Sports

Baseball and its risky hype machine

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Matt Wieters' college teammates called him "God," and not just once or twice. Somewhere along the line, it became Wieters' nickname. The way some guys become "Slim" or "Big John" or go by their initials, Wieters went by "God."

Others have been less effusive in their praise but only slightly so. Educated men across baseball call him the sport's best prospect, and he is an A-list celebrity in the baseball world before his first big-league game — superhyped if not superstar. Now we get to see how Wieters, an Orioles' catching prospect, handles it.

"I hear it," he says. "But I try not to think much about it."

It is hard to separate the hype, and Wieters is at that point now, even though — or maybe because — he's never played a single major-league game. He will be a superstar catcher, they say. Orioles executives are predicting multiple All-Star appearances. A Hall of Famer if he stays healthy.

This is the byproduct of our sports becoming multibillion-dollar enterprises, of athletes becoming corporations. How can you be impressed by a double when you're expecting a home run?

Wieters is a switch-hitting, home run-launching, 6-foot-5, 230-pound kid who comes from baseball stock and just happens to be a terrific defensive catcher. It's hard to imagine a more valuable baseball commodity. He is Mark Teixeira at a premium defensive position, the scouts say, or a much better version of Jason Varitek.

The statheads have joined arms in hyping Wieters. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system, which is typically conservative, projects Wieters' 2009 season to be better than Manny Ramirez's or what Dustin Pedroia did in winning last year's AL MVP award.

There is no exceeding any of these expectations, not anymore, and it may not seem like a big thing, except these expectations have taken down promising ballplayers before Wieters.

Dave Trembley is the Orioles' manager. He is asked about Wieters more than any other player on a team. Trembley has mixed feelings about all of this. He wants to leave Wieters alone and wants others to do it, too. Let these guys breathe, he says one moment, but then the next, this:

"First time I saw him, I said, 'That's Joe Mauer. But with more power.' "

Alex Gordon stopped trying. Two years ago, he was billed as the Kansas City Royals' next great player, and it made for a great story. Local kid, grew up making the trip from Nebraska to Kansas City to watch the Royals. Has a brother named after George Brett, and plays third base just like his idol.

It was a whirlwind of hype. Team officials called him can't-miss. Brett himself said he was "honored" to be compared to Gordon, who then struck out in his first at-bat and was batting .172 into June.

"I was the new guy on the team, I didn't really know a whole lot of people, so when I didn't do well, I felt like I was letting everyone down," he says. "It was never about the fans, not living up to their expectations. It was about my teammates, not helping them out. That's what hurt."

Gordon makes it clear he doesn't think any of this is unfair. High draft picks get the most money — Gordon signed for $4 million, Wieters got $6 million — so it's only natural that more is expected.

All major sports are guilty of hyping unproven commodities, of course. Basketball scouting services rank the nation's top sixth-graders. Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor had fans at three different colleges calling him savior before his senior year of high school.

But baseball is different in at least one way. The jump from college to pro is much shorter in those other sports. Baseball comes with, depending on how you calculate it, five different levels of minor leagues.

Seventeen players taken with a top-10 pick in the 1990s never played a day in the big leagues. There is an inherent unpredictability in projecting baseball talent that makes the hyping of prospects particularly dangerous. It is the most mental of the three major sports, and there is a cottage industry of psychologist-types who specialize in helping out in this way.

"I want to help guys reconnect with the fun of baseball, because nobody ever choked playing Wiffle Ball in the backyard," said Thomas Hanson, a sports psychologist whose client list includes several big-league teams. "It's very common for big-name players to sign a big contract, and then be terrible the next year. Everybody thinks, 'Oh, that (jerk), he gets money and just coasts.' It's the opposite. It's, 'Oh my gosh, I'm making $10 million, I need to live up to that,' and they choke."

The list of casualties is long. The rookie card of Todd Van Poppel, the 14th overall pick in 1990, sells for less than a dime. Dewon Brazelton, the third pick in 2001, still lives off his signing bonus because there is no big-league salary. No. 1 pick Matt Bush never even made it to the majors.

Teams are said to David Clyde a prospect when they bring him up too early and expect too much — like what happened to Clyde, a one-time Rangers phenom.

Watch Wieters, and it's not hard to see why the hype is there. His swings from each side of the plate are quick and powerful. Balls he doesn't hit well can still get to the wall or over it. Balls he does hit well go over the bleachers. He was clocked at 96 mph on the mound in college and spends more energy improving his play-calling than anything else.

This is the part of Wieters' career where he goes one way or the other. His big-league debut will most likely come this summer. After that, he becomes either what everyone expects, rich and famous beyond his wildest dreams, or something less than that, closer to a bust.

Superstar, or disappointment. Through no fault of his own, there isn't much of a third choice.

"It's all out there," Wieters says. "But I set expectations for myself. And they're high expectations. That's what I'm working hard every day for. It's to live up to my expectations."

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