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Major League Baseball Scouts Still Have a Place in the Sun

MCCLATCHY NEWS SERVICE

The baseball diamond at Pedretti Park in Turlock is flanked by three softball fields and an almond orchard. On a brisk March evening better suited for a game of basketball inside a heated gymnasium, about 30 men gathered behind the backstop and went to work.

The adjacent softball fields were busy with women’s recreation league games. The sounds coming from those fields -- “RUN, Margie, RUN!” -- overlapped the sounds of the men putting their portable offices in order. Briefcases clicked open and revealed speed guns; cellophane cigar wrappers crunched; lighters clicked. Business as usual.

Steve Soderstrom was pitching for Turlock High School, and the major-league scouts were there en masse. They were there to hear the ‘thlop!’ of a fastball landing in the catcher’s mitt, to see the tight spin on the curve, to have this high school senior show them a live arm and some tenacity with a runner on third and less than two outs.

They had traveled all day, some of them, and they were looking to be rewarded for their trouble. They wanted this 17-year-old to jump out at them, to wind up and throw a fastball that would send them straight to their black notebooks, where they would write a series of numbers and abbreviations that would translate as one thing: big-league potential.

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The scout, baseball’s innocent bystander. Part psychoanalyst, part fortune teller, part spy.

On this night he works on his feet, straddling dark puddles of tobacco juice and snuffed-out cigar butts. Always, it seems, tobacco juice and cigar butts.

The talk starts early.

“I hear this kid’s a good student, and he comes from a pretty prominent family down here,” says Doug McMillan, 43, a first-year area scout for the Giants. “You’re probably going to have to like this guy as a first-rounder or forget about him. He’s going to want a lot of money, or he’ll go to school.”

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McMillan is part of this horde. An unenthusiastic part, to be sure, but a part nonetheless. One of 27 full-time Giants scouts, he covers a territory that might intimidate Magellan: south to Bakersfield, west to the Pacific, east to Reno and north to the Oregon border. If there’s a ballplayer out there, be it in Crescent City, Shafter or Downieville, McMillan is expected to know him.

He knows Soderstrom. But so do the Pirates, Tigers, Cubs, Blue Jays, Cardinals, Brewers and everybody else. Hence McMillan’s lack of enthusiasm.

“This kid’s a prospect, no doubt,” McMillan said. “He’s a big kid with a lot of talent. But everybody knows about him. Look at this: Everybody’s here. That’s not the fun of scouting. The fun comes when you find somebody you like and nobody knows about him.”

Soderstrom, a 6-foot-3 right-hander, takes the mound in the top of the first. The scouts train their speed guns on his warm-up pitches; it looks like a Highway Patrol primer course. Most of the guns read 85, 85, 86. The one McMillan strains to see--he doesn’t carry one himself--reads 81, 81, 82.

“That’s the Radar gun; it gives the real speed,” McMillan said. “The Jugs gun is always four or five miles too fast.”

Manteca High’s leadoff hitter steps to the plate, jiggling nervously, obviously aware of the crowd behind the plate. He watches four pitches, two of which are strikes, then flails meekly at a letter-high fastball and runs to the dugout, leaving a vapor trail of obscenity in his wake.

“He’s not loose,” one scout says of Soderstrom. “Did you see him down in the bullpen? He doesn’t know how to warm up. He’s down there throwing with his jacket on.”

The comments flow endlessly, usually directed at no one. The cardinal rule of the profession--"scout the player, not the game"--leaves room for considerable dialogue, most of it in the form of volleying wisecracks.

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The Manteca pitcher, no doubt hoping HE would be discovered, gives up hit after hit during a particularly laborious inning. “Come on, meat, get somebody out,” one scout growls under his breath. “You’d think they’d get somebody out just by accident.”

“We root differently,” McMillan says. “We root for the inning to get over with quickly so we can see who we want to see.”

Soderstrom, the one they came to see, winds up striking out 12 or 13 in six innings, but most of the scouts walk away shrugging. He looked good, sure, but Manteca’s lineup gave him little or no reason to throw much more than an occasional curve.

One scout, packing up during the bottom of the fourth, turned to another and raised his palms skyward. “Can’t really tell,” he said.

But they came. And they saw. And they walked away thinking Soderstrom could have thrown from second base and still struck out eight or nine.

“You look for certain things,” McMillan said. “You look for a loose wrist. When he brings his arm back behind him, see how it’s loose? That’s good. You can’t teach that. If a guy’s all tight back there, forget it. He won’t make it.”

Scouting is an anecdotal occupation, with every tall right-hander evoking comparisons to tall right-handers past. One of those past is McMillan, signed by the Giants at 17. He was 16-7 one year in Class-A, developed arm trouble shortly thereafter and never made it past Double-A.

But when he left the game, the game didn’t leave him.

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He got into scouting, first as a bird dog, then part-time in the Las Vegas area. He learned from two lifetime baseball men: George Genovese, a 68-year-old Giants area scout whose status is that of a legend; and Dick Wilson, a 67-year-old Detroit Tigers scout. Between them, they have accumulated a century of baseball knowledge.

“They trained me; I believe in them and look up to them,” McMillan said. “I believe in their way of doing things, which is the old-time way. The most important thing they taught me was to work hard. My judgment remains to be seen, but my desire doesn’t. I’ll never be home watching TV when I should be out watching a ballgame.”

McMillan was signed by George Genovese. His first professional manager was Dick Wilson. The ties bind.

Dick Wilson: “When Johnny Callison finished high school down in Bakersfield there were two scouts--Babe Herman, the former ballplayer, and Hollis Thurston, who was nicknamed ‘Sloppy’ and became kind of famous. This was before the draft, when you just had to go to a kid’s house -- usually the day of his high school graduation -- and try to sign him. Babe and Sloppy were from different teams, but they were good friends, so they decided to go into Callison’s house together. Well, Babe got the idea that he was really going to impress these people, so he decided he was going to cook dinner. So they get over there and Babe’s in cooking away and Sloppy signs Callison out in the living room.”

George Genovese: “I guess George Foster was the biggest surprise. He injured his knee and played one game his senior year in high school. He went to Dodger Stadium for a tryout during that summer and he told me they said, ‘George, we’ll call you; don’t call us.’ That’s what the Dodgers thought of him. He came out and played for my fall club, and I talked to him and liked him. I told him, ‘I’m going to draft you in the January draft. Meantime, you go play JC ball.’ He went to El Camino JC and hit .190. But I knew he could play. He just needed the opportunity. He had raw tools and tremendous desire.”

“I guess we’re a vanishing breed.” -- George Genovese

George Genovese sometimes feels like the engineer of the last steam locomotive. He sees his profession, his life, really, starting to spiral downward, flushed there by a new wave of baseball technocracy.

Baseball as Genovese knows it is not a corporation. It has nothing to do with cost efficiency or program analysis. George’s world is raw-boned teenagers fielding bad-hop grounders on hardscrabble infields, overthrowing the cutoff man, taking too big a turn around first and having to hustle back with a head-long dive.

For 27 years, Genovese has been one of the best there is at taking unpolished Southern California teenagers and projecting their baseball futures. Name a San Francisco Giant from the past 27 years, and there is a good chance George Genovese handed him the pen he used to sign his first contract.

George has found them sitting at the end of the bench (George Foster), playing catch in schoolyards (Eric King), even headed for a pick-up game walking down the Santa Monica Freeway with a splintered bat and a tattered glove (Garry Maddox).

That’s the old way of scouting. Genovese thinks it’s the right way. Now he sees young scouts leaning on the Major League Scouting Bureau. Every team in baseball employs the scouting bureau to file reports on players, making it easier for area scouts to cover their territory and cutting down on the number of scouts a team needs to employ.

Genovese calls this “communism in baseball.” He’d also rather do away with the June amateur draft, which forces scouts to spend time watching and formulating opinions on players they have a one-in-26 chance of landing. He grimaces when he sees scouts sharing information and converging over and over on the same diamonds to see the same players. It’s a trend he says leaves too many good players unseen.

“You go to any ballpark, and everybody’s out there watching one boy,” Genovese said. “For me, if I see everybody out there watching one boy, I’m not going to be there. The way I scout hasn’t changed. I’m going to be out beating the bushes to watch somebody they don’t know about. The bureau has made it too easy. They fill out reports, and then everybody rushes off to follow up on their reports. To me, that’s not scouting.

“The way people are scouting today has changed. Scouting’s become too computerized. They’re taking the solid way of scouting away.”

As an example, Genovese points to a catcher he saw on a semipro team about a dozen years ago. He saw potential, a strong arm and a quick bat. He also saw a birth date that said the catcher was 24. The interest waned.

“He’s still playing Sunday ball; I saw him last fall,” Genovese said. “As I look at him now, I know in my heart he would’ve been a big-leaguer. Had there been enough scouts around, somebody would have seen him. He would’ve had a major-league career.”

There is bitterness in the words, bitterness tumbling over pride. Genovese fears for baseball, afraid for what it is doing to itself by cutting back on farm clubs and relying too heavily on colleges to develop talent. His theory is to sign as many high school players as you can (“ ‘Quality out of quantity,’ Branch Rickey called it”), give them three or four years in the minors and wait for the results.

“The tendency now is going toward older ballplayers, the college ballplayer,” Genovese said. “Most of them are at their peak. By the time they get to pro ball, they are as good as they’re going to be.

“On a high school player, when I’m scouting I’m projecting down the road on a boy. I’m looking for a live body that is very well-coordinated. Maybe not physically strong yet, but who looks like he will be. A scout has to project. I played with guys like Stan Musial, so I know what those ballplayers looked like when they were that age.”

Genovese has made a living picking up traits that go unheeded by speed guns and stopwatches. And computers.

He refuses to believe that anything but flesh, blood and brain could have picked George Foster off the end of the bench, seen through his .190 batting average and into the heart of a powerful young man with deep determination and two strong forearms.

And how could anyone but a wizened baseball man have had the cunning to hide a talented but unknown 18-year-old catcher named Chili Davis in the bullpen on a day when a group of other scouts happened to show up at the ballpark?

George Genovese has signed more than 50 major-leaguers. He’d like to meet the computer that could stand up to that record.

Wilson: “Yeah, I’ve missed lots of ‘em. Some pretty good names, too. How about Dale Murphy? I saw him in high school up in Oregon, and I thought he was one of the best young catchers I ever saw. I just didn’t think he’d hit. Boy, was I wrong. ... But I think we’ve all missed our share. If it was held against us, I don’t think any of us would have a job.”

Genovese: “I’ll always remember how I signed Chili Davis. His parents were from Jamaica, and they were totally unaware that their son could make some money in baseball. They were totally ignorant of baseball, of how big it was. There had been some workers out at their house before I got there, and they had done about half the work and then took off with the money. Some kind of racket they were pullin’. Because of that it took me a long time to convince Chili’s parents that I was for real. Here I was, trying to give their son money, and they didn’t believe me. I finally convinced them, I guess. I think about that a lot. Now Chili’s makin’ close to a million.”

“Numbers don’t tell you everything.” -- Dick Wilson.

There are 160 stitches running across Dick Wilson’s face as he holds a telephone to his ear in a hotel room in Culver City. The stitches are remnants of skin cancer surgery. This is Wednesday. The surgery was Tuesday morning. Dick Wilson has just returned to his room after spending the day -- where else? -- at the ballpark.

“Oh, hell, I went to a game last night,” he said. “I can’t sit around a hotel room. I was supposed to go to one yesterday afternoon, too, but I couldn’t. I was kind of in a medicated fog.”

Scouting has been Wilson’s life for 29 years. He played and managed in the minors for 16 years before that. Now the Tigers employ him as a special-assignment scout, a job that takes him around the West Coast checking on players who have been highly recommended by area scouts.

He has been fighting skin cancer for a few years -- life’s payback for spending so many hours in the sun. He also suffers from eye problems that have hindered him in performing his life’s work. He can’t take too many long drives. He can no longer concentrate through three games in one day. He has to remind himself to blink.

“Each year it gets harder to start,” he said. “But I keep doing it. It’s a way of life. But I am tired of the travel; it’s getting to the point where there’s nothing new. I’ve seen everything.”

There are five tools a scout looks for in a position player: hitting, running, throwing, fielding and hitting with power. On two of those counts -- hitting and hitting with power -- Wilson is as good as there is at picking out flaws and recognizing potential.

“I go to a game with Dick and just watch him watch guys hit,” McMillan said. “Right away, when he sees a guy do something wrong, he’ll get this look on his face and then lets out this ‘aa-ugh.’ I don’t even think he knows he does it, but it’s hilarious. On the other hand, if he sees something he likes, he kind of tilts his head back and nods real slowly.”

Wilson’s system derives from 45 years of playing, managing and evaluating. His confidence manifests itself in two ways: laughing at his mistakes and shrugging off his successes. Experience, he says, is the only way to get there.

“I get around a lot of guys in the business now, and we don’t even speak the same language anymore,” Wilson says. “We’ve got different people in the front offices now, people without the extensive baseball background. They haven’t REALLY been around the game. ... Now there’s only a few people left who I can talk to.”

Those few share Wilson’s belief in things like the good face, a concept younger scouts often find amusing. Wilson doesn’t laugh. He says there is something you find looking into a kid’s eyes that you don’t find on the field. He can’t explain it, but he knows it when he sees it. Call it instinct, gut reaction, superstition, whatever you want. Dick Wilson calls it part of his job.

“There are certain things you can’t tell by performance,” he says. “There’s instinct and gut feeling involved in scouting.

“When I’m looking at a kid, I always go down and get what I call a head shot. I always enjoy going down after a ballgame and talking to him a little bit. It isn’t foolproof, but I can usually put a plus or a minus on it, come up with a positive or a negative.”

The best face Wilson has seen belonged to former Giants catcher Dave Rader, whom Wilson signed in 1966.

“I saw him at South Bakersfield High School, and I knew right away he was a winner,” Wilson said. “He had that look; he feared nothing. Then I talked to him afterward, and it just reinforced my opinion.”

Another kid with the good face, and all five tools, is Rob Richie. Wilson signed Richie, a second-round draft pick, out of the University of Nevada-Reno in 1987. An outfielder, Richie was named the Eastern League’s most valuable player in 1988. He was called up to the Tigers for September of last year. His promise seemed limitless.

But Richie quit the game on Feb. 9, turning his back on the Tigers to devote his life to religion. In a way, he also turned his back on Dick Wilson. In the eyes of a scout, Richie didn’t go to the majors alone: He carried with him Dick Wilson’s name, Dick Wilson’s reputation.

“He had everything, but he quit to be with the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Wilson said. “He’s witnessing, they call it. I think he’s being misled and misguided.

“I’ve tried to explain to him that he’d do more good, have more impact, being Rob Richie, outfielder for the Detroit Tigers, than doing that door-to-door stuff. His statement was, ‘God and baseball don’t mix.’ I told him that’s just not true, and there’s evidence of it every day -- James Worthy, Orel Hershiser, the list is long. I told him I don’t know any cleaner thing to do than play baseball. It’s the cleanest occupation around. But he just says the same thing: ‘God and baseball don’t mix.’ I just said, ‘You can mix ‘em and have more impact.’

“He told me, ‘You work to reach the top, and then that’s it.’ He said, ‘I got to the big leagues, and that’s it.’ I told him, ‘That’s NOT it. You’ve got to prove you can stick.’ He didn’t prove anything except that he’s the best they had. They were looking for help, taking anybody. I told him, ‘Rob, you took the easy way out.’ He has the ability, though. A whole lot of ability ... .”

Wilson’s voice trails off. He sighs. He is no doubt sitting on the side of the bed, shaking his head at the wonderment of it all. A 24-year-old kid, with all five tools, who doesn’t want to make his living playing baseball? Dick Wilson, his face full of stitches, his eyes ailing, will never understand.

Genovese: “I organized a rookie team during January of ’64, and a boy named Bobby Bonds showed up. From the first day I saw him, I liked him and told the club to sign him. But I was also looking at Kenny Henderson, and he was my number one priority. So high school graduation came and I signed Henderson, but we didn’t sign Bobby Bonds. I couldn’t understand what was going on. Turns out someone from the club came out to look at him one day and Bobby had a terrible day. They decided they didn’t like him. Well, I brought him back again, and he still looked good to me. I called (scouting director) Jack Schwarz and said, ‘Jack, we have to sign this kid. I would lose sleep if we don’t.’ Jack said, ‘OK, George, we’ll sign him.’ The rest, as they say, is history.”

Wilson: “I saw Ron Cey in high school and in college at Washington State. The coach at Washington State, Chuck Brayton, is a good friend of mine. I told Chuck, ‘Chuck, he’ll never hit the pitch low and away with that body.’ Chuck looked at me and said, ‘Dick, he’s either going to be a legend or he’s going to be a flop.’ ”

Doug McMillan checks the stands at a ballpark somewhere in Northern California. It is the second game of a doubleheader, and the other scouts have gone home. His heart beats a little faster. He smokes a few extra cigarettes.

He is here to see a pitcher, a left-hander who comes packaged with an endorsement from George Genovese. That is all McMillan needs to know. He’ll watch closely.

The kid has the good face. Sharp features, hat pulled down low -- the kind of guy McMillan says would “hit you, then laugh at you.” He makes a mental note: good presence, good makeup. And best of all, no bureau report. He had slipped through the net.

This, McMillan said, was scouting, REAL scouting. It makes up for all the hours in the car, nights in a motel, meals at Denny’s, time away from his wife and three children.

“Sometimes the travel is worth it,” he said. “Other times you get in the car, drive 180-200 miles full of anticipation, then you get to the ballpark and some lump walks out on the field. Then you get mad.”

But this was a day to ease the drudgery.

“Scouting isn’t the first-rounders,” McMillan said. “The fun of scouting is trying to find some kid nobody knows about -- or somebody nobody else likes.”

There was no tobacco juice, no cigar butts. Only McMillan’s spent Marlboros and a sparse, unenthusiastic crowd.

McMillan was, in his words, bearing down on this guy. And he was, in the words of his profession, falling in love.

He watched closely as the kid warmed up in the bullpen. He pulled his black book out of his back pocket and jotted down a few quick observations (“Good balance. Good run on fastball. Good action on change. Below ave. breaking ball”).

“It looks like George knew what he was talking about,” McMillan said. “I can tell already the kid knows how to pitch.”

McMillan watches the first inning from behind home plate, the second from the left-field line and the third from the right-field line.

“One scout went by this theory that ballplayers have eight sides,” McMillan said. “I don’t know if I buy that, but I like to see a pitcher from different angles.”


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