost, or the bad image this creates or the loss of the fifth-round pick, Nix. But it does allow the Astros another swing at a big name — two swings, in fact. If for some bizarre reason the pick didn’t sign next year, the Astros would have one more crack at it in 2016, before the pick would effectively disappear.

“It wouldn’t have been our choice going into the day to trade our pick this past June for the second pick next year,” Elias said. “However, I believe — especially if we’re able to make that pick properly — that the return will be just as potentially good as what we had in our hands, and I think it’s not going to derail or dampen the long term interest of the franchise, or the value of what we would extract from that pick, once it’s all said and done.

“We as a scouting department, we look ahead, we move on. We know we have the second pick of the draft. We certainly keep that in mind during the summer. Our scouts are out right now. We’ve got a group of guys on the Cape Cod league, and several other scouting high school players. The big showcases are coming up and we look forward, that’s all we can do. This year didn’t go as we wanted it to, this draft with regard to the first pick.

“It’s just something that is endemic to baseball, and there’s a lot of heartbreak sometimes in baseball, and it can have its ups and downs.”

It’s endemic to the system because of the system’s law, which is collectively bargained. The system can be changed. Money slotting, which in effect tied the picks of Aiken and Nix together and left a healthy Nix in the wind, was instituted for the first time in the current CBA.

Elias thinks the current set-up is better than the last, although imperfect.

“There’s going to be problems in any system,” Elias said. “I think this system has brought upon a lot of improvements over the prior one. And it’s very possible, and in fact probably my opinion still, that there’s more pros than cons in this system versus the old one.

“Any kind of regulatory scheme is going to have potential quagmires and pitfalls, and the amount of picks that we make as an industry over and over, these situations are likely to come up. I think that it’s possible that some situations might still arise where maybe the flipside occurs, where someone is an over-slot bonus early, and a later-round player who is an under slot pick, that deal falls through.

“There’s definitely things that can be ironed out, but when you start thinking about the logistics involved with potential solutions, they’re very complex. It’s not simple, there’s not going to be an easy way to improve things, and usually there’s a reason why things are the way they are.”

http://blog.chron.com/ultimateastros/2014/07/20/whiff-on-aiken-tests-astros-scouting-directors-wit/#24048101=0&25194103=0

 

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