Friday, October 15, 1999

Jeter a Red? It could have been


Chief scout's advice ignored

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

jeter         NEW YORK — Gene Bennett can see clearly now. He could see clearly then.

        The Cincinnati Reds' most accomplished scout was a clairvoyant minority of one June 1, 1992, and he has been looking back in anguish ever since.

        On the day the Reds drafted Chad Mottola, Bennett struck out swinging on a high school shortstop named Derek Jeter.

        “I told Jim (Bowden) that day, "I think the Reds made the worst mistake they ever made in the history of the baseball draft,'” Bennett said Thursday.

        Seven years later, it certainly looks that way.

        Jeter is the All-Star shortstop of the New York Yan kees, the Prince of the City, a 25-year-old icon with two World Series rings and his own breakfast cereal. Mottola is a career minor-leaguer who toils in obscurity for the Triple-A Charlotte Knights.

        The difference between dynasties and lesser teams is not always dollars. Some times, it is about decision-making. Of the four men who debated the merits of Mottola vs. Jeter in the Reds' offices at Cinergy Field — scouting director Julian Mock, scouting supervisors Clay Daniel and Thomas Wilson, and Bennett — only Bennett remains in the Reds' employ.

        There are reasons for this, and Derek Jeter is high on the list.

        “Here was our No.1 scout, Gene Bennett, who had it right, and we didn't listen to him,” Bowden said. “We had more inexperienced scouts who didn't listen to him. ... If we had picked Jeter, instead of winning 96 games (in 1999), we would have won 102.”

        Hindsight is always helpful, but in looking back on old oversights, the Reds have discovered a new direction. They have abandoned prevailing baseball orthodoxy and adapted a new set of scouting priorities. They have forsaken the Branch Rickey School of Run and Throw in favor of bona fide bats.

        “The Branch Rickey theory was if they don't run and throw, don't even watch them hit,” Bowden said. “His theory worked because they had up to 20 minor-league clubs back then. Today, it's not pertinent. If you throw enough (players) against the wall, then you're going to have enough to have some stars. But now, you have six minor-league clubs, and Rickey wouldn't have David Justice, (Jeff) Bagwell or (Mike) Piazza.”

        Mock made the final call on Mottola, but he didn't make it in a vacuum. He was pressured, he said, to find a power hitter, one who could help the big club in a hurry. Mottola, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Central Florida, figured to come faster than the 17-year-old Je ter.

        Picking fifth, Mock announced the Reds' choice with a disclaimer. “I hated to pass on Derek Jeter,” he told reporters. The Yankees, choosing sixth, promptly grabbed the kid from Kalamazoo, Mich.

        “If we couldn't reach an agreement with Mottola before the draft, we were going to take Jeter,” Mock said Thursday. “Fifteen minutes before the draft started, we reached an agreement. Here's another one: In '94, there was a guy named Nomar (Garciaparra), but they (Reds management) said, "If you could come up with a left-handed pitcher, we could beat the Braves.'”

        So Mock selected C.J. Nitkowski, a lefty later traded to Detroit in the David Wells deal. Boston took Garciaparra.

        “Those are the two times that I went away from my basic philosophy,” Mock said of Jeter and Garciaparra, “which is to take the best player.”

        Every baseball scout has a similar story about the great one who got away. It doesn't always take a genius to recognize talent, but circumstances — financing, need, etc. — sometimes lead teams astray. Sometimes, astray is a pretty good place to be.

        In 1990, the Atlanta Braves coveted pitcher Todd Van Poppel but couldn't persuade the player to sign. They settled, instead, for Chipper Jones.

        Scouting is an inexact science. Outfielder John Oliver, the Reds' No.1 choice in 1996, was traded to Boston in May, having never climbed higher than Single-A with the Reds. His career average in the Cincinnati system was .208.

        “I went down to Instructional League in '96 and I saw John Oliver take two at-bats and I decided he wasn't going to hit in the big leagues,” Bowden said.

        “I was (angry). Understand the frustration of the results of Mottola and Oliver. That sent me to the point where, "We're changing this now.' I said, "We keep making the same mistakes. We're going to have to make sure everyone is on the same page. You can't keep missing with the No.1 pick.”

        “We were told in '96 that we had no players and no scouts at the organizational meetings,” Mock said. “But in '97, I think we had more players on major-league rosters than any other organization. I thought we did pretty good.”

        Mock, whose selections included such players as Pokey Reese and Seattle catcher Dan Wilson, was stripped of the final say on the draft, and Bowden began adding more experienced eyes to the evaluation of prospects. Only two Reds executives had seen Jeter play in 1992 — Bennett extensively and Mock for less than one game. More than a dozen men were involved in the selection of Austin Kearns in 1998.

        The change was partly philosophical, partly financial. Reds owner Marge Schott placed such a low priority on scouting that many of her veteran scouts sought employment elsewhere, forcing Mock into a perpetual training mode. When John Allen took charge of the Reds' expenditures in 1996, he gave Bowden the funds to stabilize the scouting department.

        Mock still wonders about the wisdom of saturation scouting, but he concedes that excessive turnover and entry-level training undercut his effectiveness. He also questions whether Mottola and Oliver received sufficient attention or instruction to reach their projected potential.

        “John Oliver played the whole first season with contact lenses that were the wrong prescription,” Mock said.

        Mottola suffered from broken promises. Reds manager Ray Knight anointed Mottola an everyday player when he was called up in 1996, only to send him back to the minors a few days later. When Mottola complained about not getting a fair chance the following spring, he promptly was demoted to Double-A.

        “The whole thing was his bat,” Bowden said. “If the kid hit, you had a special player. If he had hit, he would have been Dale Murphy.”

        Jeter reminded Bennett of Reds shortstop Barry Larkin: a little better to his right, a little worse to his left, almost as much speed, slightly more power.

        “I had Jeter in about three or four camps,” Bennett said. “I had him down at the stadium and worked him out. With the idea of us having Larkin, we worked him out as a center fielder. He could have been a Gold Glove center fielder. He told us, "I just want to get to the big leagues as quick as I can.'”

        In 1996, Jeter was the American League's rookie of the year. He hit .349 this season, second in the league to Garciaparra.

        Bowden suspects Mock chose Mottola at least in part because of his rivalry with Bennett, who is credited with cultivating such players as Larkin, Paul O'Neill and Chris Sabo. Bennett merely laments what might have been.

        When Jeter was leading the American League in hitting this summer, a reporter asked Bennett how often he thought about his unheeded advice.

        “Every day,” he said.

        E-mail: tsullivan@enquirer.com.

       



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