JOSH BECKETT STARES, WRINKLES HIS ROUND FACE, and for the first time all day, says no. It’s after school, and while his friends are off doing whatever teenagers do, the eighteen-year-old is posing patiently for a photographer from a scholastic magazine. Already he has endured interviews and a long signing ceremony—complete with more pictures—for a college he will likely never attend. Now outdoors, the righthander is rocketing fastballs into the mitt of his catcher, his lanky six-foot-four-inch frame slowly balletic on the mound: elongated arms stretched overhead, exaggerated high kick, forward and downward motion, release, all deliberate and smooth. The photographer shoots from the catcher’s vantage, jumping when the ball slams into his glove. She has Josh juggle three balls and gaze meaningfully into the outfield. Finally, she asks him to tip his cap. “No,” he says.
Yet Josh is not a rebellious sort; he’s determined, or—as his mother says with a touch of exasperation—“strong willed.” He is also aloof at times, though the Spring High School senior and two-time all-American becomes engaging when the talk turns to baseball. His poise only breaks for his goofy laugh and his frequent use of “freakin’” or “awesome.” He’s a kid, really, though one who happens to hurl a 95-mile-an-hour fastball with pinpoint accuracy, average fourteen strikeouts a game, post a 0.39 earned run average, bat .545, and stand a good chance of being the nation’s number one pick in June’s major league baseball draft.
Such stats are phenomenal, even for the seven-inning games and short season of high school ball. “I’ve never seen a pitcher with his ability—ever,” says his coach, Kenny Humphreys. “It’s the total package. Not only can he pitch but several organizations have said if he couldn’t throw anymore, they’d draft him as a position player.” To make sure Josh is sound mentally too, teams that might select him have made a battery of psychological tests, designed to detect trouble-prone personalities, part of his preseason routine. He shrugs them off. “You just have to be confident,” he says.
Yet this sharp focus had some blurry edges in his freshman year. Josh soberly recalls being “messed up” and not minding his grades or his coach. Frustrated, Humphreys went through the motions of throwing him off the team. It was a wake-up call. Nearly stripped of his dream, Josh raised his sights and his GPA and was soon rattling his peers. He would go 9-3 with a 1.18 ERA his sophomore season, tossing three no-hitters.
Word of the prodigy’s promise spread beyond the Houston suburbs. Before the start of last season, Collegiate Baseball and Baseball America each listed Josh, then a junior, as the top high school prospect in the country. As agents and scouts descended, a full-scale frenzy ensued. A USA Today follow-up then named Spring the nation’s number one high school team. Under the microscope, the young pitcher never lost his composure. In fact he thrived on the attention. Spring logged a 25-6 record in 1998, and Josh ended his junior season at 13-2. He walked just 20 batters all year and averaged an astounding 2.1 strikeouts per inning. “If he goes out and throws an average game, he’s gonna strike out fourteen,” Humphreys says. “There’s only twenty-one outs in a game. So if he strikes out fourteen, you have to play the ball seven times. That’s it. We need to make six or seven plays and probably get about three runs, and it’s done.”
“I can hit the corners,” Josh says. “I’m not scared to throw inside, because I pretty much know where it’s going to go.”
Usually it’s right into the catcher’s mitt. Josh throws a dangerous curve and is working on a slider, but his three different fastballs are what consistently sit batters down. Glaring, his mouth drawn into a pencil-thin line, he goes into his windup, which is well practiced (there’s a worn spot on the carpet in front of the mirror in his family’s living room) and reminiscent of Nolan Ryan’s. “Oh, yeah,” Josh acknowledges, “everybody wants to be like him, like every basketball player wants to be like Michael Jordan. Nolan Ryan is the Michael Jordan of baseball. Actually”—he pauses—“Michael Jordan might be the Nolan Ryan of basketball.”
As Josh’s last season at Spring High—and the summer draft—approaches, the Beckett household is in a heightened state of reality. His parents, John and Lynn, are proud and supportive of their son but concerned about how he will adjust. “No matter what you do,” Lynn explains, “when you step out there, there are pressures from the outside world that Mom and Dad can’t protect you from anymore.”
Josh has given it some thought. “The cooking stuff kind of scares me. Here’s the closest I’ve come to cooking a steak,” he says, waving a bag of beef jerky. “I’ll have, like, the grocery store rack in my apartment.”
Should he sign with a big-league organization, he’ll start with others in his age group and move up through the farm system. When and if he debuts in the majors hinges on many things. “It depends on who gets him,” Humphreys says. “Do they need what he does, and when? Barring injuries, he’ll be a major league pitcher. He’s just too good.”
“If all you gotta do is win to get up there, I don’t think I should have any trouble,” says Josh, who theorizes that a team will move a player right up “if they make a good investment in him.”
That’s the hidden subtext of this drama: money, lots of it. Last year’s draft choice, Pat Burrell, a third baseman drafted out of the University of Miami, signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for a $3.15 million bonus and a guaranteed $8 million over five years. While an indisputable lure, can all those zeros be anything but abstract to someone still collecting an allowance from his parents?
Riches aside, Josh wants to play in the pros—and he wants to get there in a hurry, joining such luminaries as Darryl Strawberry and Ken Griffey, Jr., as a number one pick. “I want to be first. I really do,” he says. “I think that would be the greatest thrill in my life because I’ll always be able to look back on it. Even if I don’t make it through the show, I did something. That would just be great to tell my kids and tell my grandkids, and everything like that. That would be awesome.”