When Garrison Lassiter dropped all the way to the 27th round in last weekend's Major League Baseball Draft before being selected by the New York Yankees, many were shocked.
Lassiter had emerged as one of the top young shortstop prospects in the draft after playing on the USA Junior National team last summer and impressing scouts throughout this spring at West Forsyth.
Twenty-seventh round? Some figured Lassiter to be taken by no later than the fourth or fifth round.
But baseball's draft is far more complex than its NFL and NBA counterparts. It's a cat-and-mouse game, especially concerning players drafted straight out of high school.
Teams must weigh the risks of drafting a player straight out of high school only to see him enroll in college instead, in what would result in a wasted pick. Players must decide whether they are ready to bypass college, sign immediately and head straight to the minor leagues, or go to college and not be eligible for the draft again for three more years.
That's apparently what has happened in this case. So shortly -- after he returns from playing in the North-South All-Star Game in Myrtle Beach on Friday -- Lassiter will have to make the decision of a lifetime. Should he sign a lucrative contract with the Yankees, or turn down the money and play college ball at North Carolina, where he has already signed a letter of intent?
Lassiter's father, Cliff, talked about the situation yesterday while Garrison was enjoying a week of beach time, away from the fishbowl that he has been in much of the spring under the watchful eyes of scouts.
Other teams balked at the dollar figure that Lassiter established that would prompt him to skip college. The Yankees didn't, but played the hunch that everyone else would consider Lassiter a "signability issue," and waited until the late rounds to take him so that they could draft others.
"We put a number out there that we stuck by as a family," Cliff Lassiter said. "It was something we debated back and forth for a couple of weeks before the draft, and we decided as a family -- and Garrison decided for himself as well. He did some research with the children who had made the U.S. Junior Olympic team over the last five years, and he did research based on the kids who had made Aflac All-America as well, and how he performed. And he compared that to the other kids who had been drafted in the past with similar credentials. Then he went back and researched the signing bonuses they received, and that's how he came up with his conclusion.
"So we put a dollar figure out there. And we had phone calls early second round -- second, third, fourth -- trying to get our family to agree to a lower figure to allow him to get drafted in the earlier rounds. But we stuck by that number. And then the Yankees came back and said that they felt comfortable with that number and they were going to draft him in the later rounds."
Cliff Lassiter declined to specify the number. Generally, late first-round picks can command signing bonuses around $1 million, second-round picks in high six figures, and third-round picks in mid-six figures.
Lassiter holds bargaining chips because he has a college education guaranteed at North Carolina and the promise to develop his game in one of the nation's top programs under Coach Mike Fox. The Tar Heels will be making their third straight trip to the College World Series later this week.
Cliff Lassiter doesn't downplay that.
"Coach Fox has talked to us about that, what type of money you should take to pass up an opportunity at Chapel Hill, because that is a super opportunity to go be with one of top programs in the country and an excellent school as well. As a parent who cares about children's education, I kind of wish there was a rule that required kids two years of education in college. And I wonder, if he signs for the kind of money that's being thrown around, is he mature enough to live on his own? Is he mature enough to handle the pressure? Can he handle the adversity of failing, because baseball's a failing game? Will he keep working hard and achieve the numbers you need to advance? As a parent, you've got to look at all of that."
The risk is that some players get injured or don't succeed in college, and don't get the same opportunity to get drafted or get signing bonuses later.
There is no mystery about one thing. The Yankees have been high on Garrison for a long time. They were so high on him that they invited him to spring training for four days in March, albeit at the Garrisons' expense.
"The Yankees communicated with us more than anyone else throughout the whole process," Cliff Lassiter said. "They invited him down to work out for four days in Tampa, and that was a really exciting time as a family to be watching your son. He was out there working out with the shortstops, right there with the rookie from last year and the Triple-A shortstop and Derek Jeter. Jeter walked up to him in the locker room and introduced himself and shook his hand and welcomed him, so it was a fun time.
"Just watching him out there working with those guys, I thought then that he had the ability to play with a minor-league team right now."
The negotiations will start in earnest after Garrison returns from the beach.
Freshman orientation at North Carolina is later this month if he doesn't sign with the Yankees.
"All these kids, they have tough decisions to make," Cliff Lassiter said. "All you can do is just go with your heart, wish for the best, and hopefully no matter which decision you make it's a good opportunity. Just go hope for the best. We're tickled to death for Garrison, for the Carolina opportunity and this professional opportunity. But the key is being happy, healthy and working hard, and hopefully everything works out.
■ John Delong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.