BRIDGEWATER, N.J. - You could see why they wanted him. Anthony Hewitt took batting practice Wednesday, and everything looked right. Hewitt is 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, his beefy upper body tapering to his feet like a giant V, and at each pitch he took an easy inside-out swing from the right side of home plate. Still, the ball rocketed off his bat: a line drive to the right-center-field gap, a deep fly ball to the warning track, so easy.
As a senior in high school, Hewitt had put on an awe-inspiring batting-practice display that had helped persuade the Phillies to select him in the first round of the 2008 Major League Baseball amateur draft. Similarly, it was impossible not to notice him as he stood in that cage Wednesday, for his swing or his wardrobe. Underneath his baseball pants, he wore a pair of athletic leggings that seemed to have been modeled after a Jefferson Airplane album cover - a psychedelic combination of gray, lime green, and orange.
"Keep the legs warm," he said. "Express the personality."
Then Hewitt ducked into the visiting dugout here at TD Bank Park. His team - the New Britain (Conn.) Bees of the independent Atlantic League - was playing the Somerset (N.J.) Patriots in less than two hours, but his work for the night was finished. Over 141 at-bats this season going into Saturday, Hewitt was batting .206, with five home runs and 54 strikeouts. Because the Patriots were starting a righthanded pitcher Wednesday night, Hewitt was not in New Britain's lineup. He didn't play at all in the Bees' 8-7 victory, or the next night, either.
Anthony Hewitt is 27 years old, and his greatest contribution to the Phillies has been not as a promising young ballplayer but as a cautionary tale, the symbol of a decade of bad luck, bad decisions, and questionable methods that left the organization's farm system an empty husk.
From 2004 through 2013, the Phillies followed a philosophy of drafting players whom they considered to have terrific potential but a greater possibility of failure. It was the scouting equivalent of swinging for the fences. With so many positions on the major-league roster filled by stars or franchise mainstays - Ryan Howard at first base, Chase Utley at second base, Jimmy Rollins at shortstop, Carlos Ruiz at catcher, Pat Burrell and Jayson Werth and Shane Victorino in the outfield - the Phillies felt emboldened to take chances on prospects possessing that oh-so-alluring quality: upside.
None of them manifested it. The 46 Phillies draft picks who made the majors over those 10 years, according to analysis by MLB.com, combined for a 20.7 wins above replacement, by far the lowest WAR of any major-league organization. That inability to replenish talent led to the franchise's free fall from 102 victories in 2011 to 63 last year, and as the 24th overall pick in the '08 draft, Hewitt is the consummate representation of where the Phillies thought they were going and where they ended up.
During his seven years in the Phillies system, he never advanced beyond double-A Reading, never batted higher than .244, and never learned how, in a common scout-speak phrase, to "recognize pitches." That is, he can't hit a curveball.
"He comes off the pitch a little bit," New Britain manager Stan Cliburn said. To hear Hewitt tell it, though, all he needed was more time to develop and more people in the Phillies organization who were willing to help him.
"I didn't feel like I got a fair shot," he said. "There are a lot of things I can say but won't say, but I wish I would have gotten opportunities that I asked for while I was there. If I could change anything, it would be to get more reps, to work with somebody to find a gauge. Let's say you have your slowest swing and your hardest swing, finding that happy medium and staying there consistently, working on the curveball machine all the time, going to video time and time again."
This is a familiar song in baseball, "The Ballad of the Guy Who Never Got a Shot," and the lyrics don't mention that the Phillies gave Hewitt 2,199 plate appearances in the minors to show what he could do, that they were well aware as they scouted him of the risks he presented.
The son of a New York City Port Authority police officer, Hewitt had grown up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. In 1990, the year after Hewitt was born, there were 106 murders in the two police precincts that patrol Crown Heights, according to New York police records. In 1991, there were the infamous Crown Heights race riots. As a boy, Hewitt became a star for the Bonnies Youth Club, a baseball program that acts as a pipeline for prep schools throughout the Northeast.
"My dad didn't want me to go to school in the inner city at all," Hewitt said, "because he knew of the distractions."
Hewitt instead earned scholarships to two boarding schools, including the Salisbury School in Connecticut. There, Hewitt hit .536 with eight home runs in his senior season, and the Phillies banked that he had the work ethic and athleticism necessary to overcome the obvious concerns. He played shortstop for Salisbury, but his defensive limitations would likely force the Phillies to move him to third base or the outfield. And because a New England boarding school didn't provide the same competition as, say, a public-school league in Florida or California, there was no telling whether Hewitt would mature as a hitter once he began playing pro ball.
"We watched a game and had the coach throw a batting practice after the game on the field," said Marti Wolever, who at the time was the Phils' director of amateur scouting. "Very impressive batting practice. Gosh, batting practice should be impressive. The risk was, was he going to be able to make the adjustment at the plate? Everything else, we were all in."
As it turned out, he never did adjust, and he allowed two contagions to eat away at his confidence: the pressure of living up to his million-dollar-plus signing bonus, and the public criticism he encountered as he struggled. His roommate with the Bees is outfielder Greg Golson, the Phillies' first-round pick in 2004, who played just 42 major-league games himself.
"We've talked about that, especially with a fan base as unique as Philly," Golson said. "They expect a lot out of their team, especially out of a first-rounder. They give you a lot of money, and if you don't produce, if you're the type of guy like he was and like I was, when we were reading a lot of the things that people were saying, it gets to you. It makes you question yourself."
Nevertheless, on those occasions that a pitcher threw him something straight, Hewitt could leave his teammates gobsmacked. He hit 16 home runs for Reading in 2013, one of which sailed beyond the left-center-field fence and toward the scoreboard at the team's home park, FirstEnergy Stadium. Near the scoreboard stood two pillars that appeared to be brick.
"Hewie hit it on top of one of those pillars, and we found out it wasn't brick," said Phillies first baseman Tommy Joseph, who played with Hewitt at Reading in 2013 and 2014. "It was actually made of metal. It made the 'ding' sound, and you were like, 'Hmm. Never would have known that unless somebody like him would have hit it.' Some of the most raw, unbelievable power I've ever seen."
What might have been
Hewitt played just 13 games last year, all for the Frederick Keys, the Baltimore Orioles' affiliate in the Carolina League, before undergoing knee surgery. He signed with New Britain in March.
"The older I get," he said, "the earlier I want to get here." But knowing he would not be in the lineup Wednesday, he did not take the team bus to TD Bank Park. He drove himself there, stopping at a Popeye's for lunch since there were no restaurants within walking distance of the team hotel - a Clarion three miles south.
He thinks often, he said, about how things might have turned out differently for him. He turned down a scholarship offer to Vanderbilt University to sign with the Phillies, and he plans to enroll in classes there next year, maybe to study business. "I'll play as long as I possibly can," he said, but the Bees didn't have enough money in their budget this season to hire a full-time batting coach, so it will be difficult for Hewitt to get all the reps he might want.
"You've got to adjust to your league, to the competition around you," said Cliburn, who has been coaching and managing in the minors for more than 30 years, "and if you don't, you'll fall by the wayside. Maybe that kind of caught up with Anthony. . . . No matter the circumstances, you've got to make it work. You can't rely on somebody else to make you a player."
Minutes later, Hewitt arrived at the park - after the rest of the Bees - and sat in the dugout, watching his teammates take batting practice and shag fly balls, a fourth outfielder with personality-expressing legwear on an unaffiliated minor-league team. Is this how he thought everything would look for him?
"Honestly, I'm right where I'm supposed to be," Anthony Hewitt said, and he kept staring out at that green field on a gorgeous early evening in a small and empty ballpark, without any apparent recognition of how true his words really were, for him or for the franchise that had drafted him.