SAN DIEGO — It doesn't take long to realize these are no ordinary baseball games. To determine just how long, find someone with a stopwatch. And at the Area Code Games, that's about as difficult as finding an empty seat at a San Diego Padre home game.
At the gate to San Diego State's Smith Field, a woman hands out rosters listing the names, heights, weights, phone numbers and 60-yard dash times of the 200-plus players involved.
Inside the park, just after the crack of the bat, you hear a hundred tiny \o7 beeps \f7 coming from all directions. When the batter's foot hits first base, there they are again.
The scouts clustered behind home plate look at their stopwatches. They look at one another.
"Four-one-eight?" one asks.
"Yep," says another.
They scrawl numbers on their rosters. Home-to-first in 4.18 seconds, from the right-handed batter's box. Another "prospect" discovered. That's precisely why about 200 professional scouts and 60 college recruiters have flocked to San Diego.
The 17 Valley-area players chosen to participate will not play in front of more scouts at one time the rest of their lives. Designed specifically to showcase the best high school talent in the class of 1994, the annual Area Code Games, which conclude today, are a four-day meat market of talent.
"It's outstanding," says Jay Robertson, Cleveland Indians' scouting director. "It's a situation where you can get a read on a lot of kids coming up."
The Area Code Games were born eight years ago in the mind of Bob Williams, a real estate developer from Santa Rosa. The idea was to have major league teams sponsor the event and their scouts would then choose the players.
In 1987, six California teams, grouped by telephone area codes, met in Lodi. This week, 10 teams came to San Diego, five from California, one from the Pacific Northwest, one from the Rocky Mountains, one from Hawaii and one from the rest of the country. The Australian national team, which happened to be in Southern California preparing for an international tournament, rounded out the 10-team field.
The major league sponsors outfit the players in uniforms--typically old minor league uniforms or those about to be used in instructional league--and supply wooden bats. The Angels sponsor three teams, including the one representing the 818 and 805 areas.
The point is not really to win. Far from it. Standings aren't kept. No trophies are awarded and no champion is named. The outcomes are so irrelevant that if seven innings haven't been played in two hours, the games just end. Such restraints are necessary to squeeze in five games a day without cutting pregame infield practice, which scouts watch more intently than the games.
Once the games begin, the scouts are busy collecting raw data: running times, catchers' times getting the ball to second base and pitchers' velocity. When a pitcher starts an inning, he faces about 40 radar guns.
"It gets to you a little," said Bill Scheffels, a right-hander from Simi Valley High who started Wednesday. "They tell you to shake it off, but it gets kind of hard."
Left-hander Randy Wolf of El Camino Real said former teammate Dan Cey, who accepted a scholarship to California and was drafted by the San Diego Padres, has been preparing him for the games for months.
"He just kept telling me, 'You gotta do good, you gotta do good,' " Wolf said. "It doesn't make me nervous. You can't think about (all the scouts). If you do, you won't do well."
Pressure? Sure. But consider the payoff.
In June, 80 players were drafted from the eight teams at the games last year in San Jose, including 17 in the first four rounds. Williams said normally about half the players are drafted and nearly all others play in college.
All of the recent first-round draft picks from the Valley area--Roger Salkeld, Mike Lieberthal, Dmitri Young and Derek Wallace--are "graduates" of the Area Code Games.
Young, the fourth selection in the 1991 draft, holds a special place in Williams' heart, though, because the former Rio Mesa High player donated $1,500 to the program as a way of saying thanks for the boost it gave his career.
Of the 19 Valley-area players who played last year, 18 were either drafted or will be playing Division I college baseball in the spring.
Newbury Park shortstop David Lamb, who slipped into the games between rounds of the American Legion playoffs last summer, emerged as one of the top high school players in the nation. Lamb was drafted in the second round by the Baltimore Orioles in June. Last month, he signed for a bonus package worth about $300,000.
Lamb was a prospect last year before he arrived in San Jose, though. Scouts insist there are few surprises at the Area Code Games.
But look at Tom Buchman, a catcher from Lenexa, Kan., who initially was not chosen to play at the games last year. Buchman phoned Williams and told him Stanford had recommended him for the games. Feeling no need to confirm that with Stanford, Williams invited Buchman.