SAN FRANCISCO -- Matt Cain met with representatives from so many Major League teams before the 2002 First-Year Player Draft that they became a blur. He did, however, form a lasting impression of Lee Elder, the area scout for the San Francisco Giants.
"I remember Lee," Cain said recently, "because he had his gigantic Yankees [World Series] ring."
Ultimately, Cain would help broaden Elder's jewelry collection.
The significance of the Giants drafting Cain extends beyond the 10-year anniversary of the event. The symbolism is enduring.
The Giants reached the World Series in 2002 with a ballclub -- for that matter, a franchise -- dominated by slugger Barry Bonds. Little did they know that Cain, their first-round selection in that year's Draft, would personify the first building block of their next Series team. The Giants defeated the Texas Rangers in five games in the 2010 Fall Classic with a pitching-oriented squad led partly by Cain.
After signing several free agents to complement Bonds, the Giants lost their first-round selections in 2004 and '05, and didn't pick until the fourth round in '05.
When the Giants resumed drafting in the first round in 2006, they chose a right-hander from the University of Washington named Tim Lincecum. The diminutive, dynamic pitcher has won two National League Cy Young Awards and helped to hasten the Giants' rise to prominence.
By the time San Francisco had drafted Lincecum, Cain already was a cornerstone of their Major League pitching staff. The Giants saw to it that Cain will keep this status by signing him to a six-year, $127.5 million contract extension in April.
Yet Cain initially appeared on San Francisco's radar by accident.
In early March 2002, Elder, who spent 10 years with the Yankees before joining the Giants' scouting staff in '00, wanted to get a better look at Conor Lalor, the ace pitcher for Houston High School in Germantown, Tenn. Elder drove two hours to the site of Houston's game, only to learn upon arriving at his destination that Lalor had the flu and wasn't in uniform. Cain, Houston's No. 2 pitcher, made the start instead. Reluctant to waste his trip, Elder stayed.
Cain quickly rewarded Elder for his decision.
"He wasn't overpowering," Elder said, recalling that Cain threw his fastball at approximately 88-89 mph. "But his arm -- I'm telling you, that was the quickest arm I'd seen."
Somewhat remarkably, Elder was the only scout attending the game. He excitedly telephoned Dick Tidrow, the Giants' player personnel director.
"I said, 'Dick, I'm watching the quickest arm I've ever seen, and there's nobody here except me.' He said, 'Oh, wow, don't tell anybody.' That was how I stumbled onto Matt."
Elder continued to monitor Cain's progress.
"He was one of the few kids I've ever seen that, every time out, his velocity increased," Elder said.
By that point, Cain had begun to attract attention from other teams. He sensed that his goal of playing professional baseball was approaching fruition. But he doubted that he would be selected in the first round.
"From what I heard, it was going to be the Braves or the Cubs in the supplemental round," Cain said.
When Draft Day arrived, Cain, his parents, Tom and Dolores, and a gathering of relatives huddled around the computer to track each selection on MLB.com. This was a different technological era, which hampered the family's ability to follow the Draft through the Internet.
"We had dial-up," Cain said, "and it wasn't working."
Silence frequently interrupted the Draft broadcast.
Somehow, Dolores Cain caught up. Accustomed to keeping score when her son pitched -- "It keeps me from being nervous," she said -- she logged each selection on a sheet of paper.
Pittsburgh chose Ball State right-hander Bryan Bullington first overall. Tampa Bay followed by taking B.J. Upton, then a shortstop. Other notable first-rounders included right-hander Zack Greinke (taken sixth by Kansas City), first baseman Prince Fielder (seventh to Milwaukee), left-hander Cole Hamels (17th to Philadelphia) and first baseman James Loney (19th to the Los Angeles Dodgers). The Internet interruptions persisted, but the Cains knew that Matt hadn't been selected.
The Cains didn't know that the Giants' interest in him was serious. Selecting any high school pitcher is risky, particularly a 17-year-old such as Cain was. But Giants general manager Brian Sabean had relied on Tidrow's evaluations of pitchers for years. Asked if he felt any hesitance about drafting Cain, Sabean said, "Not on my part. That's how much we trust Dick's acumen."
The Giants also liked outfielder Jeff Francoeur of Georgia's Parkview High School. When the Atlanta Braves took Francoeur with the 23rd pick, two ahead of San Francisco's turn, the Giants' decision was easy.
Back in Germantown, when the Cain family's Internet connection remained intact long enough to convey the news that the Giants had selected Matt, the initial reaction was disbelief.
"It was just all like kind of a shock," Cain said. "First round? Twenty-fifth pick? San Francisco Giants? We were excited about it, but we were never so caught up in exactly what was going to happen that we were overly anticipating that it would happen."
The Giants faced one more hurdle: Convincing Cain to scrap plans to attend the University of Memphis. The $1.375 million bonus they offered ended what little debate may have transpired.
"The Giants made it a no-brainer,' Cain said.
Cain's parents allowed him to reach this decision entirely on his own.
"It was going to be his life," Dolores Cain said.
History has affirmed that he made the right choice.