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July 12, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Finding a Little Future at the Futures Game

by Jason Parks

I’ve been in Arizona for a week, and my eyes have been privileged enough to witness a remarkable amount of questionable baseball; sometimes calling it baseball is too generous, as the refinement level of the talent often leaves a lot to be desired. Of course, I will continue to refer to the experience as a privilege because, let’s face it, being at the back fields of a complex league park is better (for me) than being in a cubicle watching the countdown to closing time, and most people aren’t fortunate enough to get to participate in their passion on a daily basis. This is going somewhere, I promise.

My days have been spent standing in triple-digit heat, starting with the afternoon workouts, where the sun rains showers of pure hell, and concluding in the evening, when I find myself standing behind a back-field fence for three-plus hours at a clip, saved from the intense vengeance of the sun, but still subject to the oven-like temperatures that pack a punch deep into the night. By the time I return to my hotel, I feel like a slice of leftover pizza, something edible that was once fresh but gets exposed to the elements and reheated to the point that it loses its molecular identity, transforming the overall appeal from appetizing to agonizing. I’m inedible by the time July 10 rolls around. Arizona failed to offer the necessary chill to keep my structure established, and my texture isn’t pleasant to the senses.

I didn’t know what to expect when I made the journey into Phoenix (proper) to attend the Futures Game, the annual event where prospects get to stand on the biggest stage and dress up like big-leaguers as active participants in the App-Star weekend pageantry. My surreal experience starts almost immediately, as I’m in the media line waiting to claim my credential for the event and am engulfed by the very industry that I’ve been trying so hard to become engulfed by. Up to this point in my life, I’ve been credentialed in many a minor-league situation, ranging from the max capacity games of spring training to the lonely bullpens that begin the day. I’m not new to the pass itself or the access granted with said pass, but like the minor leaguers chosen for the Futures Game, I was about to step onto a bigger stage and get to dress up like a bigger kid.

As I make my way to the front of the media line, I am greeted by a friendly smile from an attractive face and am asked for my confirmation e-mail from the league, which I don’t have. Great start. I say I’m with Baseball Prospectus and flash a smile that’s a cross between innocuous flirtation and a creepy, “Hey, you might not be that safe in my presence” vibe, which I felt awkward about almost immediately. Looking confused at the coquetry but satisfied with the organizational affiliation, the media line lady disappears from view and quickly returns with a packet clearly marked “Jason Parks: Baseball Prospectus.” Housed in the manila packet is a lamented all-access credential with my name and affiliation displayed on a printed transparent sticker, and a commemorative All-Star weekend pin, which I think is a nice touch, even though I don’t have any designs for its utility. I give her my ID and apologize with the same smile that no doubt crossed a few ethical boundaries earlier, and after signing her confirmation slip, I set off to explore the vast wilderness of the industry’s hierarchy. I’m already nervous.

The stadium seems bigger than I remember stadiums being, with walls the size of office buildings and more designated concession areas than consumers. Ticket holders are forced to stand in the heat outside for another hour-plus, so I gleefully played in my new playground, free from any distraction a general crowd might present. I feel like a middle school student walking the halls of an empty high school, wide-eyed over the sheer enormity of my surroundings, playing salesman to convince myself that I’m ready for this level.

I make my way to the press box to pick up the game notes and rosters, running into friends along the way, most notably Christina Kahrl, my former editor here at Baseball Prospectus and good friend. We play a quick game of catch-up and I’m on my way, but it’s positive reinforcement for me; sometimes a friendly face is the push in the back you need when you feel isolated and overwhelmed. After making my way back up to the main concourse area, I stand on the third-base side of the stadium, taking in my first detailed look at the field itself, once again drinking in the enormity of the scene.

The field is set up for batting practice; the World Team had already taken their rips, and Team USA (Mac from South Philly: “USA! USA! USA!) is milling about waiting for their turn in the cage. The media presence on the field is reminiscent of the lobby at the Winter Meetings, with the heavy hitters holding court in the center of the universe, with satellite cliques orbiting nearby. From my view on the main concourse level, third-base side, the field looked alive.

Just as I’m starting to question my next move, my phone vibrates and the name Mike Ferrin appears on the digital display. For those that haven’t heard the name, well, you must not try in life, because if you follow baseball, you know of Ferrin’s work on SiriusXM radio. Anyway, Mike is 1) Finding out if I’m in the park, 2) Where I am in the park, and 3) Coercing me to meet up with him on the field. Panic washes over me at the thought of stepping onto a major-league field for the purpose of representing Baseball Prospectus. Am I ready for this?

Here’s the thing: I fancy myself a scout; I prefer to sit in the stands, watch in hand, evaluating talent from the shadows of the game. I have never considered myself much of a writer, and I’m certainly not comfortable being a part of the media machine, so the escalation of my role in that world is overwhelming for me. I’m not as anxiety-ridden and socially awkward as I often present myself to be, but I do have certain limitations and hang-ups, and to be honest, the thought of navigating the social environment of the field is terrifies me. I’m off to join a satellite clique on the field and my anxiety just snorted an eight-ball of cocaine, but I’m determined to put on my grown-up pants to properly represent Baseball Prospectus at the Futures Game. This is a big step for me.

My heartbeat feels like it’s playing over the public address system as I travel in the tunnel leading up to the field level; each step is accompanied with the concussion kick of John Bonham’s right foot. Not to get sappy, but I’m a little shaken as I take the final steps from the tunnel’s shade into the lights and energy of the field. It reminds me of the first time my eyes ever caught a glimpse of a major-league field. I must have been five years old at the time, and I remember holding my mother’s hand as we walked from the shade of the bustling concourse into the glowing openness of this brand new world, a world where everything was so big and so magnificent, especially for a relatively poor kid from a smallish town. At the time, the stadium was the biggest thing I had ever seen. I was hooked at first glance, and I gripped my mother’s hand with a physical acknowledgment of that excitement. It’s a moment I share with many, but one I hold in my mind every time I see the dirt of an infield or catch the aroma of freshly cut and watered outfield grass.

I approach the padded gate and prepare to take my first steps onto the field. I’m once again gripping my mother’s hand, this time searching for the physical contact that will comfort my fears. My mother lost her life when I was 16 and never had the opportunity to see her son find his way, but she is standing behind me as I climb these steps and walk out into that world. I’m not exactly an emotional person; in fact, I often exhibit limited sentiment when delivering a response, whether it is one of glee or gloom. But I’m a little emotional as my boots touch the soft ground of field level, and the hands of my beginnings firmly shove me into my future. Sometimes memories can be enough.

I’m gaining strength as I spot XMFerrin and start making my way toward the familiar face. Before I arrive, I (basically) walk right into Mike Piazza, who is freakishly handsome in person and understanding of our collision. After staring into Piazza’s eyes for a little longer than what is normally considered comfortable [read: acceptable], I find an audience with my first satellite clique, joining Ferrin for a front-row seat for a few rounds of Bryce Harper’s batting practice. My life is good. My life is fun.

I’m on the field for what feels like 10 minutes but is actually well over an hour, talking with friends, watching batting practice just feet from the cage, sneaking glimpses at Piazza’s face, and even doing an interview with the great Grant Paulsen. I’m still overwhelmed with the depth of the water I’m in, but I’m making it work and finding my footing. Fans are starting to flood into the stadium, and my face is on the JumbroTron for all to see because I’m carelessly located in the middle of an interview with Devin Mesoraco. I think it’s about time to get back to where I belong, in the scout section with my watch and my confidence, where I won’t be tempted to stare at Piazza’s bone structure like it holds the answers to all of life’s problems, which I believe it might.

As a scout, or someone who certainly fancies himself as one, the Futures Game is the celebration of our chosen craft, a gathering of all the top-of-the-line talent you are tasked with finding and evaluating. Originally, I wanted to provide you with my first-hand observations, detailing what I saw, what I didn’t see, and even offering up an indictment on all the sofa scouts out there who take a small sample size performance and vomit reactions because people like giving opinions. I charted every pitcher, clocked every time to first, made notes on the physical tools, and documented every nuance of the game, but when I sat down to write about the game, those developments didn’t develop on the page. It wasn’t what I took away from the event.

 For me the Futures Game wasn’t about the future of the players on the field as much as it was about my own future in the game. As solipsistic as this will read—and frankly I don’t care if it comes off as such—July 10, 2011 was the best day of my brief baseball career. It was the first day where I felt like I belonged, like I had a seat at the table—regardless if that seat was still very much in the shadows of the scene. I was still the same little kid that gripped his mother’s hand after catching that first glimpse of the exceptional world taking place on the field below. Only this time, I was the one standing on it.  

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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