Baseball America Has Become a Bible for Player Development, Evaluation & Draft
Allan Simpson had a baseball craving. He had spent his summers in the early to mid 1970s working for teams, initially for the Alaska Goldpanners—then the perennial National Baseball Congress World Series champions—before becoming general manager for the Rookie-level Lethbridge Expos in Alberta, in his native Canada.
Restrictive immigration rules basically short-circuited Simpson’s ambition of a career in baseball at the time, but after a five-year absence, Simpson wanted to be involved in the game again. He wanted to start up a baseball magazine.
Simpson put in a call to me. At the time I was covering the Mariners for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and we agreed to meet at the 1980 Winter Meetings in Dallas to discuss his plan.
Who was I to say no? I welcomed the opportunity to chat, but I had no idea of what I was about to fall for, hook, line and sinker.
At the time, there were a handful of magazines covering baseball. We discussed the overcrowded market, and the need to establish a niche that would make his publication stand out from the rest.
That’s how Baseball America was born. The first edition came out in February 1981 with Arkansas outfielder Kevin McReynolds on the cover.
The focus of Baseball America was—and remains today—on scouting and player development, with the annual June draft an area of emphasis. The Sporting News was the baseball publication of record then, but it had virtually eliminated its non-big league coverage over the course of the previous decade, creating the niche Simpson needed.
It became a labor of love for Simpson, who was so committed to the cause of creating a relevant baseball publication that he set up an office in the garage of his home in White Rock, British Columbia, just across the border from Washington state. He had an old Linotype in his garage and would not only set the type but mock up all the pages of his new publication before driving to Bellingham, Wash., to have the magazine printed. The issues were then mailed from Seattle.
Why? To avoid any suspicion among an almost exclusive American market for the magazine that Baseball America was actually a Canadian creation. In Simpson’s mind, that would have doomed the magazine, and it eventually led to the publication to its current home in Durham, N.C.
Each year, when the draft comes around, my thoughts of that 1980 chat with Simpson are revived.
And the respect I have for his commitment to making his publication the game’s bible for scouting and player development never wavers. This year’s draft marks the 40th such occurrence that Baseball America has been involved.
Understand, Simpson reached out me to ask for advice and guidance, nothing more. And he listened.
The commitment on my part was simple. I told him I would help him put together a representative network of baseball writers. I then assured each of those correspondents that if for some reason they weren’t paid—which wasn’t uncommon in those days, given the overcrowded market for baseball magazines at the time—that I would cover that $25 an issue they were going to earn.
Yep, I was the big spender.
But Simpson was the one who had to devote his life to the success of the publication.
The fun was the preparation. Eventually, I worked hand-in-hand with Simpson and my longtime friend Ken Leiker in putting together the publication’s huge volume of draft coverage. That was long before the Internet and cell phones.
It traditionally involved hours of phone calls from the hotel in spring training and during the season on the road, while I was covering the Mariners and then the Royals and Rangers and, finally, the Rockies since 1992, the year before their first actual big league game.
The fun was developing the relationships with scouts, many of whom offered tips on top prospects and others who were just appreciative of the attention Baseball America was putting on the draft.
The satisfaction came from the draft projections coming out in advance of the event. Even though BA’s Draft Preview issue often went to press three or four weeks before the actual draft, Baseball America’s projections were so accurate that a close friend, Rick Gosselin, who was the best in the business at projecting the NFL draft, would call and marvel at the accuracy of Simpson’s work.With bonuses for undrafted free agents limited to $20,000, MLB teams have used creative college compensation packages to lure talent into their system.
How big a deal was it? Well, I had worked previously for the Long Beach Press-Telegram, covering the Angels. Attending the Caribbean Series in March 1982, scout Roger Jongewaard, who lived in Long Beach and was working for the Tigers, introduced me to his wife.
“Oh, you are the writer for Baseball America,” she said. “We have the annual book on the headboard of our bed.”
“He also worked for the Long Beach paper covering the Angels,” he explained.
“That’s nice,” she said. “Aren’t you glad you went to Baseball America? Roger loves that publication.”
I called Simpson when I got back to the U.S.
“I think the publication is breaking ground,” I said.
I could tell Simpson was smiling.
Some of the most satisfying moments came in the 1990s, when Major League Baseball decided to withhold the results of the draft—often for as long as four months. That measure wasn’t so much aimed at Baseball America, but agents and college coaches who would use the draft lists as recruiting lists. Undeterred, we were able to tap into our sources and piece together much of the proceedings virtually each night of the process.
I admit I had an edge on Simpson. While we would work together on projected draft lists for Baseball America, I would often spend the next couple of weeks refining the projections so that I could have an updated draft projection in my paper the morning of the draft—something few other daily papers were doing at the time.
And with the help of Simpson and Leiker, there were never more than two or three predictions that were off base.
It is still rewarding to feel like I was able to play a small part in Simpson’s grand ambition.
And it is still exciting to hear baseball people talking about how Baseball America, just months away from the celebration of its 40th anniversary of existence.