SUPER SCOUT : Giants' George Genovese Is Genius at Finding Diamonds in the Mine

Times Staff Writer

If George Genovese were trying to assemble the finest team of rodeo cowboys, he would pay closest attention not to the heroes who ride the crazed animals but to the guys assigned to hose the beasts down after the performance.

Genovese, however, is a scout for the San Francisco Giants. And he has made a career out of discovering, nurturing and eventually signing to professional baseball contracts guys who not only didn't star on their high school or junior college teams, but in many cases didn't even start.

Some pro baseball scouts concentrate on drafting and signing polished diamonds, the elite players of amateur baseball. Others look for diamonds in the rough. Genovese goes another step. For 25 years, he has been discovering diamonds that are still in the mine, buried under a thick cover of immaturity and lack of instruction, guys buried deep on their own team's depth chart and who spend so much time sitting on the bench that they have earned endearing nicknames like "Splinter Butt."

Take George Foster. Genovese did. Everyone else looked at the 18-year-old Foster in 1967 and saw this incredibly skinny kid, a reserve at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale who appeared to have last eaten a good meal around the time of the Sputnik launch. Genovese saw a skinny kid who was just learning the basics of baseball, but who could, on occasion, launch a batting practice pitch nearly into Sputnik's orbital path.

With competition from no other scouts, Genovese signed him to a contract in 1968, and Foster was in the major leagues two years later. He was traded by the Giants after three seasons, but when he retired two years ago, Foster had hit more than 300 home runs, accumulated more than 1,100 runs batted in.

"Not bad for a skinny kid," said Genovese, 65, who lives in North Hollywood and patrols much of Southern California in search of talent.

"When I saw him for the first time he had an average arm and average speed, but the first time I pitched to him he showed tremendous power, amazing power for such a little guy. And he also had tremendous desire and a real willingness to learn. I never had to prod George Foster. He was always there, always ready. One of the first times I ever talked to him he said to me, 'Mr. Genovese, I'm going to play in the big leagues.' "

Before Foster there was Bobby Bonds, a kid signed by Genovese in 1964 after a high school career in Riverside that drew rave reviews from nobody. Except Genovese. He had organized a team called the Giants Rookies in 1964 for prospective players. The team, which Genovese still oversees, tours Southern California, playing against pickup teams made up of high school and American Legion players. Another Giants' scout, Evo Pusich, brought Bonds to see Genovese after Bonds' junior year in high school and Genovese put him on the team for the summer.

"After a few games I told Evo, 'When this kid graduates, sign him.' But he had a terrible senior year. Just terrible, and all interest in him died," Genovese said.

The Giants turned Bonds down, despite Genovese's pleadings. After he arranged another tryout for Bonds and the Giants again rejected him, Genovese called scouting director Jack Schwartz.

"I told Jack that I would lose sleep over not signing this guy," Genovese said. "I mean I would have really lost sleep. I thought he was that good."

The Giants gave in, signing Bonds to a contract and shipping him off to an instructional league. In his 10-year major league career, Bonds hit 332 homers, drove in 1,024 runs and stole 462 bases.

"In hindsight, we all would have lost more than a little sleep if we hadn't signed Bobby Bonds," Genovese said.

There were others.

In 1968, the same year he signed Foster, Genovese secured Gary Matthews out of San Fernando High School, where he was a pitcher. And not a very good one. But while other scouts saw a pitcher who couldn't pitch, Genovese saw a pitcher who could hit the ball out of sight and wondered why he wasn't a regular player.

He became one in the minor leagues and turned in a thumping major league career. In 13 years with the Giants, Atlanta, Philadelphia, the Chicago Cubs and the New York Yankees, Matthews hit 197 homers, drove in 869 runs and had a career batting average of .286.

"I didn't think he could pitch," Genovese said. "Nobody thought he could pitch. But this guy really turned me on at the plate. I thought to myself, 'This guy doesn't have to pitch, now does he?' "

The same year he signed Matthews and Foster, he also signed Garry Maddox, a scrawny kid from San Pedro High School who played second base and occasionally the outfield and impressed only his parents with his talent. Until Genovese saw him.

"I saw tremendous speed," Genovese said. "He would run down absolutely everything hit anywhere near him in the outfield. And the next game he'd be back at second base."

But not for long. Maddox became one of the best outfielders in the National League in a career with the Giants and Phillies, winning eight Gold Glove awards. He played for 13 seasons, the same as Matthews, and his career batting average was .286, the same as Matthews'.

"In high school, let's just say I was not the team star, not by any stretch of the imagination," Maddox said. "I always thought about playing in the major leagues. Everybody did. But I never, ever thought I was good enough. When I was drafted, I was more surprised than anybody. George saw something, I guess."

And after signing Maddox, Genovese wanted everyone else to see it.

"Both Matthews and Maddox idolized Willie Mays," Genovese said, "and I promised them before rookie league I'd introduce them. We went to Dodger Stadium and I said, 'Willie, I'd like you to meet a couple of major league ball players.' Willie laughed and said, 'George, you think everyone is a major league ball player.' "

When Mays got hurt during the 1972 season, Maddox was called up from the minors to replace him. It was the beginning for Maddox, the beginning of the end for an aging Mays.

A notable exception to Genovese's method of finding the unknown player came in 1970, when he insisted that the Giants make Dave Kingman, the USC star who was listed No. 1 on every scout's list, the year's top draft pick. But the next year, Genovese reverted to form, signing little-known pitcher John D'Acquisto.

And in 1972, Genovese signed Jack Clark out of Gladstone High School in Covina.

"No one chased him around," Genovese said. "I was the only scout even to see this guy. He played third base and pitched. I only saw him once, but you could tell right away he was a great athlete. We found out later that he could hit."

The rest of the National League, and most especially the Dodgers, have been reminded of that fact on a regular basis since Clark--who joined the New York Yankees as a free agent earlier this month--made it to the major leagues in 1975.

Chili Davis, traded by the Giants to the Angels last month, was another find for Genovese. Davis, a standout outfielder for the Giants, was a catcher at Dorsey High School.

"There was no competition there, either," Genovese said. "I was all alone watching Davis. I knew right away he could make it, but he wasn't a catcher."

In 1978 Genovese signed Rob Deer out of Canyon High School. "He had tremendous power, but he struck out so often he chased most of the scouts away," Genovese said.

The 6-3, 220-pound Deer made it to the majors in 1984, was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers and has become one of the American League's most feared power hitters, chasing a lot of pitchers away.

In 1983, Genovese came up with another blockbuster, signing pitcher Eric King out of Moorpark College in Ventura County. At the time, King was a long-haired kid who eventually irritated his coach enough to get tossed off the team. King routinely showed up at the field with a skateboard tucked under his left arm.

Genovese, however, only noticed King's right arm. The power-thrower has blossomed into a solid American League pitcher with the Detroit Tigers.

"George has had success over the years, unusual success," said Bob Fontaine, the Giants' Director of Player Personnel and Scouting. "Some scouts deal primarily with outstanding, recognized players. George is not afraid to get his hands dirty, to go out looking for some of the lesser players, the less prominent players. That's the icing on the cake. The outstanding, recognized kid takes care of himself. The plus is finding the kid who comes from a lesser stage and makes something big out of himself. George is one of those fellas who is willing to scrounge for some of the lesser lights."

Genovese signed his pro contract in 1940 with the St. Louis Cardinals. He heard of a Cardinal tryout in Waterbury, Conn., and chased his dream, leaving his home on New York's Staten Island with $1.25 in his pocket. For five days and nights, Genovese played baseball, slept in a barn and ate crackers and drank Pepsi.

Genovese was offered a contract for $80 a month. He played pro ball for 12 years but made it to the major leagues for only one season, 1950, with the Washington Senators. He managed in the Pirate organization for a decade, joined the Giants in 1960 and became a scout four years later.

His own hard-edged career, he said, made him understand what separates major leaguers from the rest of the players.

"First, you look for desire," he said. "First and foremost, that willingness to work, to sacrifice everything else. He has to have the raw tools, but a lot of guys have the tools."

And despite the million-dollar contracts that now seem common in the major leagues, Genovese said there's little difference between kids with dreams today and a 17-year-old kid with a dream from Staten Island in 1940.

"These kids are the same as I was," he said. "They don't think about the money at this stage. They know they're a long way from the money. At this age, it's the personal achievement that they're after, the idea that they can make it to the top."

The frustration of watching his organization win just three pennants or division championships since 1962 hasn't slowed Genovese. He believes he has unearthed a few more gems in the last couple of years.

Mike Greenwood was signed by Genovese last year and now roams the outfield for Genovese's Giants Rookies team, which plays pickup games most Saturdays and Sundays at Westlake High School. He leaves in February for his first full season of minor league baseball.

Greenwood was on the Moorpark College team when Genovese found him, but like so many Genovese discoveries before him, he wasn't playing much.

"I didn't really get a chance in college, but George kept me going," Greenwood said. "He told me I have all the tools, and whoever wants the major leagues the most will get it."

Says Genovese: "Greenwood is the closest thing to Garry Maddox I've ever seen."

Daris Toussaint, 19, is also on the Giants Rookies team. He was signed to a Giants' contract in 1986 after being cut twice from the El Camino Real High School team in Woodland Hills.

"He has excellent speed. He's a major league outfielder right now," Genovese said.

Danny Fernandez, 21, is off to the Giants' instructional league in Arizona this month. Not bad for a kid who wasn't good enough to play on his Cal State Northridge team, even as a senior.

"Fernandez can catch with just about anyone in the major leagues right now," Genovese said. "I can't believe his college didn't use him."

The list goes on and on. Bill Bluhm, a pitcher at Canoga Park High School and College of the Canyons, was signed by the Giants in 1987 after being released by the Dodger organization.

Daron Connolly of North Hollywood High School was signed in 1986 and seemed to prove why no one other than Genovese had any interest. He was pounded to an 0-5 record and an 8.24 ERA in his first year as a pro in the Northwest League. But last season, Connolly came back with a sparkling 2.76 ERA in a team-leading 47 appearances as a relief pitcher in the Class-A Midwest League.

Bill Carlson of Alemany High School in Granada Hills, Valley College, College of the Canyons, the University of Florida and an instructional league in Ecuador that he had to pay his own way, met Genovese in 1986 and signed with the Giants last January. In 1987, he had 10 homers and 20 doubles along with 68 RBIs in 64 games for the Giants' rookie league team in Idaho.

"George tells me I have a Jack Clark and Garry Maddox style," Carlson said. "He gives you all the confidence you need. He's always pumping everyone up."

Not everyone, Genovese said.

"If I believe a guy can't make it, if he honestly doesn't have it, then I tell him that," he said. "I've never strung a guy along that I felt had no chance of making it to the major leagues."

One of those Genovese has gently told that major league games for him would require a ticket included a struggling actor in 1976, Kurt Russell, who lived and dreamed baseball. Genovese let the young man play on his team but quickly realized he didn't have major league talent.

"Kurt had done a little acting, and I told him to forget baseball and make himself a career in the movie business," Genovese said.

In 1985--nine years, many films and many millions of dollars later--Russell drove to one of Genovese's games on a Sunday afternoon at Simi Valley High School. He begged Genovese to let him bat again, and the manager consented. Russell grounded out.

"See, I was right," Genovese yelled to his ex-player.

Russell smiled, shook Genovese's hand, walked to the parking lot and slid behind the wheel of his Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. And then he drove away with his girlfriend, actress Goldie Hawn, snuggled up against him.

Russell, perhaps, was more thankful than even George Foster, Gary Matthews, Garry Maddox, Bobby Bonds, Jack Clark, Chili Davis and the others for the sound judgment of super scout George Genovese.

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