Monday, June 15, 2009

Sixteen-year-old ballplayer jumps the queue — David Stern's head explodes

One can only assume NBA commissioner David Stern, who so fiercely defends his league's draft age minimum, is going to love hearing what's going on over in baseball.

It seems juicy enough to break the Clavin rule for: Bryce Harper, the 16-year-old phenom from Las Vegas who was the cover story ("Baseball's LeBron") in the June 8 Sports Illustrated, could enter the MLB Draft next year, before his high school class graduates. Scott Boras is his adviser, but you did not have to ask.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal detailed how Harper is going to go to a junior college, obtain his general equivalency diploma (as a lot of teen actors do) and possibly be eligible for the draft in 2010. S.I. said he could have been a top-5 pick this year. Taken a certain way, his father, Ron already sounds a tad defensive: "My son is going to live with us and still eat at the same table. His brother" — a left-handed pitcher who is transferring to the same school, College of Southern Nevada — "will be a mentor to him. Why can't it be a good story?" Perhaps it should be. If Bryce Harper is everything he's cracked up to be, he probably should play vs. 20-year-olds in junior college. He hit .626 this season and with a slugging percentage that could get him into Harvard if you took out the decimal place and passed it off as his SAT score. He's just like Jeremy Tyler, the 17-year-old hoops phenom who's passing on his senior year of high school to play basketball for money overseas.

This fruit tree is probably well picked over. Jason Rosenberg of Vote For Manny fame already covered off the angle that the poor Washington Nationals, once they pay a king's ransom for No. 1 overall draft choice Stephen Strasburg, might have another Boras-represented BPEALSLY (Bestest Prospect Ever, At Least Since Last Year) on their hands. (The Nats are a mortal lock to draft No. 1 overall next season, since they have the same record after 61 games as the infamous 1962 Mets.) Jeff Pearlman noted Harper is being robbed of a childhood and that this is further proof that youth sports are nuttier than a pecan log. This late in the game, it's best to reach for the top branch and use it to whack David Stern for his age minimum, which is blithely called the one-and-done rule.

If Scott Boras can get Bryce Harper into the MLB Draft in 2010 — maybe MLB could stop it, but the rule is you're eligible if you're 16 and have a high school diploma — it makes it harder for Stern to justify his age minimum, AKA the one-and-done rule. How can anyone justify making basketball players wait until they are 19 or 20 to start making money at the game? Please understand that the age minimum has less to do with education and protecting the welfare of basketball players. It's more about preserving college basketball as a free farm system for the NBA, plain and simple.

You are right if your first reaction is to say it is apples-to-pears to compare draft eligibility rules between basketball and baseball. The NBA's premise with the draft is that players should be pretty much ready to roll right off the assembly line (U.S. auto industry pun intended). Baseball, as Tom Verducci explained in his profile of Harper, "is so skill-specific that even the best, most physically mature young players typically must endure several levels of minor league apprenticeship to learn the game."

Out of that, baseball players from Canada and the U.S. have long had an option. They can sign with a MLB organization out of high school or go to college, mature emotionally and physically and still take a stab at baseball in their early 20s. The system has a lot wrong with it, but at least it involves a choice. Boras and the Harpers simply seem to be trying to exercise that option one year sooner, and it's not even clear if they will succeed. He would stand to college a huge bonus if he does sign out of high school (which you would have to figure he would. To recycle a joke that was current when Ken Griffey Jr. became a major league star at age 20, going to high school has knocked a couple years off Harper's pension).

The question becomes, how can you reconcile Bryce Harper, who is white, getting an option when a lot of people are squeamish about Jeremy Tyler, who is black, exercising the same option. Granted, Tyler, like Brandon Jennings did when he went to Europe in 2008 instead of college, is taking a step which involves repudiating the entire U.S. basketball development system. There is great hue and cry over a 17-year-old weighing offers from European teams. Imagine the reaction in Canada if a junior hockey player such as Kingston native Taylor Hall, who some believe could go No. 1 in the NHL draft if he was not too young, announced that he was leaving the OHL's Windsor Spitfires to go play in Russia. People would be royally P.O.'d.

Really, though, what Harper's move in baseball betrays is how badly Stern and the NBA would like to keep things as is. They are partially motivated by the status quo, but really, the NBA would hate to go down baseball's road. The league has enough financial challenges without having to pay to stock minor-league affiliates with players who, let's be honest, are very good but don't have big-league skills.

The farm systems in Major League Baseball are expensive to run. The cost recovery can be be underwhelming, since the organization has to have a lot of marginally talented players under contract so their future superstars have someone to play against. There is also a bit of a battle going on between MLB and its partner, Minor League Baseball, or MiLB, over money. Basically, MLB would like their little brothers to pay full freight when it comes to player costs.

Stern and NBA owners probably want little part of such a player development system in their league. It would cost money. It's better from a business standpoint to have someone playing college basketball, getting on ESPN, instead of playing in front of a couple thousand people in Great Falls, Montana.

It is probably blue sky thinking at its worst, but if the NBA was really so concerned about education, they could simply work collaboratively with all the stakeholders and establish something called the "NBA Scholarship." They would identify players with NBA potential, pay for them to go to school and give them honest feedback about when to enter the draft (I know, too naive by half). There is always the law of unintended consequences, but it might work to weed out agents, the diploma mills, the players getting someone to take their aptitude test for them (as Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose is accused of doing in order to get into the U of Memphis for his one-and-done year). They could use a carrot-and-stick approach to make sure colleges opted in. The NCAA already takes scholarships away from schools if their basketball team doesn't do well in the classroom, just imagine when a coach is told he can't give a scholarship to a certain player since his team has a 17% graduation rate.

It also might help the NBA with talent identification. The Raptors, for one, have talked about greater collaboration between their franchise, Canada Basketball and Canadian Interuniversity Sport, but league and NCAA rules limit what they can do. How stupid is it that a sports league stands in the way of increasing or improving the talent pool in a country of 33 million people?

This has become a very long post, but people should try to work past tongue-clucking over Bryce Harper and Jeremy Tyler. They should also lose a little of the liberal guilt and stop seeing this solely as black and white ... how come you can't turn pro at 18 in basketball when it's commonplace for mostly middle-class and Caucasian tennis, golf and hockey players?

That works against asking tough questions. It was hilarious when, after it hit the news that about Rose allegedly not taking his SAT broke, you heard people try to blame this on the NBA. That is a total crock, since shenanigans in college basketball go back to the days when there was still a tip-off at centre after every basket. It's just mind-number to see traditional media types towing Stern's party line that "the overwhelming failure rate of America's most promising prospects" is a reason to raise the age minimum. The rub there is that, hey, news flash, there is always going to be some attrition rate with promising young athletes. As a random example, take the first round of the MLB draft back in 1999. Sixteen of the 30 players taken never played a single game in the big leagues, yet no one screamed for reform and the world, remarkably, stayed on its axis.

The rub is that Harper's case shows how the genie is out of the bottle in all the big ball-and-stick leagues. It shows where Stern has gone wrong taking a halfway measure that denies someone the right to get paid somewhat according to his ability. The genie will stay out of the bottle until such time that the big money dries up in sports (which it might, look at what happened to the Romans; sometimes it's as if the WNBA, with its 40-game regular season, requirement that players have a degree).

We should work past the hang-ups and follow the money. That's what Bryce Harper, his family and Scott Boras are doing. They are the honest ones, at the end of the day.

(Meantime, should one be sympathetic to the Washington Nationals' situation, being an unprofitable team which is going to have to pay big for Strasburg and might have to for Harper? A gut feeling is "no." For starters, the Nationals were put in Washington even though it did not deserve a team. Secondly, once upon a time the No. 1 pick rotated between the American and National leagues — AL in odd-numbered years, NL in evens. However, Bud Selig and the boys got greedy and changed it.)

Harper ready to give college try; 16-year-old Las Vegas High baseball prodigy registers at CSN, plans to attain GED to speed draft eligibility (Matt Youmans, Las Vegas Review-Journal)

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