10.2 million reasons to keep eye on Devil Rays' prospect White

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FISHKILL, N.Y. -- Baseball, in all its history of extreme extravagance, has never made such an awesome investment, a $10.2 million bonus to an untried pitcher. Because of what he represents, Matt White, a remarkably intelligent teen-ager with a fastball that threatens to break the sound barrier, is looked upon with both awe and envy.

He's the game's version of the Hope Diamond, drawing astonishing attention but still being buffed, groomed and schooled in ways to permit him to deliver on the vast ability that is packed within his strong 6-foot-5, 222-pound physique.

In 1996, he was unanimously picked as the best high school baseball prospect in the nation. During three years at Waynesboro (Pa.) High, he had a 29-4 record, struck out 401 and had an ERA of 0.79.

White was signed by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays after an all-out war of checkbooks and assigned to the Hudson Valley Renegades of the New York-Penn League. The team is based in Fishkill, a community populated by 15,600 residents and founded by Dutch settlers at least 200 years before Abner Doubleday was inspired to chase cows out of a pasture so he could invent baseball.

The progress of White is drawing belated applause and a wave of excitement. Conversely, he had a near-disastrous start, losing his first five games, but has now won four straight and is frequently producing speeds between 94 and 97 mph.

White has been leaning on the fastball, throwing between 80 and 90 percent, which is what the organization wants. He's a power pitcher. This is what separated him from the rest of the class and why Tampa Bay paid more money for his services than ever happened in the case of any prospect.

It was the velocity he could generate that elevated him to becoming such a coveted property. And this is what he's being prepared to do. "Kind of a Nolan Ryan type" is the description coach Greg Harris offers, which is Hall of Fame praise even though it's only the beginning of a career.

White's venture into professional baseball has called for more than just showing up. It has been enlightening but also difficult, a learning process for the only ex-high schooler on a team otherwise composed of former college standouts.

He has experienced the full run of serious emotion in this his first professional season -- concern when he injured his lower back in spring training (treated as a stress fracture), a delay in being able to pitch, revised plans in assignment to Hudson Valley instead of Charleston, S.C., of the South Atlantic League and then the disappointing start.

This is the richest bonus boy the game has ever known. Scrutinized and criticized by other players, the public and press. Everybody wants to see what a $10.2 million pitcher is supposed to look like -- but White has lived with the pressure admirably.

Harris, the pitching coach and a one-time San Diego Padre, Philadelphia Phillie and Boston Red Sox who was ambidextrous, shook hands with a visitor and, with a touch of hostility in his voice, put up a quick defense by saying, "Oh, not another one of those Philadelphia Inquirer stories. Early this year a writer twisted some quotes I gave him and then used them to take a rip at the kid through me."

The statement attributed to Harris was critical of the Devil Rays, who paid White a signing bonus of $10.2 million, and it so annoyed the organization that Harris' job was thought to be in jeopardy. It meant he had some explaining to do. As for White and Harris, they get along in an ideal pitcher-coach relationship.

White, whom Harris calls "one of the most mature 19-year-olds in the country," is not at all concerned over the attention his presence has caused. The youngster is a curiosity piece for spectators -- all wanting to measure for themselves what it takes to be a $10.2 million signing product.

"This all goes with the territory," White says. "Other players don't have too much to say about the bonus. Fans holler things at me, but I don't let it bother me. Some of the comments are kind of funny. I've also had fans approach me later and apologize for what others have said."

Getting off to an 0-5 start wasn't what he had mind, in this league or anywhere else. "But, you know, sometimes you have to take a couple steps backward before you can go forward," he says. "I believe I learned a lot about myself during that down period of trying to get untracked."

A revealing self-analysis for one so young, but then that shouldn't be a surprise. He comes from an upper middle-class home environment where church, studies and deportment were highlighted by a mother who taught school and a father who owned an electronics appliance store.

White played four sports at Waynesboro High, graduated 27th in a class of 304, was accepted at Georgia Tech but suddenly became the subject of an all-out dollar pursuit caused by a mere technicality. He was drafted as the seventh player in the nation by the San Francisco Giants in 1996 (also the first high school player taken), but because of an error by the club's front office he failed to receive a contract offer within the required 15-day period.

This allowed the commissioner's office to declare White and three other draftees free agents and available to all teams.

Agent Scott Boras, a former professional baseball player who understood the system, took the bidding all the way to $10.2 million, and White thus became the highest-priced prospect of all time.

"I was thinking too much earlier," he said. "Pitching is muscle memory. I have to learn to get ahead in the counts. My curveball has to be more 12 o'clock to 6 o'clock. I throw a three-seam and a four-seam fastball. Also a circle change."

The back injury was something that came on him over a period of weeks, occurring 10 days before camp ended.

"I was told the stress fracture, more a nagging than consistent pain, is a common injury for pitchers and golfers. And I do both."

White has struck out 63 batters over 65 innings and walked only 25 in demonstrating an enormous reversal of form.

He says the Hudson Valley area is "absolutely beautiful, and the host family I live with, Mary Anne and Bruce Rode, have been extremely kind."

Along with the bonus money being invested by competent advisers, he has made sizable donations to his church and to the Waynesboro YMCA, plus buying three sets of baseball uniforms as gifts for the Oriolelanders, a team he used to play for that was supervised by scout Jim Gilbert.

Matt White's approach to life and to baseball is controlled by a well-disciplined mentality, far beyond his youthful years -- plus an arm evaluated as only one in 10.2 million. That, of course, is with a dollar sign.

Pub Date: 8/17/97

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