College or Pro Ball?: Dream or Nightmare? : A Very Few Preps Get Big Money Offers, and When They Do, It’s a Decision That Can Cause Huge Emotional Pain
“Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” Bob Dylan
The hazy days of summer lure many young boys to local baseball fields where the air is filled with heady dreams of someday playing in the big leagues.
For most players, professional baseball is just that--a dream. Only a chosen few are given the opportunity to pursue it.
These select ones, however, are finding that their blessing can sometimes feel like a curse. The dream can cause a nightmare decision.
Royce Clayton and his family know.
Last month, San Francisco Giants General Manager Al Rosen created emotional turmoil at the Clayton home in Inglewood. Royce had signed a letter of intent to play baseball for USC, but Rosen was committed to changing that.
Money was dangled at Clayton. Big money. Bigger than he had ever seen. Just not quite big enough.
“They started out with $125,000, and it looked like it was going to move slow,” Clayton said.
Slow but sure. The money grew, and so did Clayton’s problems. Back and forth he debated the issue: an athletic scholarship or a minor league contract. It was a troublesome yo-yo for someone just 18 years old.
“It was kind of rough,” Clayton said.
“It tore me up,” said Clayton’s father, Royal. “The decision was very taxing on this family. It becomes a big decision so quick. We really wanted him to go to USC.”
When the offer from the Giants escalated to giant proportions, Royce said goodby to a college diploma and hello to professional dollars--$195,000. He now plays shortstop for the Class A Evert, Wash., Giants.
Clayton’s decision was not surprising. Only one first-round draft choice this decade has chosen otherwise. But for every Royce Clayton, there are many more like Greg Davis.
Davis also had the door to his dream opened recently, only it was more of a crack. No red carpet treatment. No visits to his home from a general manager. Just an envelope in his mailbox.
“It didn’t even say what round I went in,” Davis said.
A scout from the Toronto Blue Jays informed Davis that he was selected in the 43rd round. Not much money trickles down that low in the draft.
“They offered me a $5,000 bonus with $700 a month,” Davis said. “Their first offer was $2,500. Would you sign?”
Davis didn’t. He’s decided to pitch this fall for El Camino College.
“If I was drafted earlier, I would have been roped--I would have signed,” Davis said. “I’m not much of a school boy. If they had said, ‘Here’s $15,000 or $20,000,’ I would have gone. A little more money and the decision would have been a hell of a lot harder.”
Davis and Clayton represent the extreme ends of the draft. The decision is even more bewildering for the others.
As the Dodgers’ director of scouting, Ben Wade has seen indecisive teen-agers for 31 years. “An 18-year-old boy in high school is going through a heck of a lot more than I did when I was that age,” Wade said.
Shortstop Bobby DeJardin of Huntington Beach went through it three years ago. The Chicago Cubs picked him in the 30th round and stuck $50,000 under his nose.
“It’s a tough decision to make,” he said. “I was going both ways. One day I wanted to sign a pro contract and the next day I wanted to go to school. I got offered a good amount of money, but I weighed all my options and decided to go to school.”
DeJardin took his glove to Loyola Marymount University. He left after his junior season this spring as an eighth-round draft choice of the New York Yankees.
He got the best of both worlds: the college experience and the money.
Others haven’t been that lucky.
“You have to do as much homework as possible,” Loyola Coach Chris Smith said. “The saddest thing is to look back and say, ‘I made a mistake, I should have gone to college, or I should have signed.’ You got to do everything you can to understand it, make your decision and don’t look back.”
USC Coach Mike Gillespie said, “I think a kid needs to ask himself this question: ‘What am I prepared to do in three or four years if I’m released from baseball?’ ”
The crux of the issue, most agree, is weighing a college scholarship and the collegiate experience against the monetary value of a contract and life in the minors. But while that may seem simple, it is not. There are so many variables.
Ink your name on the dotted line of a pro contract and you become property of that team. Sign with a major college and you’re ineligible for the draft until after your junior year or until your 21st birthday. Junior college cancels pro eligibility until the next draft.
What if you turn down the money and suffer a career-ending injury in college? What if you bypass college and spend five to 10 years in the minors before realizing that you will never make it to the majors?
There obviously is no pat answer. No two teen-agers are alike.
“Different kids have different needs,” Smith said.
At 17, Donny Sparks figured he needed the education. He choose Loyola.
Now 22, Sparks is a third baseman with the Yankee organization and one semester away from achieving his liberal arts degree. He will graduate in the fall.
“One thing that takes a lot of pressure off is knowing you have your years of education,” Sparks said.
“If you know you have to make it to the big leagues to make money, you put more pressure on yourself. Me, I just go out and do my best every day. I know I have something to fall back on.”
Aman Hicks, however, doesn’t believe in worrying about tomorrow. His philosophy is to seize the moment. He did just that. Hicks graduated from Gardena High School this past spring and immediately left for the minors. He’s an outfielder in the Baltimore Orioles system.
“I was thinking about getting a start on life,” Hicks said. “Why wait? School will always be there. I’d rather be moving up the ladder while I’m maturing. Some guys start out at the same place I am when they’re 22.”
“He’s only 17,” Hicks’ mother, Geraldine, said. “If things don’t work out, he’s still got time. He could always go back to school.”
The pros are making it easier for that to happen. It is now customary for major league teams to make scholastic money part of the player’s contract. The incentive clause usually varies individually but pays for some or all of the academic costs.
Rick Ingalls, the Angels’ Southern California scouting supervisor, said the scholarship package gives players another reason to turn pro.
“The biggest thing the parents stress is education, and we’re all for that,” Ingalls said. “We go out with the idea that we have to match the colleges.
“Some guys say they’d rather have the extra money, but I make the kid take the college plan. When we pay for a kid’s education, he can go to any school he wants.”
But do they go back to school, particularly those who are away from the campus for a few years? Some people are skeptical of such a return.
“Typically, the young man simply does not go back to school,” Gillespie said. “It’s not that he can’t, it’s just that he simply doesn’t. He gets away from school and his motivation to be in college wanes.”
According to Gillespie, the best way to assure an opportunity in the working world is by going to college.
“Doors are opened (by college), people’s lives are enriched and they become better prepared to deal with the real world.”
DeJardin took the college scholarship approach and has no doubt it was the right decision. He said the collegiate experience gives players hidden advantages when they finally do turn professional.
“In three years of school I learned a lot of little things,” DeJardin said. “If I had come out of high school (into the minors), I would have been lost in the crowd and wouldn’t have known how to take care of myself.
“Unless you’re a first or second round choice, or some stud, I would definitely recommend going to school.”
Chris Smith has viewed the problem from both sides of the fence. In 1987, he was a minor league manager with the Angels in the North West League. Last year, he scouted for the Yankees.
Smith, previously an assistant at Loyola, is now back as the school’s head coach. His beliefs about who should decide a player’s fate have remained firm.
“I think the parents can help,” Smith said. “But I think the kid himself needs to realize what he’s up against.
“I think it’s wrong to talk a kid into professional baseball if you’re a scout. And I think it’s wrong to talk a kid into college if you’re a college coach. You present your situation, and the individual is going to pick what’s best for him.”
Royce Clayton’s father conducted the negotiations with the Giants. But when it came down to deciding the young Clayton’s destination, it was left up to Royce. His name was going on the contract.
“It was my decision,” Clayton said. “My parents said, ‘This is your life.’ Any parent would be wrong to force their kid into doing something they don’t want to do.”
Ben Wade agrees. The player suffers the consequences.
“If he really wants to go out and play,” Wade said, “then (the parents) better let him because his mind is not going to be on school.”
Said Ingalls: “The parents direct them, and they should. But it all boils down to the kid making the final decision. It’s his life.”
But is a 17- or 18-year-old capable of making the proper choice?.
“A lot of them just don’t have the information they need to make the decision,” Smith said. “They get excited about things. It’s very emotional, and it shouldn’t be. You need to sit down and figure out dollars and cents.”
The professional money being offered needs to be compared to the worth of a college scholarship. It looks easy in black and white. It’s more difficult when the color is just green.
“The money is extremely deceiving,” Gillespie said.
Said Smith: “You can’t just look at it like, ‘Somebody gave me $20,000 and that’s a lot of money.’ Well, how much is $20,000?”
To young players who have never had it, it’s a lot. That’s the way it appeared to Greg Davis. He’s just 17. He found any dollar signs tempting.
“Even when you think about $5,000,” Davis said, “you say to yourself, ‘Man, I’ve never had that kind of money before, especially for having fun--playing baseball.’ ”
Gillespie knows the powerful lure of money. He has lost seven USC players to the professional draft in the last two seasons. Two Trojans were lost this summer.
“Somebody needs to make them understand that Uncle Sam is going to get 28% of their bonus,” Gillespie said. “It’s pretty clear that if a guy signs for $30,000, in four years it’s not likely that much of that money is going to be left. My feeling is that a kid should sign a professional baseball contract only if the offer is just way too good to pass up.”
That is usually the case for a high draft pick. There’s plenty of money for a player like Royce Clayton. It’s just a matter of deciding the exact amount.
“If you’re a first- or second-round pick, the money is always going to be there,” Ingalls said. “Nobody is going to blackball you. The money is always important, but I don’t think that’s an issue.”
Where it becomes an issue is in the lower rounds. The distinction between the benefits of pro or collegiate money can become clouded at about the fourth round. Until recently, Scott Davison was stuck in that cloud.
Davison graduated from Redondo High School last spring and was selected by the Montreal Expos in the fourth round of the draft. He had earlier signed a letter of intent to attend USC.
The Expos tossed around money figures that had Davison reconsidering. For weeks, the money wasn’t good enough to change his mind about going to USC.
“It’s tough,” Davison said. “Hopefully, if the money gets up there it won’t be so hard. If they give you a certain amount of money, they feel you’re going to make it. If the money is there, I’d much rather play pro ball.”
The money got there on July 11. Davison signed as an infielder with the Expos for $65,000.
Royce Clayton said if he were Davison, he would have looked at the money differently.
“If I wasn’t taken in the first round, I wouldn’t have signed,” Clayton said. “The money wouldn’t have been there. You got to look at it realistically. Pass up a free ride at USC?”
Aman Hicks never really considered such a free ride. His mind was set on chasing his dream of the major leagues as soon as possible.
“The negotiations lasted one day,” Hicks said. “I was made up. I took the first offer.”
The choice was easy for Hicks. But for most players, the debatable issues of a professional offer don’t end with the amount of money. That is just one consideration.
Once a player is signed and sealed, he has to be delivered somewhere. Where is the question. That’s an issue some players fail to consider, according to some college coaches.
“I think a lot of kids enter professional baseball because they watch games on TV and see the major leagues,” Smith said. “Well, that’s not where you start, and that’s not always where you end up.”
Where most players start is rock bottom, at Rookie League or Class A, even for first-round choices like Clayton.
“The first trip a guy said, ‘We’re off to Medford,’ ” Clayton said. “I said, ‘Where’s that?’ He said, ‘It’s a 9-hour bus ride.’ I just said, ‘Wow!’ ”
Clayton didn’t know where he was going. But at least he knew where he was starting. That’s more than Greg Davis knew.
“If I would have signed, I’d be in Medicine Hat, Calgary,” Davis said. “I’ve never even heard of that before. It probably has a population of 100. My scout mentioned Medicine Hat, Calgary, and I asked him, ‘What is that, a club?’ He said, ‘No, a city.’ ”
Every young player must face the question of whether he wants to spend his days in a sleepy town, a long way from his friends and family. Some don’t mind. Hicks is living at the Highlander Motel in Bluefield, W.Va. He’s happy.
“Everything is cool,” Hicks said. “I wanted to get away from California and experience a new atmosphere.”
Other players prefer the atmosphere of home or life on a college campus.
“I want to make it in baseball, but I still want my social life,” Davis said. “I’m only 17. I don’t want to be stuck in Medicine Hat, Calgary.”
Turning professional brings a hasty end to the innocent days of youth. That’s something many parents don’t like to see. Many fondly remember college as the best years of their lives.
Hicks said he stepped off the bus in Bluefield and suddenly realized that he wasn’t a kid anymore. He’s 17 with a job to do.
“Coach just said, ‘Hey, it’s time to play, time to grow up,’ ” Hicks said.
At times, Clayton’s father wonders if his own son is growing up too fast. He’s content that Royce is a professional baseball player. He questions whether Royce isn’t missing something he will be unable to regain.
“You know you’re only 18 once,” the elder Clayton said. “Well, this morning he left on a bus for an 8-hour trip. If he was at USC, he would have gotten on an airplane and they would have put him up in a first-class hotel.”
Heath Jones is 18 but knows about the minor league experience even though he has never played in them. His brother, Tracy, is an outfielder for the Montreal Expos. Heath has seen what Tracy endured.
“Most players just look at it and don’t really know how hard it is,” Heath said. “They just look at the money. Once they get there, they find out it may have been a mistake.
“I think that’s an advantage for me compared to other kids who have never seen that part. I’ve gone to places where Tracy was in the minors. When he was in A-ball I saw some of the places he lived. He shared one place with two other guys who didn’t speak English.”
Jones’ knowledge, coupled with the low money he was offered as a 38th-round pick, caused him to decide that he was not yet ready for life on the minor league trail. Jones will join Davis this fall as a catcher at El Camino College.
Some college coaches like to play up the horror stories of life in the minor leagues to benefit recruiting. Of course, the professionals counter that the adjustment is not too tough and that life in the minors is bearable.
"(The players are) simply not aware of the tough part of the life of minor league baseball,” Gillespie said. “Homesickness, you’re away from your girlfriend, bus trips, inadequate money. It all looks to be roses. But there’s a rude awakening for many kids.”
“It’s not as bad as everybody thinks it is,” Ingalls said. “Yes, there are bus rides, but we have nice Greyhound buses and we stay in nice hotels. The fields aren’t always Anaheim (Stadium), but then that’s the goal. It can’t be too easy.”
Said Wade: “The majority of kids know what they’re getting into. The people who tell you you’re getting into this and that tell you that because they don’t want you to go.”
“I was really surprised,” Smith said. “I heard the same stories. But those stories aren’t true. All these rumors and myths have been thrown around for so long, and most of it is coming from people who have never been through it.”
“I thought it was going to be worse,” Hicks said with a laugh. “It’s turned out better than I thought. I thought it was going to be long trips on dirt roads. It’s more modern.”
The players who have been through it say the biggest adjustment is the game itself. In the minors you play for pay, not play for play.
“In college, the game is a lot more emotional,” Donny Sparks said. “Each game, you’re up. It’s fun because everybody makes it more fun. In the pros, this is the only thing you’re doing. You’re thinking baseball 24 hours a day. Sometimes that’s bad. If you think too much about this game, it’ll drive you crazy.”
“You’re playing baseball for a living,” Wade said. “It’s not a toy, it’s a job.”
The job of Ben Wade and any scout is to find young players who are prepared to adjust to that life. The job of Mike Gillespie and other college coaches is to find guys who are not ready.
Coaches and scouts differ in what they are looking for. Professionals search for tools--players who have ability that can be molded into major league talent. College coaches need players who will make the team a winner.
“I need immediate results,” Smith said. “They are in a situation where maybe a kid can go out and have a little less success. In (the minor leagues) it’s player development, not win at all costs.”
A professional team has numerous draft picks. The numbers game is not so generous to collegiate teams.
NCAA rules state that a team is entitled to just 13 scholarship players. A college coach can ill afford to lose a recruit. Deciding whom to pursue with the risk of losing a scholarship is a major problem.
“It is the single biggest thorn in a college baseball coach’s side,” Gillespie said. “All baseball coaches continue to struggle with it.
“USC will probably have only two scholarships to offer in baseball. We simply can’t afford to get burned in July by losing a guy to the pros. If the kid appears signable, we got to move on to someone else.
“It becomes sort of a waltz. It’s an exercise in dealing with vagueness because dollar signs aren’t tossed out. What happens is you have to become a wizard.?”
Gillespie could be looking for a new wand. He has now lost Clayton and Davison this summer. But at least Gillespie has some time to fill the void. He’s been stuck in worse spots. In 1986, USC recruit Ryan Bowen signed with the Houston Astros one day before school started.
“They signed him in his dorm,” Gillespie said. “When that happens, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that you’re not going to find a player that late to give a scholarship to. So, you end up eating the scholarship. The major league baseball people hold all the cards. They can do what they want.”
Not quite anything. The Astros would have lost a draft pick the minute Bowen walked into a classroom. There are risks in the game for the pros too.
The risks are the reason scouts don’t buy any talk that they control a player who is undecided. Gillespie said coaches would like to see a mandatory summer signing deadline for high school draftees. The scouts say, “Sorry.”
“Why should we let them have that advantage?” Wade said.
“I do empathize with them a little,” Ingalls said. “If they recruit a guy and he decides to sign in August, then they lose a scholarship. I can understand that. But they’ve got some advantages. We can’t do things they can.
“We can’t bring the kids to Anaheim Stadium or Dodger Stadium and show them around. They have an open book on the kids. They can call the house every night. They can come in with the fight song and all that crap. They can do a lot we’re unable to do. We don’t have periods of romancing them like colleges do.”
The struggle for talent can become quite heated, especially late in the summer.
Coaches continue to point out the many benefits of the college experience, the diploma being No. 1. At the same time, scouts tempt the young players with money and a chance to go after a dream. Sometimes the negatives of the other side are stressed.
Gillespie said he is bothered by the fact that the high school athlete is not apprised of the hard facts and figures. “Certainly, above 90% of the players who sign professional contracts never play in the major leagues.
“Naturally, each kid who signs thinks he will be in the major leagues. But if they sign 50 players each year, that means 50 players each year are getting released.”
Counters Ingalls: “A large percentage of players obviously don’t make it. That’s not to say that every kid in the minors isn’t given a chance. How many guys go to college to play baseball and don’t graduate?”
“There are very few college coaches who are really interested if the kid gets an education or not,” Wade said. “They’re interested in whether the kid can play ball or not. If he can’t, then they get another player next year who can.”
Then there’s the debate over the value of collegiate baseball itself. Coaches say that the level of play is better than most believe and that players can use the experience to acquire a a higher draft value.
“A lot of people have the attitude, ‘Well, if you turn the money down (out of high school), you’ll never see it again,’ ” Smith said. “Well, I disbelieve that because I think you’re going to come here and you’re going to improve as a player. Why can’t you improve your worth in three years?”
Donny Sparks did. He was not drafted out of high school. But three fine years of playing third base at Loyola changed his value. He’s with the Yankee organization because he went to school.
“I didn’t expect to be drafted,” Sparks said. “I just got a little bit better each year.”
While Sparks profited from collegiate baseball, scouts say there are other players who don’t. They say sometimes the amateur game can breed bad habits that go unrecognized until it is too late to change.
“If a high school kid signs to play pro ball, he’s learning how to be a pro baseball player,” Ingalls said. “You’re playing baseball every day. You’re not worrying about other things.”
“I’ll tell a player, ‘Don’t go to college to learn how to play baseball,’ ” Wade said. “ ‘Go to college to get an education. If you go to school, they don’t have the time to spend with you.’ No one can tell me a player is getting just as good baseball knowledge from school. That’s a lot of baloney.”
Who’s stating baloney and who’s stating truth is as debatable as the issues of the decision itself. No one wants to represent the negative side. But scouts say dollar signs will always cast them in a darker light.
“They hide behind the education,” Ingalls said. “Of course we’re looked at as the bad guys. We wear the black hats. But I’ve never gone into a kid’s house and bad-mouthed a school’s program. I don’t want to use that as a tool. I’ve never held a gun to a kid’s head and made him sign.”