August 31, 2012
The Importance of the Area Code Games
Nearly 600 of baseball's top amateur talent evaluators converged on historic Blair Field in Long Beach, California earlier this month for the 26th Annual Area Code Games. For the 240 high school players who gathered from all over the nation, it was the toughest job interview they had ever experienced.
"A player cannot attend the Area Code Games and hide," said UCLA Head Coach John Savage.
Several factors make the Area Code Games are my favorite amateur event of the summer. Economics don't play a role, because there is no participation fee, just travel expenses. Blair Field is a cavern, a great field whose dimensions (348'/387'/400'/387'/348'), combined with the usual marine layer, make it exceptionally pitcher-friendly. Only one MLB stadium has longer foul lines.
In addition, what makes the Area Code Games unique is that the participants play real seven- or nine-inning games without pitch counts or quirky rules. Evaluators love it because they see every player in the same environment. The action takes place in one game on one field at a time, unlike most other amateur events, where the players are spread out over a complex or an area.
"I have been coming to this for more than 20 years, and wouldn't miss it," an American League scouting director said during a break. "It is a critical stage for me, since it is near the end of the season, and I can see how they all compare. It is really the final time we get the whole draft class together before the next June draft. You get to see the best against the best, and it is on one field with all your scouts seeing the same game."
Bob Williams came up with the original idea for the Area Code Games, and he collaborated with Northern California scouts on a concept to bring together the top high school players to play against each other, using wood bats exclusively. Williams and the scouts knew this invitation and selection process would be special because it would separate the Area Code Games from anything that had been available to premier high school players to that point.
Future major-league All-Stars Fernando Vina and Jim Edmonds were among the pioneers in the first Area Code Games. From that first gathering in Lodi (CA), the goal of Williams and Major League Baseball was to expand the Area Code Games on a national scale, and in 2008 ESPN acquired Area Code Baseball from Williams. It has been held at Blair Field for nearly two decades, after a brief stop in San Diego. Over the last 25 years, more than 450 Area Code Games participants have made it to the majors.
Imagine a stadium that, for six consecutive days and 12 hours per day, holds 400 major-league scouts, 180 college coaches, 75 agents, and a large media contingent. The games start at 8:30 AM, and the day's final game concludes around 9 PM.
The event is run flawlessly, as staff members like Andrew Drennen, Director of Area Code Baseball, work behind the scenes to make it seamless.
"I really enjoy the event," said Drennen, who just finished his ninth Area Codes. "The scouts and coaches are great to work with, and we try to make it as professional and comfortable as we can for the players and their families. Our goal is to make it a great experience for everyone involved."
Every scout or coach has his favorite spot to evaluate from. Some like to go behind the plate, while others sit down the foul lines, but one thing is pretty certain: wherever they sit the first day, they will likely migrate to the same area on each of the event's six days.
Eight MLB organizations sponsor the teams: Kansas City (Northwest region), Oakland (Northern California), Milwaukee (Southern California), Cincinnati (Four Corners region plus Hawaii), Texas (Texas and Louisiana), White Sox (a large group of states including North and South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Kentucky), Yankees (Northeast and Mideast), and Washington (Southeast). Three of the staffs have been together for 12 or more years, with the top seniority going to the White Sox and Rangers, with 16 years each. Scouts from other organizations aid their competitors throughout the process. The White Sox have over 400 candidates from three tryouts in different regions in order to assemble their squad. The Brewers' Southern California scouting staff holds two separate, invite-only July tryouts in Santa Barbara, narrows the field to about 75, then makes its decisions after a mid-July workout.
"It is a year-round selection process, not a one- or two-day event," said Brewers' West Coast Scouting Supervisor Corey Rodriguez, whose Area Code staff has remained intact for a dozen years. "It is truly a collaboration. (Brewers scouts) Dan Huston and Josh Belovsky do an incredible job assembling the candidates, constantly asking questions, and always examining whether the player fits for the July tryouts. Our scouts are on this the entire year, always gathering information. We owe it to the kids and the teams. It is a privilege to have the responsibility of selecting the squad from Southern California."
An American League scouting director said, "The process is what makes it work so well, because it is from the bottom up. The kids get evaluated by area scouts all over the nation over the course of the year, and they keep getting evaluated throughout the process. It is a big task to run these clubs, but we all benefit, and the sport actually benefits from the Area Codes."
Phillies Assistant General Manager/Amateur Scouting Marti Wolever, who has selected Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels, among others, in his 11 years at the helm, commented, "I love the Area Code Games because of the format, the level of play, the fact that I get to watch every game with my staff, and I get to know that group of players so well in one week. Plus, they take infield every day, so I walk away from Long Beach with a much better idea of the upcoming draft talent."
One of MLB's top scouting directors said, "My favorite aspect is that it is the fairest evaluation period of the scouting year, because economics are not an issue. No one is prevented from participating because of cost. It is all about talent and tools. A lot of really great players have been on this field, and some likely could not have attended if fees were charged like all the other events."
And a veteran MLB scouting director stated, "I view the Area Code Games as the first step in a 10-month interview process. I'll debate these players with my staff the whole time, but I find that I point back to what guys did at Long Beach frequently during that process."
Savage, one of the best talent evaluators and also a tireless worker, went into more depth. "I am a huge fan of the Area Codes, as I like how they replicate actual games. It's not a showcase. It is fun to see one of the best pitchers face one of the best hitters and see who wins and why. You also see the speed of the game at the highest level all summer. I watch for six days and like to see players' energy levels, how they handle failure, whether they like to play the game. Plus, there are no life preservers here. You have to figure it out if you struggle. Some kids come here and go oh-for-the-week, and I want to see how they handle it, whether their energy level declines, and whether it gets the best of him."
Most of the players experience some sort of adversity at Blair Field.
One scouting director observed, "Most players struggle here because it is the best level of competition they have ever faced, they are playing every day, and there is a lot of scrutiny in the stands. Hundreds of radar guns and stop watches and notepads. That first pitch by a kid has about 200 or more radar guns elevated. It is intimidating for most players. Many of them have never really had that much failure before they come here, and then they get humbled. I like to see how they handle adversity. I have seen guys cry in the dugout because they are devastated, and know those are kids who likely aren't ready for pro ball."
An American League scouting director said, "I remember one year when Ryan Howard was here, and he struck out in something like 14 of his 16 plate appearances. It showed that he needed to get more reps in college, but I saw his potential power and kept an eye on him as a result. I remember turning in his present and future power grades and realizing that they were as big a gap as I had ever written. He just wasn't ready out of high school."
"I want to see who is going to fight through the tough times, the at bats where they are overmatched or the innings where they are backing up bases and not able to throw strikes," one of the college game's winningest coaches told me. "I find out a lot about kids here at Long Beach. Funny how the kids who figure it out here seem to be the ones I see in the big leagues."
Toronto Blue Jays scout Blake Crosby has a unique perspective of the Area Code Games, since his father, Ed, a former big leaguer and one of the game's best scouts for decades, was based on the West Coast, while his brother, Bobby, played seven years in the majors and was the American League's Rookie of the Year in 2004.
"The Area Code Games were one of the highlights of the summer for me when I was a boy," said Crosby, 27. "My Dad would take my brother and I every day, and back then, Topps was a sponsor of the event. Every time I got something from the concession stand for my Dad or one of his scout friends, that person would give me one of the packs of cards they got in their goodie bag. I would end up with a whole bunch of cards when the week was over. The scouts called me 'Soda Man.'"
"I knew that I wasn't an upper tier draft when I didn't make the team," Crosby, one of the great young scouts in the game, recalled. "I was so disappointed. But it was a great honor to play in front of so many scouts at the tryout at Angel Stadium, since many of the scouts were people I had known my whole life."
"I have so much respect for what they go through at Blair Field," said Crosby, who went on to play at Sacramento State, was drafted by the Athletics in 2009, and now has the Four Corners as his territory. "It is the first big step of their baseball career, and the first time they know that everyone is watching every single thing that you do on the baseball field for six days."
Sometimes, players make a name for themselves in Long Beach.
"[Giancarlo] Stanton is an example of a player who really benefited from these games," an American League scouting director reflected. "A lot of people thought he would play football, and he did not have as much exposure coming into the Area Codes because he was playing a couple of sports. He came here, and I remember being stunned at his power, just stunned. Stanton went from being an interesting guy to being on everyone's radar, and the Marlins made a great pick nine months later."
When I canvassed a number of scouts and coaches about more recent players who benefited from the Area Code Games, one name kept coming up: Charlie Tilson, a kid from New Trier High School in the suburbs north of Chicago who burst on the scene in 2010.
A left-handed hitting center fielder, Tilson was cut from the White Sox team after his sophomore year but got big news while playing an American Legion game a year later.
"I was playing in an American Legion game, and my father, who was at the game, got a call from White Sox scout Dan Durst, notifying me that I had made the Area Code Team," said Tilson. "My Dad told my coach after the next inning, and when my coach relayed the news, it was the most excited baseball moment I had ever experienced. Looking back, it was a big step in my playing career."
But there was a little problem. Joe and Maggie Tilson had already booked a family vacation to Europe during that period.
"My parents had scheduled the trip before I made the team, and they were incredible to allow me to forgo it and instead go to Long Beach. I am so thankful for their decision," said Tilson.
"I had known (White Sox scout) Dan Durst for years, and he gave me great advice before the event," said Tilson. "He told me this was a rare opportunity to showcase my ability on the biggest stage, that it might be the best shot I may ever get, and to seize the moment. He said that kids from our area don't get seen as often or by as many scouts. He knew my skills and told me that I needed to bring my high-energy game."
Tilson listened well, because he played as if his car was double-parked outside the stadium the entire week, displaying bat and speed tools that stood out throughout the week.
"I was real nervous during the practice game, because it was easily the best level of baseball that I had ever been involved in. A big step up for me. Legion ball, high school ball was not the same stage. Anybody who participates feels it. But I had to take advantage of that opportunity, as I didn't want to get that chance and have it slip away. I decided I was going to give it everything I had and let them decide if I could play and not hold anything back," said Tilson.
He came to the Area Codes with a scholarship to the University of Illinois, but the week—actually one particular plate appearance at Blair Field—changed his baseball life.
"I had a 2-0 count, and I remembered that Dan (Durst) had told us to look for opportunities to drive a fastball when we had first reported to California," recalled Tilson. "So I did, and was lucky to get a ball on the inner half and, sure enough, I hit it really good, but didn't think it was out because Blair Field is so big. I just took off and ran as fast as I could. I think I was at second base when I realized it was out. Might have been the fastest time ever recorded on a homer. From that point forward in Long Beach, it was crazy."
Tilson's father and brother were in Ireland and were following the game off the Area Codes' GameCast on a computer, so they knew what had happened.
"My Dad and brother apparently were jumping all over the place," said Tilson.
It was the only home run hit in that entire week at Blair Field, and Tilson was selected 79th overall by the St Louis Cardinals the following June with their second selection and signed for $1.275 million.
This year's Games featured more offense than I can remember seeing before, as seven balls were hit out of Blair Field. For the first time I had ever attended games in Long Beach, there was no marine layer, and the heat, combined with the wind blowing out, led to more offense. I'll discuss that, along with some of the players in the event, in my next column.
But one thing is certain—everyone in attendance saw some of Major League Baseball's future stars. Over the last 10 years, every high school player selected in the first round of the amateur draft has played Area Code Baseball.
That's why I sit in the same spot every year at Blair Field, right behind the plate.