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The Dodgers' winning pitch to top pick Zach Lee

The pitcher, who'd committed to play football at Louisiana State, vows to make the most of his opportunity with the L.A. baseball organization.

August 19, 2010|By Kevin Baxter

Even now, just days after signing the player most major league teams considered unsignable, Dodgers Assistant General Manager Logan White won't say exactly how he pulled it off.

No good magician, it seems, gives up his secrets.

But White will talk about the props he used to lure first-round draft pick Zach Lee and his family away from football — a newspaper article and former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner.

The newspaper story, White said, discussed how the pressure to meet expectations immediately had some pro football stars referring to the NFL as the Not For Long league.

"I made sure they saw it," White said with a smile.

And then to allay Lee's fear that his decision to give up football was irrevocable, White brought up Warner, who didn't reach the NFL until he was 27 yet went on to win two most valuable player awards and a Super Bowl title.

"I said, 'You'll know long before then if you're going to play in the major leagues or not,' " the Dodgers executive told Lee. "Sign and let's go play. And you know what? You can always go back and play football later in life and still get to the NFL."

That apparently did the trick. Well, that and Dodgers owner Frank McCourt's willingness to give Lee $5.25 million, more than double the highest draft bonus in franchise history.

Because there was Lee on Wednesday, standing behind home plate at Dodger Stadium, wearing a No. 10 Dodgers jersey and watching a video of himself on the left field DodgerVision board.

"I'm very excited," the 18-year-old said. "Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I intend to make the most of it."

A hard-throwing 6-foot-4, 195-pound right-hander from McKinney, Texas, Lee was one of the top pitchers in the June draft. But he was also one of the nation's top 10 high school quarterbacks, one who had already committed to play football for Louisiana State.

That left many teams questioning the wisdom of using a first-round pick on a player who seemed more interested in another sport. However, White said Wednesday he never shared those doubts.

"It was my gut. My gut feeling telling me [he'd sign]," said White, standing in a stairwell outside the Dodgers' clubhouse. "I've always liked challenges. I've always liked when someone says something can't be done."

White negotiated exclusively with Lee's father, Steve, who didn't bring his son into the conversation until Monday afternoon, just hours before he and the Dodgers reached a deal.

"My dad, he handled all that," Lee said. "Then he communicated with me."

What sealed the deal, the family said, wasn't the money, which will be spread out over five years. Rather it was the Dodgers' long and impressive record developing young pitchers, from Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax to Chad Billingsley and fellow Texan Clayton Kershaw.

All were pitching in the majors by the time they'd turned 21.

"It's a pretty good track record," Lee said. "That really played more of a factor."

Lee, who hasn't thrown a baseball since May, is expected to report to the Dodgers' minor league facility in Arizona later this week but probably won't begin pitching until the Instructional League begins in late September.

Not every Dodger is happy about that, though. Second baseman Ryan Theriot, who played baseball at LSU, said Lee's decision to sign with the Dodgers leaves his school thin at quarterback.

"I'm a little upset," he said in mock anger. "I'm going to yell at him whenever I see him."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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