MLB draft: Seeing (or not seeing) red
It's a mystery. Why aren't there more red-haired players in Major League Baseball?
Jeff Luhnow is taking his lumps as general manager of the Houston Astros, who along with the Miami Marlins are toying with a record-setting pace for futility this season. But if his previous track record as the man in charge of amateur drafts in St. Louis is any indication, Luhnow will get things headed in the right direction through a combination of thorough scouting, sound statistical analysis and a dogged focus on developing from within. Anyone who doubts his credentials might want to take a gander at all the homegrown products on the roster of the Cardinals, who have the best record in baseball.
So it seemed a bit out of character in March when Luhnow hit me with a query that came right out of the Loch Ness Monster school of baseball analysis.
The question came at the end of a long day in Kissimmee, Fla., after the Astros had played the Phillies in a Grapefruit League game. I dropped by Luhnow's office and spent a while talking with him and assistant general manager David Stearns about a wide range of topics -- from Carlos Pena's veteran presence to manager Bo Porter's enthusiasm to the wonders of Jose Altuve. And then, just before I hit the road for West Palm Beach, Luhnow mixed a curveball into the conversation.
"Let me ask you something," he said. "Why don't you think there are more major leaguers with red hair?"
Not the type of question you expect from a front-office executive with a "stat geek" reputation. But I quickly learned there was a reason for it.
The Astros have the first overall pick in the 2013 MLB draft, which will take place June 6-8 in Secaucus, N.J., and among the players they're considering are two with a physical trait that varies from the norm.
One is Clint Frazier, a 6-foot, 190-pound, right-handed hitting outfielder from Loganville, Ga. He has quick hands, a strong throwing arm, eye-catching power … and a bright shock of red hair that blended nicely with the burnt orange jersey he wore at the 2012 Perfect Game national showcase.
The other is Colin Moran, a 6-3, 215-pound, left-handed hitting third baseman from the North Carolina Tar Heels by way of Rye, N.Y. He has an advanced eye, a sweet swing, a big league pedigree as the nephew of B.J. Surhoff… and red hair.
It should be pointed out that Luhnow isn't taking an anti-redhead bias into next week's draft – certainly nothing like the one espoused by Eric Cartman, the "South Park" character who decried the evils of "Ginger-vitis" in a 2005 episode of the popular animated show. As young Eric duly noted in a presentation to his class, gingers "do not have souls," and are similar to vampires in that they must avoid the sun at all costs.
In Luhnow's case, it's more a matter of inquisitiveness and due diligence. When you're making a potential $7 million-plus investment in a player and there's even a smidge of a chance that a certain physical characteristic might play a role in his success or failure, it never hurts to ask.
"Anytime you're going to make a significant personnel decision on behalf of the organization and you're delving into waters that are not that populated, you have to wonder why," Luhnow says. "The answer could be as simple as the percentage of red-headed people in the population. There just aren't that many out there.
"If that's the answer, OK. So be it. But there could be something more to it, and if there is, it's certainly worth exploring. Is it because the parts of world where red-headed people typically come from don't play baseball as much and it's not part of the culture? I don't know the answer to that. Is it because they're fair-skinned and not as durable under the sun? I've heard all kinds of crazy theories. I haven't done anything to verify any of them, to be honest with you. But it certainly is an interesting topic."
As a redhead who was forced to surrender his major league dreams in his mid-teens, I felt uniquely qualified to address this topic for ESPN.com and the latest edition of Baseball America. I was naturally gifted at fielding ground balls and reasonably quick down the line, but compensated with an inaccurate arm, a weak bat and a tendency to get disoriented by especially high pop flies. Hence, all roads led to sports journalism.
Upon leaving Jeff Luhnow's office, I quickly thought of a few redheads who have had a lasting impact in the game. Red Schoendienst, the patron saint of carrot tops, was a 10-time All-Star with St. Louis and made the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989. Mark McGwire ranks 10th on baseball's career list with 583 home runs; and Rusty Staub, "Le Grand Orange,'' racked up 2,716 hits over 23 seasons in the U.S. and Canada.
And upon further review, numerous other representatives of Ginger Nation have dotted the baseball landscape since I began following the game as a kid in the late '60s. Boog Powell was a red-headed Paul Bunyan who won an MVP award with the Baltimore Orioles and hit 339 homers. Powell, Staub and Mets third baseman Wayne Garrett passed the baton to Dave Stapleton, Roy Howell and Jerry Don Gleaton in the 1980s, and then to Big Mac, Dan Gladden and Rusty Greer in the '90s. Over the past decade, the list of major league redheads includes Bobby Kielty, Matt Murton, Ryan Dempster, Tommy Hanson, Chad Tracy, Seth McClung, Zach Miner, Barry Enright and Chris Shelton, whose nicknames ranged from "Big Red" to "Red Bull" to "Orange Crush."
No quantitative studies exist to confirm or debunk the notion that redheads are, in fact, under-represented in the majors. If that is, indeed, the case, the answer might come down to raw genetics: There aren't many redheaded big leaguers because there aren't a whole lot of red-haired people in general.
The odds are daunting. About 1 to 2 percent of the world's population has red hair, according to multiple sources. In a 2002 Washington Post story, Joel Garreau wrote, "Between 2 and 6 percent of the U.S. population is redheaded, depending on the estimate and definitions. They are scarcer than lefthanders or gays, almost as scarce as Episcopalians." The percentage of redheads is reportedly higher in Scotland, Ireland and other Western European countries, but athletes in those locales are more likely to be found on a rugby pitch or a soccer field than on a ball field.
If you don't see many redheads at the supermarket or the mall, why would you find them in abundance on the baseball diamond?
"Just go out of your house and look at the next 20 people, and don't count women because they tint their hair a lot," says Tim Wilken, a special assistant to Cubs president Theo Epstein. "Count your next 20 guys and see how many redheads you get. That would be my first, initial thought: How many redheads are there?"
Fair enough. But long-held scouting biases haven't helped. Eddie Bane, a special assistant with the Red Sox and former Angels scouting director, tells the story of an accomplished scout who traveled to see a prospect and had a change of heart for reasons only he could fully understand.
"Years ago, Bob Fontaine Sr. went to a game to cross-check a player in the Midwest, and he looked at a picture of the kid before he got out of the car," Bane says. "He looks at the other guys and says, 'You didn't tell me this kid has red hair. You go in and do what you need to do. I'm staying in the car.' People think it's funny, but it's true. He wouldn't get out of the car to go see a redheaded player."
Calling all gingers
If this brings any solace to redheaded baseball players who might feel they're under siege, athletes in other sports are subject to similar scrutiny. Before the 2011 NFL draft, Sports Illustrated's Peter King interviewed an anonymous head coach who questioned Texas Christian University product Andy Dalton's ability to play quarterback at the highest level. The coach's reservations were rooted less in Dalton's arm strength, pocket presence and his Wonderlic score than in his hair color. It's red.
"Has there ever been a redheaded quarterback in the NFL who's really done well?" the coach said. "It sounds idiotic, but is there any way that could be a factor? We've wondered."
The coach might have been oblivious to Sonny Jurgensen, who made the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983, or Archie Manning, Carson Palmer or Jeff Garcia, who carved out successful NFL careers in spite of their inherent gingerness. But if football scouts can obsess over a player's time in the three-cone drill, why not his hair color?
Fortunately, the baseball redheads I interviewed bear no psychic scars from a perceived or actual anti-ginger bias. Mark McGwire simply laughed and shrugged when I asked him why he's part of such a rare breed in the game. "I guess it's because there aren't that many redheads on earth, and they're usually over in Ireland," McGwire said. "They don't play baseball over in Ireland."
Mets infielder Justin Turner, who goes by the nickname "Red," had reason to feel right at home when he was chosen out of Cal-Fullerton in the seventh round of the 2006 draft -- by the Cincinnati Reds.
If baseball redheads have their Susan B. Anthony, it's Rex Hudler, a lifelong carrot top who spent 13 seasons in the majors as a scrappy, hustling utility player. Hudler knows what it's like to be called Howdy Doody, or Ron Howard, or even Ronald McDonald. During his time in the big leagues, fans gave him grief because he had a name like the family pooch, and his teammates teased him on general principle.
"When I was in St. Louis, the guys all gave Red Schoendienst a hard time and said I was his illegitimate son," Hudler says. "If I was a starter and a big stud, Red would have claimed me. But I was a utility guy, so Red would tell everybody, 'Hell no, he's not mine.'"
Hudler, now a broadcaster with the Kansas City Royals, is convinced that baseball needs more redheads. So when he sees earnest little carrot tops waiting for autographs, he walks over and tells them their freckles are "angel kisses," and encourages them to play catch in the backyards with their dads.
As Hudler continues his one-man crusade to advance the cause of Ginger Nation, he'll quietly be rooting for the future Clint Fraziers and Colin Morans of the world. But unless the gene pool miraculously expands, they'll be the exception rather than the norm.
"There's a need for more redheaded big league ballplayers," Hudler says. "Or how about just people? We just need more redheads. I was a little bit hurt when my wife's genes dominated my four kids. I've got one blond, three with brown hair and no redheads. It took me a few years to get over that. But it's like my wife told me -- 'Hud, God made them. You didn't have anything to do with that.'"
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