Chapter One: Pregame at the Expansion Draft
The organization was mobilized and operating in high gear. Kelly Wilson was stationed at the gate, making sure the invited guests received their scorecards and dog tags. The scorecards were for keeping track of the game, which on this day didn't involve strikes and balls, hits and runs, but names and positions -- the names of the players who were going to man the positions on the new team.
The dog tags were a giveaway from Bank One, little aluminum tablets hanging from chains, with "Bank One" printed on one side and "Miller Time, Expansion Draft Party, November 18, 1997," along with a glass of beer and the Diamondback logo, on the other. Bank One would soon give its name to the new ballpark -- an honor purchased at a dear price -- and had earned the right to produce whatever trinket it preferred. Nonetheless, dog tags didn't seem to suit the style of this crowd of season-ticket holders and local notables, and one had to wonder about the marketing thought behind the promotion. Perhaps it was intended as a public service for those guests who consumed too much Miller Lite during the festivities, fell into unconscious stupors, and were robbed of their wallets and ID; the dog tags left behind would provide the police with a clue as to the origin of the crime.
In any event, the dog tags were only a tiny, shiny piece of the entire promotional puzzle waiting at the southeast corner of Monroe and Second, outside on the Phoenix Symphony Hall Terrace. The scorecard and the dog tags represented more than just two random giveaways; they represented the key components of the Diamondback story: baseball and business.
The long line to enter the terrace had started forming hours before the 2 p.m. start of the draft and was teeming almost exclusively with adults. This was an unexpected development, seeing as this was somewhere near high noon on a Tuesday, midday during a typical workweek in a typically industrious American city. Weren't these people, more often than not wearing grown-up clothes -- ties and suits and panty hose and dresses -- supposed to be somewhere else, conferring and negotiating and constructing and manufacturing, paying the bills, building a better country, changing the world?
Kelly kept at it, handing out the trinkets and tally sheets, but the throng only kept swelling. Scott Brubaker, Kelly's boss and the vice president in charge of sales and marketing, passed by, impressed by the scene. He said the team had sent invitations to all the season-ticket holders (or, more specifically, since no one had yet to sit in an Arizona Diamondback seat, those who'd already mailed in big dollars to hold those seats just for them, forever), and had expected perhaps some two or three thousand to show up. The DBs were singularly adept at anticipating trends and demands, but this day's demand had apparently caught everyone by surprise, including Scott. Of course, this was not an unpleasant surprise. Just the opposite, in fact, for, as Scott was the first of many to comment that day, this was one more proof of how excited the good citizens of Arizona were by the entire baseball experience.
The event on the Symphony Hall Terrace was for the public, both outdoors and tented, readily accessible, and replete with food and games, country music, and cheerleaders. But that was the sideshow. The real action -- the real business -- was being conducted a couple of blocks away, in the massive ballroom inside the Arizona Civic Plaza.
This was draft headquarters, and contingents from all twenty-eight established major league teams were assembled to pay the piper. They had happily pocketed the $130-million entrance fee required of each of the supplicants from Phoenix and Tampa Bay, and now they had to fulfill their part of the bargain and let the Diamondbacks and the Devil Rays pluck some of the regulars from their ranks and begin to fashion squads of their own.
Most of the DBs' heavy hitters had convened in their war room off the ballroom. That's what they called it -- "the war room" -- without a trace of humor. Though the Diamondback organization publicly championed many admirable qualities, humor -- which counts among its prime ingredients unequal doses of spontaneity, some ironic detachment, a feel for the absurd, and an appropriate self-deprecating sense of proportion -- was not one of them. But then, this was no laughing matter, this was high finance, and God knows high finance has surely led to war often enough in the past.
Manager Buck Showalter was the commander in chief, surrounded by his general staff: general manager Joe Garagiola Jr., team president Richard Dozer, director of player development Mel Didier, director of scouting Don Mitchell, director of field operations Tommy Jones, draft coordinator Ralph Nelson, and some dozen other medical, field, and scouting aides. Roland Hemond was the point man in the ballroom, working the floor for any last-minute information, and relaying the DB draft selections from the war room to the podium, where they were then announced.
Until now, Buck Showalter had been a general without an army. Now Buck and his cohorts, huddled around the tables that formed a square that filled the room, surrounded by their charts and lists and profiles and calculations, were about to get some soldiers.
But the draft still awaited, and the festivities back on the terrace were well under way. All the team sponsors and ballpark vendors had been offered the opportunity to present their logos and wares during the party. (Offered might not be the precise word; one vendor quietly mentioned, when no one was looking, that the offer from the DBs had been a bit stronger than a suggestion, along with the suggestion that food was to be proffered free to the hungry patrons.)
Blimpies was slicing up six-foot-long sandwiches of ham and tomatoes and cheese and lettuce. Little Caesar's was passing out little pizzas. Ben & Jerry's was dishing out ice cream. Tacos, popcorn, hot dogs, soda, beer -- all there for the taking.
Aside from free food, games abounded, some more elaborate than others, all with prizes to be won. Tossing two out of three balls into rings at the America West Airlines booth yielded a plastic, inflatable hat with an America West airplane on top, suitable for young children. McDonald's had a speed-pitch competition. Pick up the ball and let it rip: a throw of up to thirty miles per hour won a coupon redeemable for a free ice cream cone at any Mickey D's, fifty mph snagged a small fries, and over fifty was the grand prize, if you'll excuse the expression -- one McDonald's hamburger.
Pepsi-Cola had a celebrity of sorts handling its action. The actress who served as the live-action model for the animated film Anastasia enthusiastically urged her contestants onto the basketball court. "You shoot, big boy," Anna Braga called out to one fellow, his tie flapping and his white dress shirt hanging over his sizable stomach, as he futilely chucked the ball up at the basket. "Show me how it's done!"
He failed to oblige, but enough did so that Pepsi ran out of their baseball caps in no time, with the Mountain Dew T-shirts soon to follow.
Miller Lite, in addition to being the overall sponsor of the affair, had a stall with the time-honored spin-the-wheel game, overseen by Miller Lite girls in tight shorts and Diamondback T-shirts. Spin the wheel and win whatever the needle pointed to when it stopped, though it was obvious that most of the men who lined up to play the game (if you can call spinning a wheel a game) weren't so much interested in the cup holders and other knickknacks as in the girls.
Fast food and games, free stuff and pretty girls -- all a prelude to the real fun. For though the DB hierarchy was, as a collective, missing the humor gene, the organization was supremely skilled in creating and directing fun.
Gina Giallonardo, marketing manager, strode into view, clad as most of the other Diamondbacks in an official sports shirt, with the purple and turquoise A stitched over the left breast. DB shirts were produced in a virtually endless variety, long sleeve and short, buttondown and pullover, on and on, all with the purple and turquoise A stitched somewhere on the material. A team shop was located right on the terrace, selling not only shirts but also hats and jackets and jerseys and baseballs and pennants and a host of other products, all displaying the purple and turquoise A. Literally cashing in on the Diamondback spirit, the shop did brisk business all day.
Meanwhile, Gina was moving fast and chattering into a walkie-talkie.
As she neared, there was a brief opening to ask what she was doing with that walkie-talkie.
"Nothing," Gina replied, still walking and talking.
This did not make sense, and the issue was pressed, forcing another reply.
"Putting out fires," she said, not slowing her pace.
In politics, that sort of answer was called a nonresponsive response and unavoidably begged the next question, i.e., What fires?
Gina smiled, in a fashion, and when she spoke, her tone implied that even the least astute listener should know what she was about to say. "I'm not telling you!"
The inescapable observation was that Gina, notwithstanding her gender, highlighted by a cascade of blonde hair, was a Diamondback through and through.
"You're right," she said, and then she was gone.
The action was heating up on the stage. Thom Brennaman, the television point man for the DBs, both as future play-by-play man when the team took the field and current administrator of their TV operation, was about to address the audience, which had overflowed from the booths surrounding the main stage and now filled the seats before him.
Thom was the prototypical Arizona Diamondback front-office type, from style: young, male, conservative in dress and manner; to substance: a true believer, impossibly, unflappably enthused about all things Diamondback and baseball. Brennaman, like so many of his colleagues, gave the impression of being professionally aggressive and personally settled, a modern version of the 1950s American executive ideal, half investment banker, half golf pro. One of the more peculiar impressions one was left with upon engaging a group of young DB officials was that even the single men in the organization somehow seemed married.
Thom's job today was twofold: to lead the festivities on the terrace on behalf of the DBs, and to comment on the draft on television for Fox Sports. His heart clearly belonged with the first role as he began by introducing the tall man who stood quietly to the side, whose appearance on the stage incited a mumbling through the people and an instant smattering of applause.
"We are going to have a very busy day here today," announced Thom, "and a man obviously who's done so much for this city, not only in athletics, but I think more importantly what he's done to try and make this a better town for each of us to live in -- "
Thom, a broadcast veteran at the age of thirty-two, was uncharacteristically nervous, and rambled on a bit before getting to the matter at hand.
" -- and the many things that he's done to make people's lives who are underprivileged in this area, or maybe people who are a little down on their luck, and oftentimes it goes overlooked, but unquestionably the man who has brought baseball to the Valley of the Sun. Please welcome Mr. Jerry Colangelo."
Cheers and whoops greeted Jerry Colangelo. From a near vantage point, it appeared that the managing general partner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, tall and fit, his broad shoulders accentuated by the double-breasted suits he usually wore, took the moment, and the acclaim, in stride. Proud but controlled. Overtly happy and almost smiling.
Jerry took the microphone from Thom. His ordinary manner of speaking was direct and quick and unhurried. It was the manner of a person accustomed to being listened to, and who accordingly told his story as he saw fit, starting wherever he chose. Jerry did not veer from his usual mode on this occasion.
"You can't imagine what's going on next door in the war room," he declared, "as we call it affectionately. But it's going to be a big, big day. I can tell you, for those who have the opportunity to be here the rest of the day and watch the draft unfold, don't leave early because at the end of the draft the trades will be announced , and there's going to be some interesting things that happen that will affect this franchise for a long time."
That got a grumble going in the rows, for there had been much discussion in the media in the preceding weeks about the many star ballplayers rumored to be on the trading block, owing either to their extravagant salaries, advancing ages, bad knees, or bad attitudes. Signing expansion-draft players was one thing, all-stars another. Jerry Colangelo and the Diamondbacks had already demonstrated a willingness to spend the proverbial whatever-it-took to garner the horses necessary to be major league competitive.
Thom picked up on that hint, and the two talked eagerly and yet vaguely about rumors and trades for a minute.
Vagueness only carried the conversation so far, and Thom moved on to the sure crowd-pleasing topic of...the crowd. "Here we are, an hour or two before the draft starts, and it's hard to even turn around in this place. I think you've known, obviously from the basketball side, these are the greatest basketball fans in America, and it looks like they're ready to do the same thing for baseball."
"Tommy," Jerry said, "I'm a little older than you -- "
"A lot older," interjected Brennaman, who had rapidly regained his customary easy-as-pie, glad-to-be-here TV élan.
The audience ooowwed in delight at Thom's audacity, but his boss played the good sport. "In fact, a lot older," he confirmed. "I can tell you when I first came here in 1968, I never would have dreamed that we would be sitting here today with all of the things that are about to unfold. We're blessed and fortunate to be living in a great place. It is the sports mecca of the country today. People recognize it as such. We are going to have the best venues in sports. I'm very proud to be associated and I want to thank our fans for making it all possible."
That was a cue if Thom ever heard one, and he ebulliently petitioned the assembly, "Give yourselves a round of applause! Absolutely!"
The men, women, and children burst into applause. It was obvious and corny, to be sure, but there was also a lot of truth in those words. Maybe -- definitely, actually -- Phoenix wasn't the "sports mecca" of the country. Not that one such place, one central sports shrine, definitively existed. A lot of cities had professional teams, with spanking new stadiums and television contracts and corporate sponsors. But Jerry Colangelo and Phoenix and the entire state of Arizona could not, would not, be denied. This was a great place to live. It was home to terrific sports venues. And it was a sports mecca, albeit one among many.
The boys of baseball had been gathering in Phoenix for almost a week in anticipation of the draft. Oh, a few women lurked in their ranks, and most of the men hadn't been boys in more than a few decades, but the atmosphere when any number of them gathered together was decidedly boyish, with a lot of handshaking and backslapping and laughing. Good old boys telling good old stories.
The Scottsdale Scorpions and the Grand Canyon Rafters of the Arizona Fall League had a game the night before the draft. The Fall League played a short season on the heels of the conclusion of the summer leagues, allowing each major league club to place a handful of their most promising Triple A prospects on one of six teams for some additional playing time and game experience.The Fall League was the reason Phoenix was selected to host the expansion draft. The general managers from the different major league clubs picked Phoenix so they could take in some games and watch the players while conducting the draft, killing two birds with one stone.
Though these minor league athletes were on the cusp of becoming major leaguers, and some would surely constitute the next generation of stars -- the Dodger MVP, catcher Mike Piazza, was just one recent graduate of the Fall League -- their games were played before practically empty houses. On occasion, the ever-present handful of scouts, with their radar guns to determine how fast a pitcher threw, were the only spectators.
But tonight was different. Scottsdale Stadium, just off downtown Scottsdale, held some three thousand bleachers and theater-type seats, all close to the field and the players. Behind the outfield walls were not rows of raised benches but a rounded lawn, where patrons could spread out blankets and have a picnic while watching the game. It was a terrific park, a sparkling patch of well-tended green and reddish brown dirt and white chalk lines. On a typical afternoon, maybe fifty, maybe one hundred people, would be scattered through the stands. Night games attracted larger crowds, perhaps twice as many or more -- still not a lot.
But on this day, people began passing through the turnstiles early, long before the 7 P.M. start, and these early arrivals weren't the usual grandparents and grandkids, groups of teenagers, and executives fresh from the office. These were mainly older men, anywhere between fifty and seventy years of age, their faces creased by the sun, broad-shouldered men, with large, powerful hands. They resembled farmers -- or former baseball players.
Without exception, every baseball man who entered the stadium wore at least one article of clothing emblazoned with a team logo. A bunch appeared garbed in green jackets and green hats. The logo was unfamiliar -- at a glance, a swirl of fluorescent green. Closer inspection revealed the swirls to be some species of bird, no, fish, in midstride. Ah! That was it! Devilfish, aka devil rays, more formally know as Manta birostris, commonly found in the Gulf of Mexico and along the southern coast of the United States. According to Webster's unabridged dictionary, a devil ray "may be fifteen to twenty feet wide and several feet thick with a weight considerably in excess of one ton [with] a pair of movable cephalic lobes used in guiding small fishes into the nearly toothless mouth." This was the image evidently judged just right for a professional baseball franchise by the other new expansion outfit, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. And here were Tampa Bay's officials proudly displaying the colors.
The other clubs were present as well, as revealed by the Seattle Mariners hats and Atlanta Braves shirts, on and on. They carried radar guns and stat sheets and lineup cards and baseball magazines and happily greeted their fellow fraternity members. They stood in the walkways and talked about golf scores and swings, and children and grandchildren, and, of course, jobs and job openings.
Soon forty baseball men were blocking the aisles, jabbering away. Buck was there, too. He and the other Diamondback muckety-mucks were always popping up at minor league games around town. On one hand, this wasn't too startling, given that baseball was their business, but on the other, considering they were working a minimum of ten hours a day, seven days a week, preparing for the draft, a trip straight home after office hours wouldn't have been out of the question.
But that wasn't the DB way. Buck set the tone for the organization, and he was already famous, from his tenure with the Yankees, for sleeping on a cot in his office so he could study more film, read more scouting reports, work harder and longer than any other manager in baseball.
In fact, Buck, who took pride in maintaining a stiff upper lip in the face of life's adversity, was so exhausted that one week before the draft, he took time out to visit a doctor for a checkup.
A few months later, Showalter made light of the incident: "I think it was the fifteen cups of coffee I had that morning."
Buck took a seat behind and overlooking home plate. This was the preferred seating for professional baseball types, and soon almost all the scouts and coaches and baseball-operations personnel were hunkered down behind the plate.
Roland Hemond also showed up at the game. Roland signed on with the Diamondbacks to act as a senior adviser, providing the benefit of his thirty-plus years in the front offices of various major league clubs. As such, he was always available to give a ready explanation for any baseball phenomenon, historical or current. And so his official reason why all these fellows wore all those logo clothes: not because they got them for free, but because they'd identify themselves to the young players, who would accordingly play harder to show their stuff and then come over and talk after the game.
Roland knew baseball backward and forward, and he was undoubtedly right, but free stuff still made an awful lot of sense.
The next morning, the morning of the draft, constituted sports-talk-radio heaven, as hosts and guests chewed over every possibility and angle. "Look what's baseball's come to," said one commentator, after the discussion had run through different players and how much they would cost the Diamondbacks. "We used to talk about a third baseman who hits thirty home runs, a shortstop who's a Gold Glover, a second baseman who can hit a solid .280, a first baseman who can hit for power and average....Instead, we're talking about a third baseman who gets seven and a half million dollars, a shortstop who signed for six and a half million, a second baseman who gets five million, a first baseman who got a ten-million-dollars signing bonus."
The Diamondbacks had already made a splash with some highprofile, high-dollar signings of young prospects -- thus the radio reference to the first baseman with the 10-million-buck bonus. Deals like those had prompted one unidentified general manager to grumble to ESPN about the "NBA-type mentality" already evident in Phoenix. This comment was an allusion to the obscene sums professional basketball teams were throwing at high schoolers with an aptitude for leaping. Fifty million dollars was regarded as small change, eighty was more like it, and one hundred and more was not out of the question -- reading and writing skills optional. None of the other professional leagues were paying their players basketball wages, but all were edging, and sometimes leaping, higher up the ladder of financial excess. Times were changing fast in the sporting world. In 1966, the first year of the Chicago Bulls, the total payroll for all twelve players was $180,000. Thirty years later, Michael Jordan collected over $30 million from the very same Bulls, and that sum was nothing more than a secondary part of his annual earnings from his many business ventures.
Many in major league baseball were increasingly nervous about money.
Jay Bell only made them more nervous.
The DBs had signed Mr. Bell the day before the draft. The deal was for five years and $34 million. At the shortstop's insistence, it included a no-trade clause.
"I don't want to leave," Jay explained, only days away from his thirty-second birthday. "More than likely, it will take a while to be competitive. I want to be here when we're ready to win."
While everyone in the Diamondback organization was ready to win today -- make that yesterday -- Bell's point was well taken, given that no expansion team in any sport had ever finished at .500 its first season.
On the other hand, when you've spent $130 million just to get a chance to spend hundreds of millions more on a stadium, a staff, and a team, finishing at least even for the year didn't seem completely unreasonable, if still unlikely.
In ten seasons, Jay Bell had averaged .268, totaling 104 home runs and 553 RBIs. He had spent the 1997 season with the Kansas City Royals, hitting .291 while establishing career bests with 21 home runs and 92 runs batted in. He was the Kansas City Player of the Year, quite an accomplishment in his first year as a Royal. He had been a Pittsburgh Pirate the previous six seasons and had won the Rawlings Gold Glove in 1993, denoting him as that year's premier player at his position. He was also named for the first and only time to the National League All-Star team that same year.
Jay Bell was a fine player, an excellent fielder and a solid hitter. However, despite his excellent 1997 season, it would have been something of a stretch to claim that he was a top player. His statistics simply didn't support any such assertion, as anonymous people on other baseball clubs, stunned by the generosity of the contract, were quick to note to the media. The implication was that Jerry Colangelo and the DBs didn't exactly know what they were doing, and so, without the constraints of a player roster to support (not to mention scores of other employees and expenses), they were giddy with cash, giddy to spend, spend, spend. Jerry and his pals were upsetting the baseball applecart, and, according to other, often less prosperous baseball people, threatening the stability of the sport, which hadn't actually been very stable at all in the past few years.
In truth, it was all a matter of degree. The average baseball player's salary was already over a million dollars per year, so the debate was simply when did rich athletes become embarrassingly or ruinously rich athletes. Were millionaire pitchers somehow more athletically productive and publicly palatable than multimillionaire pitchers? Did forking over three million dollars to a left fielder achieve the proper balance between providing him with a respectable lifestyle and keeping his competitive fires burning, whereas might another million or two suck out his unrelenting interest in the game? It was one thing to do well, to have sufficient funds in the bank to buy a nice house and a fast car -- it's quite another to have more money than you could waste in three lifetimes by the age of twenty-three.
And that didn't even take into account the shoe contracts.
At the same time, much of the irritation expressed by some of the boys at the other clubs -- or, more precisely, some of the other boys in the club -- had nothing to do with philosophical visions of the future of baseball, but rather extremely practical concerns that they would be left behind in the scramble to sign up the best players and would be permanently stuck in the second rank of teams.
In the old days, expansion teams were supposed to be bad. When the Mets joined the game in 1962, they were lovable because they were laughable. They lost 120 games their first year, 120 out of 162. Now that was properly, respectfully bad.
But now the stakes were higher, as proved by the $130-million entry fee, and the new teams weren't about to be satisfied with bottom-of-the-barrel castoffs from the other clubs. For their money, they wanted some decent players. They weren't content to wander in the wilderness for lo so many years. They wanted to play ball, and with the best of them -- or at least with the better of them.
Some of the other clubs didn't appreciate this attitude and the draft deal that would give Arizona and Tampa Bay each thirty-five picks. "Their payrolls the first year will be among the top six or eight in baseball," Houston Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker told Sports Illustrated. "We don't have near the money that they have, and yet we're giving them players. It's Robin Hood in reverse."
The legendary Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Hence, GM Hunsicker's literary allusion, employed on behalf of the baseball owners, was false on its face, because it lacked one essential ingredient -- the poor.
Additionally, Hunsicker's facts were also wrong, as the Diamondbacks' payroll would end up ranking twenty-third out of the thirty major league teams.
In any event, one would think that the Astros and the other established teams had to have at least "near" the two new teams' combined resources, because they had already extracted $260 million of it as the admission fee to MLB.
For his part, Jerry Colangelo made no excuses for his plans to ensure that his team would be competitive in a hurry. By draft day, he had already been quoted far and wide on the subject. "As in most professional sports," he told Sports Illustrated, "there is a disparity between the haves and havenots. We hope to be one of the former. We have more debt than any expansion team in history, but we will spend if the opportunity is right, because we also expect to be a large revenue producer."
Colangelo was being modest; DB merchandise -- hats, shirts, balls, etc. -- was already the fourteenth-highest grossing amongst all thirty teams. And that was without winning a World Series, a division, or even a single game.
"We're going to try to do this the appropriate way," Jerry told the Arizona Republic. "I find it interesting when I see the payrolls out there, and people are worrying about what we're going to do. We'll decide how we spend and how much we spend. We'll go about our business and we won't question what they do."
In short, mind your own business, my fellow owners, because I'm certainly going to mind mine.
Jerry's toughest comment appeared in the New York Times: "Everyone ought to look in the mirror before anyone casts stones. We have a game plan and we plan to stick to it. And whatever we do is not going to be something that has to be torn down and sold."
That was a straight shot at Wayne Huizenga, the billionaire owner of the Florida Marlins, who, after only five years in the business, decided to cut to the chase and bought the players necessary to win a world championship. Upon winning the Series, Huizenga decided the prize wasn't worth the investment and immediately began dismantling the Marlins, cutting his overhead by trading away his most expensive players to other teams, and then casting about for somebody to offer him a nice profit and take the club off his hands. Huizenga's actions had embarrassed baseball, left his team in ruins, and made the Marlins' World Series victory a hollow triumph.
Jerry Colangelo had begun his sports career by helping start the Chicago Bulls in 1966. He moved to Phoenix two years later and started the Phoenix Suns. Now he was only months away from the start of the Arizona Diamondbacks' first season in their very own new baseball stadium.
Jerry Colangelo had spent his sports career as a builder of permanent identities and teams. He wasn't in this for the quick hit or the fast buck.
And that attitude led to another important component in the Diamondback calculation in how and on whom they intended to spend their money. For while the other clubs looked at Jay Bell and were not exactly overwhelmed with his career statistics, the DBs added in one more factor -- the man himself.
By all reckoning, Bell was a good family man, a fine citizen, an outstanding American. The press release that accompanied Jay's signing noted, "Not only has Bell shined on the field during his career, he has been involved in a variety of charitable endeavors. He was the 1993 recipient of the Pittsburgh Points of Light Foundation Award, given annually for community service. He was also named the '93 Dapper Dan Man-of-the-Year, an award given annually to a Pittsburgh sports figure in recognition of outstanding achievement on a national level."
Thin and somewhat pale, with round, wire-rim glasses and short, neatly combed brown hair, Jay Bell could have passed for an accountant -- and a forthright, polite accountant at that.
He was perfect, particularly for the Diamondbacks, because the Diamondbacks only wanted good men (with family or not), fine citizens, and outstanding Americans, as well as outstanding Mexicans, Dominicans, or Australians.
Jay Bell made no bones about how he viewed himself and his civic responsibility as a professional athlete. "I live to be an example," he said at the press conference announcing his signing, standing at the podium, wearing his brand-new Arizona Diamondback jersey over his shirt and tie. "I heard Charles Barkley say a few years ago he was not a role model. I disagree with that. We all impact someone. You may only impact one person, or some might impact the masses. I happen to be in a position where I can impact many."
There was a bit of an irony in the Barkley reference, as the DB podium was located in the media room in the America West Arena, just off the basketball court where Sir Charles had played and fought and talked, and talked and talked and talked, and became a controversial superstar while making himself and the Phoenix Suns and Jerry Colangelo an awful lot of money.
Barkley was many things, but the traditional portrayal of the good citizen -- which had to include courteous, modest, conciliatory -- he definitely was not.
And Bell wasn't quite finished: "As a Christian ballplayer, my objective is to make a spiritual impact. But that's as far as I'll go with that. I don't want to shove that down anyone's throat."
Direct but courteous and conciliatory -- that was a role model.
Colangelo was still up on the stage when Brennaman introduced Jay Bell at the Miller Lite Expansion Draft Party. It wasn't even twenty-four hours after that press conference, but by now Bell was an integral part of the organization, nodding his head to the cheering crowd, advising Buck and the others on what he knew about the players available in the draft.
"Say hello, Arizona, to Jay Bell!" Thom urged, and the Arizona audience, which by now included hordes of ordinary fans as the gates had been flung open to one and all, roared their approval again. "Jay, I think there are more people here today than maybe saw you play any single game the last couple of years in Pittsburgh or Kansas City."
"It's probably true, Thom," Bell replied over the Arizona-first chuckles. "I tell you what, it's great to be here. The response has been wonderful. To see the enthusiasm, and what the city has turned out to be, it's truly amazing. Like Thom said just a second ago, you have to give yourselves a hand 'cause this is truly a great place."
And so the crowd did applaud itself, for if the inhabitants of New York City and Phoenix had one thing in common, aside from the Gap and Loehmann's, it was a frequently expressed pride in place, a feeling of we-happy-natives-of-our-exemplary-homeland. Naturally, the populace of each community took satisfaction in different virtues: the chance to sweat in hot weather almost twelve months a year versus the opportunity to order hot pizza almost twenty-four hours a day.
Thom wanted to know what made Jay choose to join the DBs. Aside from the money, of course.
When it came down to it, explained Jay, his relationship with Buck, and his trust in the manager's judgment, was paramount. And when Buck told him all about Jerry Colangelo...well, he was sold. (Or bought, as the case might be.)
"When we had a conversation on the phone," Jay said, "Buck told me about Mr. Colangelo, told me the type of person he was, told me the type of character that he had. And when you're involved with people like that, you have a real good situation. So the city of Phoenix should be real proud, the state of Arizona should be real proud, of not only manager Buck Showalter, but the owner that we have here in Phoenix."
Jerry Colangelo, still on the podium, accepted his share of the acclaim with more than a modicum of cool. "Thank you, Jay," he said, and then was off with an anecdote about how Danny Ainge, former All-Star guard, current coach of the Suns, and onetime major league baseball prospect, could never hit a curve ball.
Colangelo wrapped that up upon spotting a familiar face in the back of the place and quickly made a nod to protocol. "There is a person I just recognized who's back standing in the corner here, one of our great supporters in terms of major league baseball and the efforts to make it possible. Sen. John McCain. John, would you wave?"
John waved. Though immensely popular in Arizona, this wasn't the senator's venue, not his day, and the people responded with polite but controlled applause. Neither Colangelo nor McCain pushed it -- the former not inviting the senator onstage and the latter remaining in the background and not for too long, shaking hands and departing.
Back in the late eighties, McCain joined the Senate Task Force on the Expansion of Major League Baseball, a group with a long name and no formal congressional authority. Set up by Sen. Tim Wirth, its goal was to push Major League Baseball to expand. When Major League Baseball displayed an insulting lack of interest in the senatorial appeal, pushing led to prodding, which led to a threat of revoking baseball's antitrust status. Though it might have proved a hollow threat for a couple of reasons -- first and foremost, ending antitrust severed any link to Congress and thus any influence the representatives might have had over MLB and where baseball would locate its new teams -- it nonetheless helped concentrate the baseball owners' attention. The task force, composed of senators from different states, many eager for their own teams, including future vice presidents Dan Quayle from Indiana and Al Gore from Tennessee respectively promoting long shots Indianapolis and Memphis, as well as both John McCain and Dennis DeConcini from Arizona, had hoped for six new franchises. Six teams wouldn't satisfy all the longings of all their constituents for a franchise -- the original group was made up of fourteen senators and the representative from the District of Columbia, and would soon grow -- but it would go a long way, that was for sure.
Eventually, Major League Baseball settled on expanding to Miami and Denver -- the latter the capital of Senator Wirth's Colorado, not incidentally -- and the task force accepted the victory and went away.
At the time, it was generally believed that the Florida Marlins and the Colorado Rockies would be the last teams to join Major League Baseball in the twentieth century. That contention would prove incorrect, though not because of any further congressional pressure.
In truth, McCain hadn't done much of anything for the Diamondbacks, but that was all right because there had never been anything the distinguished senator from Arizona could do for the DBs that the DBs hadn't taken care of themselves quite adequately.
Regardless, baseball meant business and business meant politics, and one hand washed another in the power structure, so McCain was accorded his moment in the expansion-draft sun.
Before Bell and Colangelo left the party and returned to the war room back at the Civic Plaza, Thom had a final good bit of cheer to share with the crowd, and he began by addressing Jerry:
"Before you guys get out of here, I know you are very busy -- you heard Jay refer to you a moment ago as 'Mr. Colangelo.' Obviously, this guy's upbringing was something special. His parents made sure that he said 'Yes, sir' and 'No, ma'am' all that nice stuff....We discussed yesterday [at the press conference] what an upstanding citizen Jay Bell is, and I know that is something that is of great concern to you not only in the Suns but in building the Diamondbacks. We don't want a lot of bad apples around this place."
"No, we don't," Jerry replied, seizing the baton and running with it. "And in fact in my first conversation with Jay, he said I feel as a professional -- I am paraphrasing -- that I have a responsibility to be a role model. Now how's that? Is that refreshing?"
The men and women of Phoenix, and the children, too, applauded their agreement.
This idea, aggressively promoted whenever the occasion arose, that the Diamondbacks were going to be a collection of not simply decent, law-abiding individuals, but assertively positive examples for the rest of America, was nothing short of revolutionary. For decades, apart from a few superstars, the Babe Ruths and Joe DiMaggios (as though there could ever be more than one Babe Ruth or one Joe DiMaggio), most professional athletes were poorly paid and relatively anonymous, enjoying short careers that frequently left them injured, broke, and adrift.
Times had changed. Athletes have joined actors, rock stars, models, television interviewers, and the other denizens of the celebrity world in that overprivileged and overpublicized tiny slice of America. Athletes have also adopted celebrity values, and that means they operate outside the morals and ethics and rules by which the rest of the populace lives.
There was a time when celebrities, meaning the wealthiest, most famous, most privileged individuals in the land, were not athletes or actors or any of the others. They were people like the Founding Fathers, who were the wealthiest, most famous, and most privileged men of their day, who used their wealth and fame and privilege to stand up for what they believed, who pledged their lives and their sacred honor to create a new nation.
Such men embodied the best of their people's convictions and hopes. They consciously aspired to live in such a manner so as to serve as examples for the rest of society.
Celebrities are no longer statesmen, nor scientists, soldiers, or explorers. We have forsaken our traditional heroes and replaced them with actors and athletes. This shift from, say, the winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor to the winner of the Academy Award for Best Acting means that where we once admired people who do great things, now we admire people who play people who do great things.
Nor are these modern celebrities role models. They don't have to follow the rules, and with surprising frequency they do not, in both small ways and large, from Dennis Rodman strutting about in a wedding dress through Manhattan streets to his book signing to Latrell Sprewell attacking his coach and gathering his fellow basketball players together to protest his firing.
And that's only the beginning of the bad news. From the National Football League alone, thirty-seven current or recently retired players have been arrested for or accused of crimes of family violence, from assault to kidnapping, in the past five years.
It often seems that the whole point of being a celebrity is so you don't have to wait on line at airports or pay for meals or get married to have children or be courteous or educated or honest or honorable.
The Diamondbacks were going to act differently. The Diamondbacks were going to be different. The manager, Buck Showalter, was different. The owner, Jerry Colangelo, was different. The team would be built in their images.
But were they serious, really serious? Would they pass up signing great players in the name of what...decency? Integrity? Good behavior? Al Davis, the man in charge of one of the most successful franchises in professional sports, had led his Oakland Raiders to glory under his slogan "Just win, baby." And wasn't that what sports was all about -- winning? Did anything else matter? What would the DBs really do, when push came to shove, when they were one pitcher or outfielder away from a division title?
Perhaps a clue was offered a couple of summers ago, when the DBs were not much more than a name. It happened during the 1995 All-Star game and concerned an encounter that Jerry Colangelo did not hesitate to relate.
Jerry's flight from Phoenix happened to land in Dallas about the same time as the flight from San Francisco carrying Barry Bonds and his entourage. Depending on which expert was speaking, Bonds ranked anywhere between one and five among all baseball players. Along with his talent, he also had a reputation as difficult, imperious, self-consumed.
Baseball had dispatched a bus to the airport to pick up arriving players. This did not please Barry Bonds, who expected a limousine, and made his displeasure clear to those around him by refusing to get on the bus.
Colangelo was right there to witness Bonds's behavior.
Not too much later, the Diamondback owner was at the hotel, waiting for the elevator, when who but Barry Bonds approached.
Bonds recognized Colangelo and told him with a broad smile that he was interested in playing baseball in the desert.
"When you get your team together," Bonds said, "I'll be ready for you."
Jerry Colangelo looked over at the perennial All-Star and, to quote the man himself, replied, "I won't be ready for you."
And then Colangelo got on the elevator as Bonds, speechless, watched him depart.
So the Diamondbacks shunned Barry Bonds and signed Jay Bell.
And now the draft was about to get under way, so the DBs could find some more men who were capable and unsullied and deserving of wearing the purple and turquoise.
Copyright © 1998 by Len Sherman