- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Ten years ago, Nationals pitcher John Patterson was a self-described “18-year-old kid from Orange, Texas, who just wanted to live my dream and play professional baseball.”

He got more than he bargained for. Patterson and three other amateur players — Travis Lee, Bobby Seay and Matt White — found themselves in the middle of a unique and controversial occurrence known as the “loophole draft.”

All were drafted high in the first round — Patterson, White and Seay from high school. But their prospective teams did not tender a formal minor league contract offer within 15 days of the draft. According to the rules, they then were allowed to become free agents and sign with any other team. Thus the “loophole.”

Agent Scott Boras, who represented Lee, White and Seay, was shrewd enough to use the loophole, partly because he was unhappy with the unofficial offers his clients had received. What followed was a bidding war between two expansion clubs, each more than two years away from taking the field but eager to mine this newfound vein of talent.

The result was that the teams spent big and the players collected big, making more — way, way more — than they would have had they signed with their original teams. The loophole has since been closed.

“It went from a certain amount of money to twice that in a hurry,” recalled Patterson, now a less naive, more worldly 28-year-old. “Looking back on it now, it was pretty wild.”

Lee, a first baseman for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, is much more blase about it. He said he gets asked about the loophole draft “every time I go back to Minnesota,” the team that picked him, and would just as soon leave it buried in the past.

“I don’t even care,” he said before a recent game against the Orioles at Camden Yards. “I really didn’t even dwell on it then. It wasn’t an issue. Everyone wants to dwell on it. It just happened. I had no say in it. It came to me, and that was it.”

Lee’s posture is understandable. Although he has played nine big league seasons, he never lived up to the hype and expectations. And while it might be extreme to point to any sort of loophole “curse,” neither have the other three. Only Lee and Patterson, currently on the disabled list, remain in the majors. Seay is in the minor leagues, and White retired last month.

Despite forearm surgery in July that cost him the rest of the season, Patterson remains upbeat and optimistic. He pitched more innings last year than in his first three seasons combined and went 9-7 with a 3.13 ERA. He calls the arm problem “kind of a little freak injury” and says he will be fine.

“This is not the way I saw my career going, but last year was a huge turn of the corner for me,” he said. “This is a great time in my career.”

Lee, on the other hand, has been fighting to hit over .200 and hardly matches Patterson’s enthusiasm.

“I’ll probably go somewhere in spring training next year and try to win a job,” he said. “If I do, I do. If I don’t, I don’t.”

Because of the circumstances, none of the four was a typical high draft pick.

Not signing with their teams and getting all that money elsewhere, combined with their glittering, promise-filled reputations, subjected the so-called “Loophole Four” to extra attention, scrutiny and criticism.

“It was a bit unfair, and we had to overcome that,” Patterson said. “You give somebody that much money, there’s gonna be huge expectations. But we never sought that money. It just happened. It was the competition between teams. It was interesting times.”

The top pick in the 1996 draft was pitcher Kris Benson, who got $2 million from Pittsburgh. It was the largest bonus for any amateur pick, but the distinction didn’t last long.

Named the nation’s top amateur player as a first baseman at San Diego State, Lee was drafted No. 2 by Minnesota. Instead, he signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks for $10 million.

Patterson, a right-hander, was picked No. 5 by the Montreal Expos, the franchise that became the Nationals. He said the Expos offered $1.2 million, and he would have been happy with $1.6 million. He, too, signed with Arizona, for more than $6 million.

Seay, a left-handed pitcher taken No. 12 by the Chicago White Sox, signed with the Tampa Bay for $3 million. But the biggest shocker was White who, despite being drafted No. 7 by San Francisco, got $10.2 million from Tampa Bay.

White was the Devil Rays’ top prospect before the 1997, 1998 and 1999 seasons, according to Baseball America, but he never made it to the major leagues. He was plagued by back and shoulder injuries. He made seven starts at Class AAA Durham in 2001 but gave up 26 earned runs in 30 innings before missing the rest of the season and never made it back to that level.

Seay spent three years with Tampa Bay, one with Colorado and pitched for Detroit this season before he was sent to the minors in June. His career reads 76 games, a 1-1 record and a 5.02 ERA.

Lee was considered to be so good that some believed he had a chance to be bigger in Phoenix than Suns superstar Charles Barkley, who had ruled the town. It helped that Lee was a hunky-looking guy who endeared himself to fans by riding his bicycle five blocks from his home to Bank One Ballpark.

“I promise you, if you asked 10 baseball people who they’d rather have, Travis Lee or Todd Helton, nine of them would have said Travis Lee,” said a former Diamondbacks executive who requested anonymity.

Helton has had an All-Star career with Colorado. Lee is considered a journeyman. His best year was his rookie season in 1998, when he hit .269 with 22 home runs. He was traded to Philadelphia in 2000 in the deal that brought pitcher Curt Schilling to the Diamondbacks and briefly played for the New York Yankees before signing with Tampa Bay.

What happened? Lee said the Diamondbacks tinkered with his swing in 1999, “and from then on I was a mess.” He suffered a pulled hamstring in 2000, which also set him back.

“The conventional wisdom is that the pilot light wasn’t turned up high enough,” the ex-Diamondbacks executive said, referring to Lee’s laid-back personality. “He’s always disputed that. It wasn’t his nature to break railings or throw trash cans. So the short answer to ‘Why didn’t he become a big star?’ is ‘I don’t know.’”

Still, signing Lee was hardly a waste for the Diamondbacks. If not for Schilling, they would not have won the 2001 World Series in just their fourth season. For Philadelphia, the key to the deal was Lee.

Patterson’s career was on track in Arizona until he hurt his elbow and underwent Tommy John reconstructive surgery in 2000. Two years were shot. He said he also got fouled up when he tried to learn the split-finger fastball from Schilling, “and that started messing up my arm angle.”

In 2001, the team underwent a “regime change,” as Patterson put it, with Bob Brenly replacing Buck Showalter as manager. Suddenly, Patterson felt like he was on the outs.

“I never felt part of that ballclub,” he said. “It was time to make a change.”

Patterson said the Arizona experience “destroyed me mentally” but admits that much of the pressure was self-inflicted.

“I always felt I had to fight twice as hard as everybody else, that I had to prove I was worth 6 million dollars,” he said. “Nothing I did I felt was good enough.”

Now Patterson, who in 2004 was traded back to the organization he originally shunned, says he feels rejuvenated.

“There are a lot of things I did to kind of rebuild myself, mentally and physically,” he said. “Things have really worked out here.”

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