Jose Pabon was a second-grader at Kilby Elementary when he turned out one day for a school function. Maybe a kickball game. Instead, the activity was a baseball tryout. Not quite what the little guy had in mind, but. . . .
"I completely fell in love with the game and never stopped," Pabon recalls.
But how great of a shining has the game taken to Pabon? Perhaps the Potomac High School shortstop/catcher will find out today when Major League Baseball conducts about 20 of the 50 rounds of its two-day amateur draft.
Along with Pabon, Gar-Field shortstop/pitcher Jeff Baker and Potomac catcher/pitcher Danny Lopaze could be snatched up in the early rounds. Baseball America lists Baker as the country's 84th-brightest prospect, and that includes both high school and college talent. The publication lists only University of Richmond right-hander Casey Burns and John Battle High School left-hander Jimmy Gobble as better Virginia prospects than Baker, the state's top-rated position player. Lopaze and Pabon are seventh and ninth, respectively, on that state list.
Despite such lofty stature, there's no guarantee the three All-Mets will soon be signed, sealed and delivered to minicamps run by the teams that draft them. They all have college scholarships -- Baker to Clemson and Pabon and Lopaze to Virginia Commonwealth. What pro scouts call the players' "signability" will greatly determine how early they go in the draft. Baker's university is known among scouts for hanging onto its drafted incoming freshmen.
"For a high school kid, [signability] is the single most important part of the deal," said Bill Buck, a Manassas-based scout for the Detroit Tigers who also has worked for the Orioles, Astros and Mets. "With vague signability, a fifth-rounder could be a 25th-rounder. Teams are leery of using a high pick on a guy they don't have a good feel for."
Buck recalls one Washington area pitcher who had third-round talent but poor signability. That player was in limbo until the 19th round.
Hiring an agent is a likely indicator of a player turning pro. But Baker, Lopaze and Pabon say their families and coaches are their only advisers at the moment.
"If you play hard to get, don't get upset if you go in the 20th round, because you pretty much set that yourself," said Buck, who usually doesn't mention in what round the draftee was taken unless that player asks. "One time," Buck said, "a kid asked me what round he went in. I said eighth. There was silence on the phone because he thought he'd go higher."
Signing high school players is a dicier proposition than signing college players because most prep stars have the leverage of a college scholarship to weigh against the pro offer. For a player bound for a school that costs $25,000 a year, for example, that's $100,000 a team might have to match as a signing bonus, let alone surpass.
So where do All-Met Player of the Year Baker, Pabon and Lopaze fit into a draft considered to be long on high school pitching prospects and short on collegiate position players?
"None of those guys in my opinion are a cinch to be drafted, because of [signability]," said a scout who asked not to be identified. "But I think they all have their price. Baker could go very, very high, but there is a lot of mixed feelings on all three guys. I know people who don't care a hoot for all three of them. But it only takes one organization with a specific need to take a kid very high."
During the past several months, the local prospects have seen the game they played for fun for a dozen years evolving into a business. All the calls they have fielded from college recruiters and pro scouts funnel into that one monumental call during the draft. From that day on, if a player signs, the bonus figure tends to dethrone earned-run average or batting average as the most important number tagged to a player.
The job of pro teams "is to get quality ballplayers for as cheap as they can get them," said Lopaze, the only player among the local trio who bats left-handed. "The thing it comes down to is money. The money has to be there, or I have a full scholarship."
If Baker's standing at No. 84 pans out, the money can be quite substantial. Of the players who signed last year after being drafted between 80 and 90, the bonuses stretched from $225,000 to $400,000. Forecasters predict every first-round player who signs this year will do so for at least $1 million.
The three local players' approaches in the months leading up to today have varied. Pabon and Lopaze attended special workouts to give professional scouts one last look-see before the evaluators file their final reports with their big league clubs. Baker declined such invitations, preferring to let his game performance speak for itself.
Baker, Lopaze and Pabon could end up playing different positions than the ones they now man. Pabon, who has played shortstop most of this season, said scouts have told him he could be considered at any infield position but first, or as a catcher or outfielder. Lopaze is being looked at as a catcher, infielder or maybe as a pitcher, though he balks at the idea of being relegated to the mound, in part for fear of an arm injury.
Baker feels much the same. Scouts considered him more of a pitching prospect last fall, but he encouraged them to follow his progress at short and at the plate. He didn't disappoint. He batted over .500 with 12 home runs. "I enjoy pitching, but it's not for me," said Baker, who has been told by scouts he could be moved to second or third base if he "plays himself out of" a chance at short. "I don't think I could handle pitching -- sitting out four days and pitching the fifth day."
Baker will try to ease his draft day anxiety by taking his senior class trip to Six Flags America amusement park in Maryland, with a cellular phone along for the ride, of course.
When an organization decides to draft a particular player, the team contacts its scout in that particular area. It is the scout who calls to inform the player of the selection. Within 15 days, the team will submit a minor league contract to the player. The scout will visit the player to negotiate a contract with a signing figure supplied by his team.
"I could be going north, south, east or west because the college players come from all over the place," Buck said of what could be a harried two weeks after the draft, depending on how many of his players the Tigers choose. "But you want to get it done as quickly as possible because we have minicamp coming up."
After that, most players report to rookie league teams or to short-season Class A teams for their first games as professionals.
"I want my guys to be in that Opening Day lineup," said Buck, who recently spent three days in Detroit detailing for the Tigers' scouting brass the talent in his mid-Atlantic region as part of the team's 450-player nationwide pool. "If they sign late, they can become Wally Pipp maybe," he added, referring to the former Yankees first baseman who lost his job to Lou Gehrig.
Pabon's pro potential is well-documented. But a major league team certifying his talent by drafting him will give the Potomac senior a twinge of vindication. "I've been looking forward to this day since second grade," Pabon said. "The teacher asked us what we wanted to be, and I wrote down [pro ballplayer]. The teacher told me to be something else because the chances of this happening were slim to none."
Now one of the biggest dreams ever could come true.
Major League Baseball Draft
* When: Today, 1-6 p.m.; Thursday, 12-6 p.m.
* Format: Draft is 50 rounds, held via conference call from the commissioner's office in New York. The clubs take turns selecting players in reverse order of their win-loss records at the close of the previous season. About 20 rounds will be completed today.
* Top Prince William area prospects (1999 statistics): SS/P Jeff Baker, Gar-Field (9-0, 0.40 ERA, .537, 12 HRs); C/P Danny Lopaze, Potomac (.421, 8 HRs, 36 RBI, 6-0); SS/C Jose Pabon, Potomac (.500, 8 HRs, 37 RBI, 34 SBs); C Barry Gauch, Woodbridge/Virginia Tech (.377, 10 HRs, 61 RBI).
CAPTION: Gar-Field shortstop/pitcher Jeff Baker, the All-Met Player of the Year, is the rated the country's 84th-brightest prospect, according to Baseball America.
CAPTION: If he does not sign with a major league club, Potomac's Danny Lopaze has scholarship to VCU on which to fall back.
CAPTION: JEFF BAKER
. . . is No. 1 local prospect
CAPTION: DANNY LOPAZE
. . . "money has to be there"
CAPTION: JOSE PABON
. . . could be moved from shortstop
CAPTION: "I've been looking forward to this day since second grade," Potomac's Jose Pabon says of possibly being selected in major league draft, which begins today.