SAN DIEGO — Vaguely, somewhere in the heady swirl of draft projections and strikeouts over the past several days, between graduation preparations and baccalaureate mass, Brady Aiken has heard bits and pieces of the story.
That he is on deck, if the Astros cooperate on Thursday, to become the first high school pitcher taken No. 1 overall in the annual Major League Baseball amateur draft since Brien Taylor in 1991.
That Taylor, the North Carolina schoolboy picked by the Yankees, never played a day in the majors. That he crashed and burned in a sad, slow, chain-reaction pileup over the years, ruining his shoulder in a bar fight just two seasons into a minor league career that never was anything more than a false positive.
On this Friday afternoon at a dusty suburban San Diego high school baseball field, history dancing around his fringes, those details mean little to him.
"Since the beginning of the year, my goal was to be the best player in the country," says Aiken, who prepped at Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego. "Do everything I can do to do that. Work really hard and see where I end up on June 5.
Since the inception of the draft in 1965, only two high school pitchers have ever been taken first overall. Taylor, and fellow left-hander David Clyde, in 1973. Though the Rangers moved him straight into the majors and wound up ruining him, Clyde at least pitched in 84 major league games.
Eighty-four more than poor Taylor.
Now, as another club in another century ponders making one of the rarest moves a major league team will ever make, all eyes are on the left-handed Aiken.
"It’s huge, because it’s a big risk for the team," says Pirates right-hander Gerrit Cole, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft out of UCLA. "There’s basically no track record for guys that young.
"But if he’s got the build and the makeup, I don’t know why not."
Aiken is 17 going on $8 million, which is slot money for the first overall pick—or maybe $6.2 million, slot money for the second overall pick. The Marlins choose second, and the White Sox will select third.
The Astros, with an unprecedented third consecutive No. 1 overall pick, have been so secretive that even the Marlins and White Sox don't know which way Houston will go: Aiken, North Carolina State left-hander Carlos Rodon, or even a wild card.
His heavy lifting mostly done, Aiken smiles and says he thinks that, actually, some of the pressure has now dissipated in these final hours before the draft.
"Everything is out of my hands," he says. "There’s nothing more I can do."
It was only last winter when Aiken sat down with his parents, his trainer and his advisor, Casey Close—not long after dominating in the gold-medal game in Taiwan while playing for the USA’s 18-and-under World Cup team—and mapped out a blueprint that he hoped would land him in this position.
Now on the verge, his father chuckles at the memory of that audacious goal.
"When he told us, it was like, 'Really? Then you’ve got a lot of work to do,'" Jim Aiken says. "But he is an extremely, extremely hard worker. I watch him and, even as his dad, I still go, 'Wow.'
"In the gym, at the field, he’s always working hard. In the classroom. At the church. We are very blessed."
He is left-handed with a fastball that touches 98 mph and sits at 92-93 mph, a devastating curve that checks in at 77-78 mph, a good feel for the changeup and a developing slider.
He is blessed with a good frame, at 6'3", 210 pounds, and an intelligence and drive that make the "makeup" part of a scouting report a no-brainer.
"It is a great feeling, going out and knowing that all the hard work you put in, those days you don’t want to get up but you go work out anyway, pay off in the long run," Aiken says.
He smiles frequently as he speaks, appearing completely comfortable not only with himself but with the blazing spotlight focusing on his current place at the center of the baseball universe.
Aiken has been dealing with expectations and pressure for quite some time. Recognizing his talent early on, his father—a lifer in computer software—and his mother, Linda, who is in restaurant management, have teamed to help manage his budding baseball career from the beginning. He has been on pitch counts and innings counts since he first started pitching. This year, he started between 50 and 55 pitches per outing and worked up from there. He maxed out in the neighborhood of 90.
In Friday’s playoff game, a loss, he threw 103 pitches and then left a tied game in the sixth inning (his Dons eventually lost, 3-2). He seemed a bit frustrated, but he resigned to the process.
Though things have gotten crazier the closer he’s gotten to the draft, little of this process has come as a surprise. One of his buddies from last year’s team, lefty pitcher Stephen Gonsalves, was the Twins’ fourth-round pick in last year’s draft. Watching what Gonsalves went through helped educate Aiken.
So, too, did the fact that his coach, Gary Remiker, has been at the school for more than two decades, coaching a program that has developed major-leaguers like Mark Prior, Barry Zito and Carlos Quentin.
Still, none of them had a chance to go No. 1 overall.
"Brady is a very mature young man who’s handling it very, very well," Remiker says. "He comes from a great family. He’s got a great set of parents helping him balance everything. He’s probably the first player I’ve seen, that I’ve coached, who has gotten this much recognition from fans coming to our games.
"All of that can be quite overwhelming to a 17-year-old kid, and I think he’s handling it perfectly."
Admirers and gawkers have waited for Aiken after almost every game this spring, beseeching him for autographs and photos. After one game last week, an adult gentleman handed him a box of a dozen baseballs to sign, as well as a few posters.
"Obviously, he’s trying to make money off the kid," Remiker says. "Brady handled it great. He said, 'I’ll sign one.' Then there were a bunch of little kids waiting, and he went and posed with them for pictures."
Though the trail of scouts has slowed in recent weeks—mostly because clubs not picking within the top five know they’ve got no chance at him—Aiken has been hot property all season.
"On our opening day this year, I got out of my classroom and went to the field an hour before first pitch, and there probably were already 30 or 40 scouts in the stands," says Remiker, who teaches AP statistics. "They all wanted the prime seats behind the plate and figured they had to get there an hour-and-a-half early.
"That was the craziest day. Since then, it’s diminished some."
Jeff Luhnow (Astros), Theo Epstein (Cubs), Rick Hahn (White Sox), Michael Hill (Marlins) and Kevin Towers (Diamondbacks) are among the executives who have watched Aiken from the hard, splintery high school bleachers. Lately, some of the area scouts and GMs have been replaced by national crosscheckers and scouting directors.
For his part, Aiken has welcomed the crowds in part because he thinks it’s great exposure for his teammates.
Yes, this entire spring has been one heady experience, without question, for everyone in Aiken’s orbit.
And now, here comes the real fun.
"Just to get drafted," Jim Aiken says with the game over and players and parents about to congregate at the restaurant Linda Aiken manages, graduation weekend now at hand. "Whether he’s first or third or fifth, to us, it doesn’t matter.
"Things will work out on Thursday, and we’re looking forward to it. First or 21st, it doesn’t matter to my wife and I.
"I’m sure it does to him."
As you would expect. The sheer competition of it all, it’s no small part of making Aiken who he is. But whether he goes first, second or third on Thursday, what’s more important than the number is what the next few years bring.
Neither Clyde nor Taylor, who is currently serving time in a North Carolina prison for cocaine trafficking, distinguished himself once drafted.
Different times, different century. Aiken talks about his desire to help his team win a world championship, "no matter what it takes," and to, "make the Hall of Fame one day."
"If I put my mind to something, I think there’s a very good chance I can achieve it," he says, friendly and focused, firmly on the confident—not arrogant—side of the fence.
Astros, you’re up.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.
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