(Don’t) Show Him the Money

(Aaron Sprecher)

Fastball, changeup or curve? Inside or outside, high or low? Slide step or full leg kick? There are hundreds, if not thousands, of variables a pitcher considers over the course of a nine-inning game. Decisions, decisions.

For UCLA’s Gerrit Cole, one particular decision—made with consideration, due diligence and enough counsel to satisfy any strategic thinker—has come to define who he is as a baseball player. Selected in the first round of the 2008 Major League draft, Cole was in a position to start his professional career with a seven-figure signing bonus and fulfill his childhood dream of playing for the New York Yankees.

But he said no.

He was a signature away from playing for the most prestigious organization in all of sports. But he said no.

Oh, to be 18 and talented (or naive) enough to turn down more money than most people will make in a lifetime. But unlike most elite young athletes, Cole was not one of those kids who bounced between sports depending on the time of year. Yes, he dabbled a bit in soccer and football, but for the most part, he was a baseball player, singularly focused on the diamond.

Passion for the Yankees was a family affair, as dad Mark was a lifelong fan from New York. Father and son would catch their team on TV every chance they got. In 2001, the elder Cole scored a pair of tickets to see the Yanks play the Diamondbacks in the World Series in Phoenix. Heading into enemy territory, 11-year-old Gerrit felt right at home, donning his Yankee gear and carrying a sign pledging his allegiance to the visiting team. A heartbreaking loss in that series only bolstered his love for the team. And for the game.

“I was sooo skinny,” recalls Cole, looking back on the formative days before he entered Orange Lutheran High School. But as he hit his mid teens, his appetite grew—for baseball and for food. “I’d come home from practice and eat the whole refrigerator.”

Presumably he means everything in the refrigerator, but with the way his body filled out to its current six-four, 215 pounds, who knows? With the extra weight came extra velocity—and lots of it. His fastball, which topped out in the mid-70 mph range as he entered high school, began to pick up. By the start of Cole’s sophomore year, he was hurling at more than 80 mph, and by the end of high school, his pitches reached the mid 90s. And that is the kind of speed that draws attention.

In the world of Southern California baseball, where there are no secrets, word spread quickly. MLB scouts began appearing. So did agents. Scott Boras, who represents a majority of the sport’s high-profile players, showed up—naturally—and became an “unpaid adviser.” The title allowed Cole to maintain his NCAA eligibility—just in case.

During a phenomenal senior season, in which he went 8–2 with a 0.47 ERA and 121 strikeouts in 752/3 innings, Cole was regularly throwing a blazing hot 98 miles per hour. Scouts, who were as blown away as the batters, might have had their radar guns recalibrated to ensure their accuracy. “You just don’t see that type of arm unless you go to a major-league stadium,” says UCLA head coach John Savage, “and even then, maybe only twice a week.”

A continent away, the big-market, big-money Yankees were well aware of Cole’s talent, and last June, the team made him the 28th pick in the 2008 draft. That slot, considering the quality of the player and the wealth of the team that chose him, was undoubtedly worth millions. Florida high school pitcher and shortstop Casey Kelly—chosen by the Boston Red Sox two picks later—got a signing bonus of $3 million.

So, what the heck is Gerrit Cole doing at UCLA?

Well, what at first glance might seem to be a pleasant departure from the old “star athlete leaves school, early money grab” cliché might actually be something a bit less pure—and a bit less romantic.

Yes, education is important to the Cole family, and college is a priority. But this was not just about that. It was about taking measurements and weighing variables and unemotionally watching the scales tip one way or another. Instead of a quick reach for mounds of money and a departure to the minors to learn the ways of professional baseball—which would extend beyond honing his pitches to developing professional poise, understanding game situations and dealing with success and failure—Cole made another choice. It was about far more than pitches—it was about life.

“We did a ton of thinking—just an absurd amount of thinking about this,” says Cole. “My dad has a Ph.D., and he’s a real visual kind of guy, so he made charts, and we went over financial figures, comparing people who are drafted in the first round and have somewhat of a baseball career with others who graduated college and the average gross of what they make in baseball and afterward.”

And money wasn’t the only variable charted: The Coles evaluated whether three years in the minors would necessarily yield a shorter path to the majors than three years of college. And if an 18-year-old is truly ready for the real world of professional baseball.

As they pondered, UCLA waited on pins and needles in its own private yes-or-no lottery. As the college route seemed to become the clear choice, there was still one possibility nagging at the Cole family. To truly consider all the factors, they had to account for the very real possibility of a career-ending injury. It was the availability of specialized disability insurance—a little-known benefit sold through the NCAA and open to athletes who, in the governing body’s words, can “realistically anticipate receiving a substantial amount of money as professional athletes”—that tipped the scales.

All the bases were covered. With a new policy in his back pocket and the old thunder still in his right arm, it was a done deal. Gerrit Cole was headed to UCLA.

But what about that offer from the Yankees? “There never was one,” says dad Mark, who was well aware of the reasonable range of the impending windfall. “It was a decision based on what was the best route for Gerrit at the time.”

So no, “Let’s hear the number just for fun”? Weren’t the Coles even curious?

“No. We didn’t need to hear an offer,” insists the elder Cole. “I made it very clear to the Yankees that if we went down that road and talked about money or other aspects of a contract, it would just be giving them the wrong impression.” The kid was going to school no matter what.

On August 15—deadline day for a player to sign a pro contract—the Bruins coaching staff was gathered anxiously in the baseball office.

When the phone rang, Coach Savage looked up to see Cole’s number on his caller ID. He hit the speaker button, hoping for the best but fearing the worst, as the room fell silent. The call didn’t last all that long, but its reach will extend through the 2011 season. Three minutes on the phone became three years of firepower for the Bruins pitching staff.

“When I hung up, yeah, there was a good bit of a celebration,” Savage says, smiling at the memory. “Our staff knows this guy is a special talent, and we were going to have the opportunity to get to groom him and his ability.” Cole’s freshman year was an unquestionable success. He finished the regular season with an ERA of 3.49, a minuscule opponent batting average of .191 and 104 strikeouts in 85 innings. He was named to the All Pac-10 team and was one of the first 17 players across the country invited to try out for the U.S. National Team—which he made.

Sure, a long-term plan is nice, but how many families would pass up buckets of bucks right now for any reason? “Four million is not four million,” insists Gerrit with the conviction of a high-priced accountant. “It’s two million. You have to pay taxes, an agent—it’s not four mil. My dad and I broke it down to the nth degree.” Still, to a college kid, that’s a lot of coin—and he does occasionally think about the decision. “I see the fancy cars in Beverly Hills, and I’m like, Jeez, I could have one of those...”

For now, though, he’ll have to settle for throwing gas, not burning it. And you get the feeling there’s more than one fancy car in Gerrit Cole’s future.

BARRY LEBROCK, a 23-year sportscasting vet, is host of the FSN nightly highlight show Final Score. He has penned two sports books and lives in L.A. with his wife and two daughters.

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