Dawn has arrived for midnight’s children.
Sunday’s starting lineup for the Red Sox featured five players taken in the 2011 draft, with first rounder Blake Swihart behind the plate, supplemental first-rounder Henry Owens on the mound, supplemental first-rounder Jackie Bradley Jr. in left, fifth-rounder Mookie Betts in center, and ninth-rounder Travis Shaw at first.
It marked the first time that the Sox featured a lineup with five homegrown players from the same draft who had spent their entire careers in the organization since April 20, 1984, when five 1976 selections – Wade Boggs, Bruce Hurst, Reid Nichols, Gary Allenson, and Glenn Hoffman – beat the Athletics, 3-1.
Once every several years, there is a chance for a draft to reshape an organization. Four years after the fact, the 2011 group still has a chance – far from a certainty, but a chance – to represent just such a pivot point. As such, there is a possibility that the players may produce as much excitement on the field as their signings did off of it.
That may sound puzzling, yet for those who recall the rush to beat the Last Great Draft Deadline in 2011, it’s not hyperbole. While Shaw signed shortly after he was drafted in 2011, negotiations about the bonuses for the rest of the group – and other players taken that year – occurred almost solely against the backdrop of a very loudly ticking countdown to midnight on August 15, 2011.
“We just knew that with the guys we got, this was going to be a draft that the Red Sox would look back for a long time and say, ‘Man, what a night that was,’” recalled Dodgers vice president of amateur and international scouting David Finley, who was part of the Red Sox’ front office negotiating team that year. “It’s crazy that it was four years ago. It seems like yesterday.”
Fifteen minutes of crazy
Draft negotiations with the most prominent picks that year – the last before a new collective bargaining agreement fundamentally changed the nature of negotiations – represented something akin to a game of blink in which the participants all pried their eyes open in a fashion befitting Clockwork Orange. For nearly every pick in the early rounds, not just for the Red Sox but across baseball, talks were almost non-existent until hours before midnight on the day of the deadline, with the real movement typically occurring in the final minutes.
“It was very quiet all summer. … In that system, unless you signed basically that first day, it didn’t happen until the last day,” recalled Joe Urbon, who along with Ryan Hamill at CAA, served as the advisors for Owens, relaying information from the club to the draftee so that he could make a decision about whether to sign. “There was never any exchange of offers. There was never a negotiation. It was the final day – the afternoon and then early in the evening, and there wasn’t anything being discussed. … There’s always an emotional rollercoaster in those last days and last hours, but this one really came down to the last few minutes.”
It had been sufficiently quiet that Bradley had returned to the University of South Carolina to re-enroll for his senior year in case he didn’t sign. As the deadline crept closer, he found a way to occupy his time, taking part in an insanity workout.
At about 15 minutes before midnight, he received a call from his advisor letting him know that the Sox were prepared to offer a $1.1 million bonus to sign him as the No. 40 overall selection.
“I just remember receiving the phone call, accepting the terms, calling my parents and telling them how everything went down,” recalled Bradley. “[Then] I actually finished the workout.”
Inside the Sox offices, however, tension mounted, with four members of the front office – GM Theo Epstein (Matt Barnes), director of amateur scouting Amiel Sawdaye (Swihart), VP of amateur scouting and player development Mike Hazen (Betts), and Finley (Owens) lined up in adjacent offices and conducting concurrent negotiations with the unsigned pool.
Also inside an office conference room, accompanied by his mother and girlfriend, was eighth-rounder Senquez Golson, who’d left football practice at Ole Miss (where he was a two-sport recruit) to speak directly with the Sox on draft night. Over the course of the day, the Sox pushed their offer above $1 million, but Golson ultimately decided that he wanted to pursue a two-sport career – a decision that paid off this year when he was taken by the Steelers in the second round and signed to a $3.7 million, four-year deal.
With Golson not signing, the Sox had more money to play with for the rest of their pool, and so they closed out negotiations with Betts at a $750,000 signing bonus with about five or six minutes left before midnight. First-rounder Barnes accepted close to his slot recommendation with a few minutes to go, signing for $1.4 million.
That left the Sox hoping to conclude talks with Swihart – who had a scholarship offer to the University of Texas – and Owens as the final targets, with negotiations taking place at a time when the hourglass was emptying rapidly.
Both had considerable leverage given that they could go to school, Swihart to Texas a draft-eligible sophomore, Owens either to the University of Miami where he would be able to return to the draft after his junior year or a junior college where he would be able to re-enter the draft in 2012.
Swihart, in particular, represented a potentially challenging signing. Indeed, his camp had made clear to a number of teams in the first and supplemental first round that they’d be wasting a pick if they were considering a slot bonus figure.
“That was his dream school,” Arlen Swihart, the catcher’s father, recalled earlier this year. “Education means a lot to me and my family. I honestly was fighting for Duke or someplace like that, but Texas was always his dream.
“The truth is, our biggest concern was scaring teams off that were between the Red Sox and other teams. I told him that if you got $2.25 million, that was the break-even dollar amount. We’d hoped he’d get more, but that was what it was going to take at a minimum.”
Sawdaye’s talks with Swihart’s advisor, Greg Genske, thus took on a particularly furious dynamic, with an initial ask on the player’s side of $6 million whittling down rapidly – as the Sox moved up – to meet at $2.5 million with seconds to go.
Yet in a way, while the dollar swings were larger, the drama was even greater in the conversations between Finley and Owens’ advisors. There was, for a time, pessimism that a deal would be done.
“The first offer was very far from what we ended up with, to the point where we communicated back to Henry where they were I want to say a couple hours before the deadline, and it was monumentally far away from what he would take,” said Urbon.
Multiple Sox sources recall Owens initially seeking out a $2.5 million bonus. The two sides were hundreds of thousands of dollars apart with minutes to go. They closed the gap rapidly, but as midnight approached, there was an unintentional and incredibly unsettling period of silence, and it had nothing to do with the typical back-and-forth of negotiations.
Finley – who was stationed in a makeshift storage space-turned-office (“There were a few boxes and I think a treadmill in there, but there was a desk and there was a bunch of giveaway stuff,” he remembered) – said the Sox could go as high as $1.5 million.
Urbon and Hamill reached back out to Owens’ family. The pitcher told his CAA advisors that, for that bonus, he was ready to start his pro career. But attempts to reach Finley went straight to voicemail. Members of the CAA staff frantically started trying to call different members of the Red Sox front office.
“We weren’t connected,” remembered Urbon. “We were literally counting down the seconds. Theo called me – the first time I’d talked to Theo – and said, ‘Joe, it’s Theo – would Henry take $1.55 million?’ It was 50 grand more than he was ready to agree to. It was more than he was going to take.”
Owens and his family, of course, were willing to accept that final offer, their assent relayed quickly to Epstein, who sat in a Red Sox front office where then-assistant director of amateur scouting Gus Quattlebaum was shouting out the remaining time before 12:01.
“Gus is counting down, ’10 … 9 … 8 … 7 …. Time’s up!’” recounted Finley.
Informed of Owens’ agreement, Epstein had no time for idle chatter.
“’Done,’” Urbon recalled the Sox GM saying. “It was down to the wire by literally seconds if not a second.”
The Sox were confident that they’d gotten the full slate of prospect agreements done on time. But on his end, after an initial feeling of relief, Urbon and his CAA colleagues felt some queasiness, recalling that the Commissioner’s office nearly had killed agreements reached by past advisees because of the timestamp.
“There was excitement, relief, and then sort of a little bit of panic that, did we really get this done in time?” Urbon said. “We were scrambling around, and I ended up calling Theo back and saying, ‘Did we get it in? Did we get it in? Did we get it in?’”
Yes, Epstein assured Urbon, the Commissioner’s office had confirmed the agreement. Owens was a Red Sox. All of them – Bradley, Betts, Barnes, Swihart, Owens – were Red Sox.
One by one, the Red Sox front office members came out of the offices where they’d conducted their frantic negotiations, trying to get a feel for the landscape of the organization as of 12:01 a.m. on August 16, 2011.
“None of us knew if Betts signed. None of us knew if Senquez said yes or no. No one knew Jackie Bradley and Owens except for me. No one knew Barnes except for Theo,” said Finley. “We all just kind of met up and said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah – we got it all.’ That was fun. We were all high-fiving, screaming and yelling.”
Yet in a way, that was just the beginning. Almost without fail, the conclusion of signing a crop of picks is one of starry-eyed excitement for an organization. It takes years to get a feel for whether the talent of the players who signed actually matches the dreams of the scouts who saw them in their amateur careers.
For that matter, there’s a great unknown on the part of the players. For most of them, baseball had been a game and indeed one of the foremost passions of their lives up until signing.
“When I signed, I was 18 years old and didn’t have a clue how this game really was,” admitted Owens.
He wasn’t alone. And so, it is meaningful that the group of players who entered the system in 2011 have had the opportunity to move up together, to appreciate each others’ talents and, in a way, to be able to appreciate their own because of their peer group.
Swihart had seen Owens at his best dating to their time as teammates on Team USA after their junior year of high school; he knew the fingers to put down to get the lefthander back on track when he was hammered early on Sunday, and Owens likewise knew that he could have faith in his signal-caller.
There was amazement in the eyes of most at the sight of Bradley’s historic five-hit game on Saturday, there was a nod of familiarity from Shaw, who saw Bradley post a five-hit game and four four-hit games when the two were teammates in 2012.
Bradley likewise had seen Shaw delivering multi-homer games when the two were minor league teammates. Both had observed Betts’ meteoric rise through the farm system, and the fact that his performance had translated to the game’s highest level.
“Having played with these guys and having them have success up here, it was like, ‘OK.’ I thought I was just as good as they are having played with them through the years. With them getting up here and having success, it’s like, ‘It’s the same game,’” said Shaw. “It helps you relax a little bit.”
All of that being the case, there’s significance to the idea of a group of five players from the same draft class being in the same lineup on the same day. That the group – along with Barnes, who starts on Monday – is on the field at the same time is more than a fine piece of trivia. They draw strength from the familiar faces around them, the players with whom they’ve spent years as roommates and teammates.
“You’re around guys that you’ve played with for most of your professional career. You know each others’ strengths and weaknesses, can help each other out, hang out after games. That sort of team bonding can’t be written down on paper,” said Bradley.
And so a lineup like Sunday’s marks a place where the potential suggested by a highly regarded farm system might start coalescing into better days ahead at the big league level.
“It’s really cool and really fun to be part of a team that has kind of stuck together. The camaraderie is there. We want to fight for each other. We have each others’ backs on and off the field. We’re a tightknit group,” said Shaw. “It’s awesome being up here together. You look at a team like the Royals, from what I’ve seen, they’ve all played together in the minor leagues.”
If the Sox can become in the next few years what the Royals have become in 2014 and 2015 – an elite team whose strength derives from a homegrown core that rose together through the minors – then the memories of the night of August 15 and early-morning of August 16, 2011, may grow even further in significance.
“We ended up staying there until 3 or 4 in the morning. It was a fun night,” said Finley. “We all looked at each other and said, ‘We’ll remember this night forever,’ because we knew it was the last night under that system, and because of the haul of players that we got.”