Baseball's rough draft.

Baseball's rough draft.

Baseball's rough draft.

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The stadium scene.
June 8 2005 11:10 AM

Rough Draft

Major League Baseball struggles to turn player selection into spectacle.

The NFL Draft gets bigger each year—more gurus, more tickers, more consecutive hours of exhaustive coverage on ESPN. Millions tune in to the NBA draft to watch tall men with long names in bright suits. And the baseball draft? None of the hype, none of the spectacle, none of the helmet phones.

MLB.com's "exclusive coverage" of Tuesday's early rounds consists of a herky-jerky, 2-inch-by-3-inch Webcast. The host, the heavily gelled Casey Stern, looks like he's in his parents' basement. The only on-set décor is a giant MLB logo, and Stern appears to be reading players' names off of his laptop. There's no budget for a green room stocked with teary-eyed moms in Easter dresses. In a preview package on draft-day memories, Oakland A's reliever Huston Street says he heard his name called while listening in on his computer.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate’s editorial director.

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At 1 p.m. Eastern time, Stern tosses to MLB's senior director of operations for the first pick. Instead, we're treated to a few seconds of lilting country music. The Major League Baseball draft is nothing but a massive conference call, and like most conference calls it hasn't started on time. Everyone's on hold.

Two minutes later, Stern apologizes for the delay and says that all systems are go. "Roy," he says, "this time really take it away." Dead air. Stern turns to his sidekick, an ersatz Mel Kiper Jr. named Jonathan Mayo, and asks about a "polished right-hander" named Lance Broadway. He looks "like more of a sandwich pick," Mayo says.

1:06 p.m.: "Hopefully, the third time's the charm." And … still nothing. Stern finally gets the word—everybody's on hold because the Yankees haven't called in yet.

At 1:07, the Diamondbacks finally talk into the speakerphone. "Arizona selects draft No. 8526, Upton, Justin." Stern is incredulous. "Number eight-three-seven-point-nine?" he asks. "I don't know what that number means."

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The Webcast transitions to washed-out footage of the high-school shortstop. What's touted as a "scouting video" looks like a home movie shot by a proud Little League dad. There's Justin taking a couple of halfhearted swings in the batting cage. Here's Justin fielding while wearing a Windbreaker. When Kansas City selects third-baseman Alex Gordon, he's shown standing, listless, while a coach hits him grounders. * The Royals, it seems, have invested millions in a beer-league softball player.

In lieu of 500-foot home runs, each scouting video includes a glowing, digital readout on the bottom right-hand corner that tracks the runner's progress toward first base. The scouts, though, have neglected to record plays that require hustle. Perhaps they're evaluating "speed while running indifferently." If so, high-school outfielder Cameron Maybin is the champ of fast slow running—he goldbricks his way to the bag in 4.79 seconds.

The NFL builds suspense by allowing teams to spend 15 minutes fussing over their first-round picks. Each baseball team takes about 15 seconds to decide on its future star. The first round is finished in 25 minutes.

When you strip away the graphics, the suits, the 40 times, and the pundits talking about upsides and mean streaks, it turns out that a draft is nothing but a list of people you've never heard of. All of those balloons and bunting may seem like overkill, but they're the NFL's and NBA's gift to us all. The baseball draft is a soggy chip without the seven-layer dip.

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For a long time, Major League Baseball did a remarkable job of hiding the draft's essential blandness. Until a few years ago, teams released only the names of first-round picks. The identities of later-round selections trickled out weeks or months after the fact, if at all. What with the Internet and all, nerdy factoids are no longer swept under the rug. Along with the Webcast, MLB.com also has comprehensive radio coverage and a DraftCaster featuring uncut "scouting videos" (even more indifferent running!) and physical descriptions that sound like they were written by a eugenicist. Cameron Maybin: "Evenly proportioned. High waist, long limbs, especially arms." High-school outfielder Jay Bruce: "Large frame. Broad, sloped shoulders. Body similar to a young Larry Walker."

As Stern reads each player's name, Mayo and former Dodgers General Manager Fred Claire cheerlead. Everyone is a "very good young player." Each team is invariably "happy to have him in this spot." What our genial hosts don't mention is that this is all, basically, a crapshoot. In a crapshoot, each team is bound to lock on to some crap. The NBA draft lasts for two rounds. Baseball's goes on for 50—each team needs warm bodies to fill up their ample farm systems. Out of the hundreds of names that will get called in the next two days, only a handful will ever stick in the big leagues. It's probably for the best that baseball doesn't gussy up its draft with red balloons. No amount of decoration could make it seem any less futile.

Justin Upton is the closest thing that baseball has to a sure thing. When the first round is over, Stern gets him on the phone to ask about his special day. NBA first-rounders get asked about their fancy clothes. Upton gets quizzed about what he was thinking during all of those conference-call snafus. "It would've been better," he says, "if y'all didn't have those … glitches."*

Correction, June 8, 2005: This piece originally and incorrectly stated that Alex Gordon was called "a Gold Glove waiting to happen." That comment was made about third-baseman Ryan Zimmerman. (Return to the corrected sentence.) Also, Justin Upton did not say "it was embarrassing" in response to the draft's glitches. He said "it would've been better." (Return to the corrected sentence.)