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THE HEAT SEEKERS : Scouting Day at the Ballpark Is No Picnic

Times Staff Writer

When Joe Stephenson’s six children were growing up during the 1940s and ‘50s and other kids would ask them if their father worked, the Stephensons would usually reply, “No, he’s a baseball scout.”

To them, dad’s work didn’t seem like a real job. What was so tough about spending lazy afternoons at the ballpark with a bag of sunflower seeds and some chewing tobacco, and talking baseball and shooting the breeze with the other scouts?

Pose that question today to Kansas City Royal scout Gary Johnson, who once watched 14 teams in one day, and you may not get such a friendly response. Don’t even ask Atlanta Brave scout Bob Wadsworth, who once began a day at a high school game at Phoenix and finished at a USC game at Los Angeles that night.

Marty Keough, the St. Louis Cardinal scout who drives an average of 1,100 miles per week to various games, may have a few choice words about his profession, too, as will most of Southern California’s professional baseball scouts, who work year-round, who work six or seven days a week during the season and who often put in 14 hours a day.

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Yes, scouting is a job, and there’s a lot more to it than getting up at 9 a.m. and making phone calls to arrange the itinerary for the day, battling freeway traffic to get to two or three afternoon games and fighting rush-hour traffic to get to a night contest.

In addition to the traveling, scouts must be able to evaluate talent and predict which players will eventually be good enough to compete in the major leagues.

“I once heard a guy say that scouts are like artists,” said Johnson, who has been scouting for 28 years. “They’re able to look at a block of clay and see the sculpture inside it. It’s one of the few jobs in baseball that takes imagination. Scouts have to read the future.”

Though the tools of the trade have been modified, the art of scouting hasn’t changed drastically over the years. Scouts still come equipped with their little notebooks and stopwatches, but today they’re using radar guns to measure a pitcher’s velocity and videotape machines to better analyze player performance.

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But scouts today are looking for the same things they were 40 years ago--players who can run, throw, field, hit and hit for power. And they’re always looking for the ideal player.

“I’m looking for a guy, 6-3, who can hit like Ted Williams and run like Mickey Mantle,” Keough said. “He’s probably out playing golf somewhere.”

Once the scout does find a hot prospect, though, the job can get real interesting.

The nature of the business is very secretive--scouts never want other scouts, professional or collegiate, to know which players they’re interested in--and they’ll go to great lengths to conceal their interests.

Some teams have a policy of not mentioning any names to other scouts and, especially, to the press. With the draft a month away (June 3-5), most scouts refused to name whom they thought were the better players in the area.

“I don’t appreciate a college coach picking up a paper and reading my list of prospects,” Wadsworth said. “Let him do his own work.”

Added Keough: “The better kids, everyone knows about, but you can hide how much you like a certain kid. And there’s always two or three sleepers on the side that you don’t want to tell anyone about.”

Scouts also play games with other scouts in an effort to throw them off track. A typical conversation between scouts will go something like this:

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“Where were you today?”

“Oh, nowhere important, where were you?”

“Oh, nowhere. Who’d you see?”

“No one special. Who’d you see?”

“No one.”

And so on.

“I’ve seen scouts go to a park to see one player, get up and say, ‘I told you he couldn’t play!’ and then huff and puff and walk out,” Johnson said. “He might be doing that just to throw off the scouts he thinks are his serious competitors.”

Johnson recalled an incident about 10 years ago when he and then-Pittsburgh Pirate scout Angel Figueroa were scouting a pitcher at Rio Hondo College. When the teams finished taking pre-game infield practice, Johnson told Figueroa that he had to leave. Figueroa also said he was leaving, and both headed out of the parking lot in different directions.

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“I circled around the field and parked in another lot,” Johnson said. “I snuck through the bushes surrounding the outfield, and there was Angel. You think you’re pulling the wool over someone’s eyes, but the other guy does the same thing to you.”

Keough: “Once in awhile, when you’re at a game by yourself, you’ll see someone standing behind a tree somewhere. They might even be there just to see what scouts are at the game. It’s just a game we play.”

Scouting may still be covert in nature, but it’s not as cut-throat as it was before baseball adopted the free-agent draft in 1965.

Prior to 1965, there was an open market on players. Stephenson, who has been a Boston Red Sox scout for 35 years and has signed players such as Dwight Evans, Glenn Hoffman, Bill Lee, Tony Horton, Rick Burleson, Fred Lynn and Don Aase, said there were a lot of under-the-table payments made to prospects.

“Some scouts bought them cars or refrigerators and did little favors for them,” Stephenson, 63, said. “When I was scouting Joe Moeller, I made his father a part-time scout for three years, with the agreement that Joe would sign with the Red Sox if all other things were equal. The Dodgers offered him more money, so he signed with them.

“I remember I bought Joe Amalfitano a pair of baseball shoes, and, after he took a better offer from the Giants, he asked if I was going to take back the shoes.”

Scouting was more of a selling job before the draft, and one way to help influence a player to sign with your team was to develop a friendly relationship with that player’s parents.

Bob Holmes, 75, who retired from scouting last year after undergoing heart surgery, used an extreme effort while attempting to sign pitcher Paul Pettit about 35 years ago.

“I went there to see him, and his father was in the back yard chopping wood,” Holmes recalled. “I thought I’d get in real good, so I went out back and chopped some wood with the guy. By the time I got back into the house, there was another scout wiping dishes with the kid’s mother.”

Before the draft, Stephenson used to look for three or four players with major league potential, follow them throughout the season and, attempt to sign them. With the draft, he has no guarantee that his players will be available by the time the Red Sox choose.

But he still sticks to his original scouting format.

“You could put 20 names on your (recommended) list and you may not get any of them,” Stephenson said. “I’ve been shut out a few years, and it seems like a waste of time and a lot of hard work. But as long as everyone you requested is drafted, it shows you have good judgment.”

The free-agent draft led to the creation of the Major League Scouting Bureau, which provides the service of 60 national scouts to the 26 professional baseball teams.

It also led to a sharp increase in the number of full-time and part-time scouts. Because teams had no guarantee of obtaining their desired players, they wanted to see as many prospects as they could to provide them with draft picks they could fall back on.

Each organization employs from 18 to 25 full-time scouts and about 10 part-time scouts. Teams also use what are called bird-dog scouts, who are paid on commission according to the number of players they sign.

“When I was in high school (at Anaheim), there were maybe five or six scouts in all of Southern California,” said Jerry Stephenson, Joe’s son, who is an advance scout for the Dodgers. “Now, you go to a game and you need a scorecard to tell who the scouts are.”

No matter who those scouts are, you could probably approach any one of them at a game and he’d have a story to tell you. Scouts are a lot like fishermen--they love to talk about the ones that got away.

“You always remember the ones you didn’t sign because they can come back to haunt you,” Keough said. “I thought all (current Padre) Tim Flannery could do at Chapman College was hit. I said he couldn’t run enough, his arm wasn’t strong enough, and that all he could do was hit. Well, he’s been around the big leagues for a while.”

Keough, whose son Matt was a major league pitcher with the New York Yankees and the Oakland A’s, didn’t make the same mistake with pitcher Randy Jones. He signed the left-hander out of Chapman College, and Jones went on to win the Cy Young award with the Padres in 1976. And what impressed Keough the most about Jones?

“All he ever did was win.”


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