Hill Climber

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The science of scouting, at times, can be decidedly unscientific.

Such was the path Nakia Hill took into professional baseball. The former Cal State Northridge infielder found new life in baseball when his playing career ended.

Hill became a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals.

And he quickly became a member of the new guard. At 26, he is a young African-American scout in a profession evolving from years of being dominated by white men.

In a game that prides itself on the legacy of Jackie Robinson, scouting remained as white as a box of new balls.

That has started to change. Baseball can point to minorities in the executive levels, though the numbers are not overwhelming.

Frank Mattox of the Seattle Mariners is the only African-American scouting director. Ken Williams of the Chicago White Sox, an African-American, is the only minority general manager.

Hill aspires to rise through the scouting ranks and reach the executive suite. He thinks his business acumen and baseball instincts will enable him to succeed in a field where until recently African-Americans were ignored.

"There is a barrier that kind of creates assumptions," Hill said. "For some reason, scouts have been traditionally older. It's like, I can talk to a few older guys, and [others] will see you as the courtesy token scout."

For the most part, he was welcomed into the stopwatch-clicking circles this spring. He participated in his first draft this month.

"The more I got to be seen, I think the more confidence [other scouts] had in me," he said. "There will be those who turn their noses up, and then there are some guys who are fully cool."

In the mid 1990s, scouting split into three branches--major league advance scouts, pro scouts responsible for minor league coverage, and the traditional free agent scouts in charge of signing amateurs. More local scouts moved into pro scouting. Some, like Mattox, reached executive positions with power to shape their organization's drafts.

The increasing diversity of baseball created a need for local scouts with the abilities valued at the executive levels.

"The game is just expanding so much that you need diversity in your organization," said Mattox, 38, who scouted the Valley and Ventura County as a charter member of the Colorado Rockies' staff in the 1990s.

Hill had a valuable connection in Cardinal scout Chuck Fick, who recommended him to Marty Maier, the team's scouting director.

"Nakia was hired by the St. Louis Cardinals because he was the most qualified individual," Fick said. "He has a good background as a player, he's got tremendous enthusiasm, and has a chance to become a very good scout."

Hill, who transferred to Northridge from Cal State Fullerton, was stuck in a personal purgatory far from the game, working at an office job. He jumped at the chance to return to baseball.

"Minority or not, it can be tough," said Mattox, who became Seattle scouting director in 1997 after five years as regional scout.

"Whether you're playing or scouting, you have to be very patient in baseball. Things don't always advance quickly. It can take years. I've been lucky. I never envisioned I would become a scouting director so quickly."

Now Hill finds himself at the start of a new career. Instead of playing to be seen, Hill searches for those hoping to be found.

"It takes years to become a very good scout," said longtime scout George Genovese, 79, who became a scout at age 42 and signed more than 60 players who reached the major leagues.

"Nakia is a very sharp guy. The best thing a young scout can do is listen and observe. Then he can look back on his playing experience and evaluate what he has seen."

The Dodgers signed Hill at Genovese's urging in 1998. When his playing career ended a year later, Hill wondered if baseball would be in his future.

"When I left high school, I had two goals," Hill said. "One was to play in the major leagues. One was to have a college degree. When I turned 25, I hadn't achieved either."

Hill returned to Northridge to complete his business degree while he scoured ballparks in his first season as a scout. Hill tells stories of player information cards dropping out of his notebooks in class.

Hill completed his business degree last month. He speaks Spanish and his experience in college and professional baseball fits well with his goal to become a major league general manager.

"He has a lot of things going for him," Mattox said. "He can bring a different perspective."

Recognizing something in a player others miss is what scouting is all about.

"Maybe I've been put in this position to help guys who for whatever reason aren't being noticed," Hill said. "It's too easy to be swayed by the majority opinion. You have to go with your instincts. You have to trust yourself."

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