Detour on the Scott Boras Expressway
By LEE JENKINS
FORT WORTH, May 31 — For any young ballplayer who thinks he should have been drafted higher, treated better, offered more, there is a place where he can still go and get the signing bonus of his dreams.
LaGrave Field is on the banks of the Trinity River, between the stockyards and the skyline. It is home to the Fort Worth Cats, an independent league team that sometimes asks its players to work as batboys.
The Cats, once a minor-league affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers, can seem removed from the mania of modern sports. And yet, they are uniquely entwined with the most powerful agent in baseball, Scott Boras.
Boras is famous for representing big-leaguers, but much of his business involves high school and college players coming out of the draft. In each of the past two seasons, Boras has sent a prominent draft choice to Fort Worth, to keep warm and hold out for a better deal.
His latest export was Max Scherzer, a 22-year-old starting pitcher with two distinguishing characteristics: he can throw a fastball 98 miles an hour and his eyes are different colors (the right one blue, the left one brown).
Last June, Arizona took Scherzer with the 11th pick in the first-year player draft, but instead of signing with the Diamondbacks for about $2 million, Scherzer signed with the Cats for about $1,000 a month.
Having majored in finance at the University of Missouri, Scherzer did a quick cost-benefit analysis. By pitching in Fort Worth, he would either force Arizona to raise its offer, or he would re-enter this year’s draft, with arguably more leverage.
“It was my decision,” Scherzer said. “I’ve never second-guessed it.”
At 11:59 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday — mere seconds before the midnight deadline to sign last year’s draft choices — Scherzer and the Diamondbacks reached a four-year contract worth $4.3 million, with incentives that could take the deal to $6 million. It seemed that Scherzer won, Boras won and Fort Worth won again.
Last year, the Cats had Luke Hochevar, another starting pitcher and Boras client. Hochevar turned down about $3 million from the Los Angeles Dodgers, went to Fort Worth for a month and then re-entered the draft. The Kansas City Royals promptly snagged him with the first overall pick, paying him more than $5 million.
“Luke recommended Fort Worth to me,” Scherzer said. “Now I’d recommend it to anyone else in the same situation.”
Boras first tried the independent leagues a decade ago, when he represented J. D. Drew, who was drafted second by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1997. After contract talks stalled, Boras sent Drew to play outfield for the St. Paul Saints.
At the time, one of the Saints’ coaches was Barry Moss, now the director of player personnel for the Cats. Moss lives in Los Angeles, not Fort Worth, but he listens to games over the Internet and talks to players on the phone.
“We have a very good relationship with the Scott Boras agency,” Moss said. “I think it’s worked for everybody.”
Trusting an independent league team with an outfielder is not such a risk. But pitchers require great care. If Scherzer tore up his elbow in Arizona’s farm system, he would still get to keep his signing bonus. If he had been injured in Fort Worth, however, he only would have gotten what his insurance policy paid him.
The Cats have learned through experience how to handle a multimillion-dollar arm. Scherzer was not to exceed 90 pitches in an outing and was never to step on an unstable mound. After consecutive rainouts this week, Scherzer was scratched Wednesday night because of concerns that the mound was too soggy.
“When we entrust a player to a team, there is a structure that we know will aid the player and protect the player,” Boras said. “The benefit for the club is that they get a player who has national notoriety and allows their team to be effective. It’s a very mutual situation.”
Boras endorses Fort Worth, partly because it is near a major airport, is easily accessible for scouts and is a member of the American Association, an independent league that is considered the equivalent of high Class A.
Scherzer made only three starts for the Cats, but each was an event. Scouts filled the seats behind home plate. Fans stood on the levee beyond left field. Scherzer struck out 25 batters and allowed only 1 earned run.
He showed the Diamondbacks — and every other team watching — that the finger he jammed in a car door last year had healed and the tendinitis he developed in his right biceps had dissipated.
The Cats’ players loved having Scherzer on the club, not because he picked up any dinner tabs at Chipotle, but because he brought a lot of unexpected attention. When Scherzer pitched, everyone had a better chance to be noticed.
“I bet we’ve had 35 to 40 extra scouts a week watching our games because of him,” Jordan Foster, an outfielder, said.
Scherzer is leaving Fort Worth with a sharper slider, a straighter changeup and a few comparisons to John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves. As a parting gift, Scherzer gave the Cats’ pitching coach a purple bruise on his right shin, in the shape of a baseball.
“The guy has electric stuff,” said Stan Hilton, the Fort Worth pitching coach, raising his right leg to show the proof. “This is one that got away.”
Scherzer was scheduled to start Saturday, but the Cats knew they might lose him at midnight Thursday. Two years ago, Boras negotiated last-minute deals for two of his first-round draft picks, Arizona’s Stephen Drew and Anaheim’s Jered Weaver.
Like Scherzer, Drew and Weaver were also passing their time in an independent league, playing for the Camden Riversharks in New Jersey. For a while, St. Paul was the feeder of choice, then Camden and now Fort Worth.
All of the posturing provides some amusement for Wayne Terwilliger, the Cats’ 81-year-old first-base coach, who signed with the Chicago Cubs in 1948. Terwilliger still remembers the complex details of his first contract negotiation.
“The Cubs offered me $4,000 and I took it,” Terwilliger said. “I told them I didn’t want to talk about money. I just wanted a chance to make Triple-A the next season.”
At LaGrave Field, Terwilliger is one of many links to another era. No. 4 is retired for Duke Snider. No. 6 is retired for Maury Wills.
The diamond includes four dugouts — the two used for games today, and the two used for games 80 years ago.
Compared to most rookies, Scherzer has a keen sense of baseball history. He grew up in St. Louis and went to a World Series game at Busch Stadium in 1985, when he was 1 year old. He can still name a good chunk of the Cardinals’ 1985 starting lineup.
“Getting to watch him and getting to know him through the years, he is a very competitive guy and a very smart guy,” Diamondbacks General Manager Josh Byrnes said. “He has a unique tenacity about him. He’s a performer.”
In the next few days, Scherzer will report to the Diamondbacks’ California League affiliate, at Class A Visalia. Fort Worth, meanwhile, will have to wait for the next bonus baby who comes looking for a bigger bonus.
Among the best high school pitchers in the country this season is Rick Porcello, from Seton Hall Prep in New Jersey, projected to be a top pick in next week’s draft.
The Cats may want to keep an eye on Porcello. Boras is representing him.