Baseball's boy in a million

John Carlin in Washington says a minor is about to make a Major killing
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The Independent Online
Here's some baseball arithmetic. Add up 18 years old, six foot five, 230lb, 96mph and what do you get?

The answer is $10.2m, the record-breaking sum paid by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to secure the services of Matt White, an overgrown amateur pitcher with a telling fastball.

White, who was identified by USA Today and Baseball magazine as the high- school player of the year, will receive the millions as a signing-on fee, an amount which it would take the average Major League Baseball player some 10 years to earn. White's money exceeds by a factor of five the amount paid for the pick of last year's amateur baseball litter, Kris Benson, by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

As if all that were not stupefying enough, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays do not even exist yet as a fully functional professional team. They will be joining the major leagues only in 1998.

No one could accuse the Rays' owner, Vincent Naimoli, of lacking ambition. "It's like hitting a gold mine you never expected to hit," Naimoli said, savouring the triumph of having outbid the New York Yankees, the winners of this year's World Series, for the precocious young colossus. "This was literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This is never going to happen again."

It could if Naimoli's purchase pays off. But the baseball world is sceptical. Kevin Malone, the assistant general manager of the Baltimore Orioles, is among those who believe the Rays will come to regret their recklessness. "I think it's insanity to pay that to an unproven college player," he said.

But Naimoli and his general manager, Chuck LaMar, are convinced they know better. After White spent a week on trial with the team last month, the two were effusive. Lamar said that Rays' scouts, who had spent time observing the young man at his home town of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, had been beside themselves with excitement. "To name a few of their reactions: `a man amongst boys' and `most talented ever scouted'. When you're looking at talent, you look at their make-up, upbringing and God-given talent. It's rare to see anybody with all three. Matt White represents all of those."

When Naimoli first met White he knew the verdict of his scouts had not been exaggerated. "I've never been to a try-out before," Naimoli said. "But in talking to him, I discovered he's a person of great character. People who have success in life, as in baseball, have that inner character. I see in Matt every good characteristic you want in the business world or in life."

Naimoli, himself a wealthy businessman, sounds as if he is in love, or perhaps rather as if in White he saw a youthful reflection of himself. Is there any logic in a venture which on the face of it is so extravagantly risky?

In so far as there might be, this is it. The Rays want to start their professional life with a bang, but the established teams in Major League Baseball have tied all their top players to virtually unbreakable contracts, thus making it all but impossible for the Tampa Bay newcomers to make successful transfer bids for the cream of the professional crop.

Naimoli has had to bet - and bet big - on youth. "I'm sure we'll hear complaints from other teams," he said. "But the system caused us to do this. Look how things are stacked against us."

It may be a long while before Naimoli sees a return on his investment. It could be some years into the 21st century, if ever, before White acquires the professional seasoning necessary to help the Rays become World Series contenders. But the lad himself is unfazed.

"I'm just going to play baseball and try not to think about the money," he said. "It's a great feeling to know you're in an organisation so committed to winning."