Scout’s honor: It’s Phil Pote
The old scout doesn’t shake hands. The old scout can’t shake hands.
Phil Pote’s sun-baked right fist is so twisted from 50 years of clutching a lineup card and pen that he no longer opens it in greeting.
You don’t shake hands with the old scout, you bump fists -- high, low, head-on -- in a three-pronged routine that is only one of the scars.
The old scout has a shuffling gait from years of chasing prospects, deep wrinkled skin cancer from doing it in the sun, declining vision from describing it all in tiny handwritten notes on crumpled paper.
Even more compelling is what he doesn’t have.
No wife, no children, no air conditioning in his cluttered, ancient house on a hill near Dodger Stadium, and no more expense account from his bosses with the Seattle Mariners.
During the middle of this week’s national high school showcase Area Code Games at USC, the old scout excuses himself from his folding chair to return to his battered convertible parked on a nearby street.
Unable to afford the campus lot, he has to feed the meter.
In what might be his last summer of work, while chasing what might be the last player he signs, the old scout has a warning.
“I’m beat up and broke down,” Phil Pote says, laughing. “If you don’t slow down, you will end up like me.”
You will end up like me.
At first glance, a sad thing, there being nothing more forgotten in baseball than an old scout.
Despite the celebrated baseball practice of collecting, rating and bartering prospects, the world ignores the guys who sign them.
There are no scouts in baseball’s Hall of Fame. There are no old-timers days for scouts, no mid-game video tributes for scouts, no first pitches or last hurrahs.
Once a scout reaches the age of 76 like Southland legend Pote, there is no way to retire gracefully, so they simply don’t retire.
When you offer to meet Pote at his home, he sets up two folding chairs down the left-field line of a prep baseball game.
“This is my home,” he says.
While other scouts are ensconced in bleacher seats in the shade, Pote opts for a better view under the sun.
“It’s not about seeing better, it’s about hearing better,” he says. “I want to hear the ball off the bat. I want to hear the players talk. I want to hear the game.”
Yet he says this with a giant hearing aid in each ear.
With a plastic pen, he scribbles. With the greatest of hope for that one final big star, he scouts. With each at-bat, he slowly disappears.
“The game goes on, and everyone forgets the old guys,” says Greg Whitworth, the Mariners’ area scouting supervisor who works with Pote. “They give their heart and soul and . . . nothing.”
Nothing given, it seems, and everything taken.
Pote is asked, even with the added expense, why couldn’t you have just talked your way into the campus parking lot?
“Like any old scout, I’m full of b.s.” Pote says. “But I think I dispelled enough of it over the years that there isn’t any left.”
You will end up like me.
At first glance, a sad thing, then you listen to Phil Pote’s encouragement to take a deep breath, sit in one of his cheap folding chairs, and just watch.
Scout the scout, he urges, and so you do.
First thing you notice is, it’s tough for Pote to watch a game from his spot down the left-field line because his view is increasingly blocked.
Stretched golf shirts everywhere, scouts leaving the stands and lining up to say hello to him, to thank him, to pump that fist.
And it’s never Phil. It’s always “Mr. Pote.” That, or “the Ancient Mariner.”
“If the baseball scouts around here were a city, Phil would be the mayor,” Whitworth said. “He has left a lasting impression on all of us.”
The second thing you notice is that some of these proteges remember Pote not only for his baseball eye, but his baseball embrace.
Like many scouts, he not only found prospects, he groomed them, spending more than 30 years coaching inner-city Los Angeles baseball in places like Fremont High, Locke High and Los Angeles City College.
“He would go places nobody else would go,” remembers Derrel Thomas, a longtime major leaguer who went to Dorsey High. “He was a great baseball man who wasn’t afraid to come in there and help us, and we never forgot him.”
During Pote’s 50 years scouting for the Oakland Athletics, Dodgers and Mariners, he signed several notable major leaguers, including Matt Keough, Chet Lemon and Wayne Gross.
But during that time, he is also proud of the kids he coached, which included Bob Watson, Bobby Tolan and the late Willie Crawford on Fremont’s 1963 City champions.
“This is a man who has spent his life standing up for Los Angeles City baseball,” says Shannon Williams, coach of Compton College.
The third thing you notice is that Phil Pote does all of this the hard way.
Unlike virtually every other scout alive, he doesn’t use a computer, he has no e-mail address, he has never accessed the Internet. Unlike most scouts, he also doesn’t use a radar gun or video camera, nothing but a stopwatch and a stare.
“I came into this world without all that technology, I will leave without it,” says Pote.
Also, unlike everyone in all areas of baseball, Pote doesn’t work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, as he observes his Sabbath as a Seventh Day Adventist.
“It is a tribute to baseball’s tolerance that I’ve been allowed to hang around so long with such a restriction,” Pote says. “I’ve been very blessed.”
Hang around the old scout long enough and realize that it’s baseball that has been blessed.
Listen to the story of how Crenshaw’s Darryl Strawberry signed his first contract with the New York Mets only after Pote -- who didn’t even work for the Mets -- assured him that he was being treated fairly.
Listen to the story of how Pote’s Fremont team wore uniforms with giant numbers because he wanted them to walk into hostile suburban schools with oversized pride.
Listen to how Pote was the voice for local baseball fixture Dennis Gilbert’s philanthropic mission to build a stadium at L.A. Southwest College. It is no coincidence that Gilbert also founded the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation, the leading benefactor of needy scouts everywhere.
Finally, listen to John Young, the founder of the first and most successful national inner-city baseball movement in history, the 20-year-old Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program.
“Phil Pote was my inspiration for that program,” says Young, a former major leaguer from south Los Angeles. “I remember I signed my first contract and I bought a new car and I was cruising around when I ran into Phil.”
Pote encouraged Young to give back to the community, Young listened, and the rest is a wondrous bit of baseball history.
“I saw the impact Phil was making, and I realized I could make the same impact, so I went for it,” Young says. “None of it would have happened without Phil.”
The old scout is still pushing his causes, pushing for scouts to be allowed in the Hall of Fame, pushing for someone to make his baseball movie, pushing for a national council of athletes designed to guide youngsters as he did.
“I don’t have much time left,” Pote says. “I’m just an old beat-up guy, but I’m hoping somebody will still listen.”
On a bright Saturday afternoon at Griffith Park, there is hard evidence that somebody has.
Tacked to the backstop of a green gem of a baseball field is a square wooden sign
“Pote Field” it reads.
The diamond was dedicated to him about 15 years ago after city fathers realized the old scout would already be remembered forever.
“The kids come from everywhere to play here, they love this place,” a security guard says.
You will end up like me.
One can only hope.