Sunday, October 30, 2005

A Utility Player (Part II)


As I sat down at his kitchen table yesterday, I heard the most annoying song coming from a stuffed pink dinosaur over on the coach. I didn’t know what was more scary, a pink dinosaur singing about one big family or the fact that his little girl hummed the song almost note for note. Dallas scrambled to find a video to pop in the VCR and before I knew it, the stuffed pink dinosaur actually came to life on the television screen. The little bugger had his own video. And his daughter was glued to it.

Dallas then poured some water into an Oakland A’s mug and took several gulps. “So what do you want to talk about?”

“I’ll be frank,” I said. “I’ve driven close to 50,000 miles this year and nobody has thrown a 91 mile an hour cutter with that kind of break at the end. All I could think of was Mariano Rivera. Of course, his is more like 95 miles an hour but let’s face it, he’s a closer.”

The compliment didn’t impress Dallas. His face was stone cold serious. I decided to see if I could loosen him up by talking about his high school years. “I stopped by to see your high school coach Friday afternoon. He said you had a decent fastball but not much else.”

“Figures. He over-pitched me. In the final game of districts he left me out to dry. The ninth inning came around and I was over 130 pitches. He signaled the catcher for me to throw another fastball. I threw it right down the middle and gave up a three run shot. We lost. Season over. Just two days prior the jerk kept me in to pitch a complete game!”

I jotted down a quick note about the DeBary coach abusing his pitchers. “You didn’t play your senior year, did you?”

“I couldn’t play,” he said, pointing to his daughter. “She was born just two weeks after I gave up that three run shot. I worked nonstop all summer and ended up dropping out midway through my senior year so both my wife and I could work full-time. We did that for about 18 months. Now my wife is a manager at Wal-Mart making enough money for me to go back to school and play ball. But when my daughter’s sick, daycare won’t take her and I have to stay home. That’s why I missed practice.”

And here I thought he was kicking back in a lazy chair watching SportsCenter. “What about your parents, or her parents?”

“What about them?”

“Can’t they help?”

“Let’s see. My pop’s in jail. Haven’t seen my momma since I was five. Her family’s disowned her ever since she got pregnant. Besides, they’re worse off than us. And that’s not sayin’ much. So to answer your question-- no.”

We talked some more about how he was able to stay in shape over the last two years. He pointed to a dirt mound out back with a home plate 60’6” away. Behind home was a net tied between several oak trees to catch balls. A weight bench was in a shed behind the swing set but from what I could see, the plates were all rusted and the barbell looked bent beyond use. I asked if he had somebody coaching him during his last two years off. He simply pointed at himself.

I had to see him pitch again. He let me know that he was scheduled to pitch during an intra-squad scrimmage later this week and that he would try to convince the coach to keep him in for at least five innings of work. I told him not to worry and that I would personally call the coach to make sure of it. Fortunately for me, I was able to leave as the annoying pink dinosaur began his grand finale, “ . . . I love you . . . you love me . . .” Slam went the front door.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

A Utility Player (Part I)


This Saturday morning I thought I would head over to Dallas Parker's house to see why he blew off practice yesterday. I tried the number that the coach gave me but it was disconnected. Worse scenario was that if he wasn't home, I would make my way over to several U18 games in Melbourne. Needless to say, I never made it Melbourne.

Dallas lived out in the sticks. I took State Road 46 out to a little town called Sorrento. Passed the railroad tracks and then made a right turn at the first intersection. Went north a couple miles until I passed a graveyard. A mailbox with the name "Parker" suddenly appeared from behind a big oak tree on the right side of the road. Going too fast as usual, I passed the driveway entrance. Putting the car into reverse on this deserted country road wasn't an issue.

As I turned into the entrance, I could see a single-wide trailer set back about 50 yards. No cars were parked out front. The property did have at least twenty mature oak trees which provided a nice thick canopy. The grass driveway was well worn and grooved by years of tire traffic. I parked next to the trailer and verified the house number the coach gave me with the numbers glued over the front door. Perfect match.

I jumped out of my car, hurried up the steps, and knocked on the trailer door. No answer. Gave it another knock. Again, no answer. However, I did start to hear a faint giggle from a little girl. I couldn't tell if it was coming from inside the trailer or perhaps behind it. All the blinds were pulled and I couldn't see inside. The giggle started to get a bit louder. It had to be coming from the back yard. I made my way down the steps and slowly walked around to the back.

About 25 yards behind the trailer was an old weathered swing set. A little girl with long blonde hair was swinging away from me in the other direction. She was giggling but in between swings she had this terrible cough. Really deep sounding.

Pushing her was Dallas. Even with his back to me I could spot him from a mile away. He was dressed in a white t-shirt, faded jeans, and flip-flops.

"Push me higher, Daddy," the little girl said.

Dallas obliged. And I was crushed. I too had a little girl once and I could swear that she said the same thing to me over and over at our neighborhood park. I used to push her for hours. She would laugh and I would reluctantly count the minutes until I had to go to practice. We would rush over to the ice cream parlor before meeting up with her mother at the stadium. Oh, did I hate practice. It took me away from spending time with my little girl. I didn't even know her and she was almost six. Before I knew it she was ten and her brother was three. Then thirteen and six. Sixteen and nine. And now thirty-one and twenty-four respectively.

Yeah, Dallas had some personal issues alright. And I was determined to help.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Blown Start


I figured I would show up at the practice field a little early to see if I could watch Dallas throw. Diego, on the other hand, was taking infield practice and looked very crisp. Each time I come out and look at Diego I swear he knocks off a couple rounds in the next draft. I felt like a proud papa as I walked over to where the pitchers were doing a long toss drill. To my dismay, however, the project was nowhere in sight.

"He no-showed practice," the Wekiva coach announced as he jogged over from across the field.

Who did this kid think he was? He's just a freaking walk-on. Never played one single game of college yet. Plus he knew ahead of time that I was coming to talk to him. Ordinarily that's strike one, two, and three.

"I can give you his address and phone number if you're still interested. He's got your cell phone just in case something came up today."

"Has he blown off much practice this fall?" I asked.

The coach nodded. "Botton line, the boy can pitch. I'm gonna give him every shot to play. He's just got some personal issues. And like you said yesterday, he's a project."

Yeah, but that was when I didn't have three states to cover. Project's take time and a whole lot of effort. But then again, not too many kids on my radar screen hit 95 MPH. Two kids to be exact. Dallas would make it three. With that thought, my cell phone rang.

"See, that's probably him," the coach said.

I looked down at the caller ID but didn't recognize the number. It wasn't local either. I answered in a tone that voiced my displeasure for being inconvenienced.

"Ah, Mr. Jones?"

"Who's this?"

"Seth Goldbaum, sir," answered a young man probably in his mid-twenties.

Where have I heard that name before? He wasn't a prospect. Not a parent. Not an agent. Then it hit me. This was the same person that's been emailing the crap out of me. And now he's got my cell phone number. It was easy to just to ignore his emails but now he's taken it to another level!

"Listen Goldie, I don't need any help. Stop bothering--"

"That's not what Mr. Bradford told me," he interrupted. "You have three states now. I'll do anything to get my foot in the door sir. I'll get you Starbucks every morning. I'll type your reports. I'll . . ."

"Forget it," I said as I folded my flip phone. I work alone. Period. I don't even drink coffee. It was disappointing enough that Dallas was nowhere to be found. I took the coach up on his offer to give me Dallas' address and phone number. Much to my surprise, Dallas had pitched at DeBary High School during his junior year but sat out his senior year for, you guessed it, personal reasons. I had just enough time to stop by DeBary High this afternoon to talk with their head coach. A nice fellow but relucatant to give me much information. He remembers Dallas as a 6'3" kid weighing around 180 pounds. A decent fastball around 87 MPH but no movement whatsoever on any of his other pitches. No control either. And I seemed to get the hint that he wasn't just talking about the kid's pitching. I don't know about you but I'm starting not to like this kid. He's probably at home sitting back in his lazy chair trying to steal some ideas for his next act while watching Sports Center.

Anyhow, Dallas would have to wait until tomorrow. I have to catch a conference call this evening with the GM of the club. Wants to talk about my part in recommending the still unsigned Russell Reed. Apparently they're looking to blame someone for this fiasco. I'm sure Mr. DeSear promptly lied his butt off when the heat came his way. I wonder if he has pictures of somebody? I mean that's the only way he's still employed. What a jerk. Oh, that felt good.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Brushback


I slam down the phone in utter frustration. Some would say my job is simple. Find the players, evaluate them, and sign them. Hardly. Tell that to the parents of a kid that we drafted out of high school four years ago in the 14th round. Mommie and Daddy just called me to say he's not making it. Bounced between A and AA. And to top it off, he's got a bad case of what I call "minor leagueitus." A debilitating disease that strikes the heart with an attitude that says, "I should be up at the Big Show by now-- maybe I've made a mistake."

Then comes the finger pointing. His parents claim that I said their son would have a better shot at playing pro baseball rather than pro football. Not true. Never said such a thing. Funny how people make up things that were never said in order to support what they themselves were thinking and believing four years ago. They went on to claim that but for my representations, little Johnny would've played football for Clemson on a full-ride. Now that's why scouts, in general, don't like dual sport athletes. I thought little Johnny would be the exception to the rule but unfortunately he forgot how to find the strike zone. That's the type of crap I have to deal with.

And it always seems to be worse when I'm trying to get some work done in my home office. Take for example my ex-boss, Toby Bradford. If you remember, both he and I are now area scouts in charge of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina. At first, it started with a harmless email volley about how we were going to divide the territory. Then it suddenly elevated into a string of thirty minute telephone calls. Much of it had to do with a stack of three ring binders on top of my desk. Each contained hundreds of scouting reports from Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina. Manny had Georgia and South Carolina while Rhett had Alabama and Mississippi.

Manny had been at it much longer than Rhett and it showed. Not only did Manny have twice as many prospects, but his reports were much more detailed and polished than Rhett's. It was no surprise that Toby wanted Georgia and South Carolina but because he lives in Birmingham, he pretty much had no choice but to take Mississippi and Alabama. Knowing that I couldn't take all of Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida, Toby decided he would take everything north of I-20 in both Georgia and South Carolina. Since Atlanta and Columbia were for the most part divided by I-20, Toby would take Atlanta and I would take Columbia. So I got screwed. What else was new?

Lord only knows how I'm going to scout three states. My nice little list of at least 70 area players that would be sure draft picks was now destined to balloon near 130 with three states. I can't even begin to tell you the amount of work involved.

But the good news of the day was my phone call with the Wekiva coach. He'd already set a time for me to meet with Dallas Parker after practice tomorrow. This ought a be interesting.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Fielder's Choice (Part II)

Having left my radar gun in the car, I scrambled out to the parking lot as the two teams took the field. The sound of the catcher's mitt popping with each warm-up pitch followed me to the car and back. I settled behind home plate as the leadoff batter, a pint-sized lefty, stepped into the box.

Dallas, on the other hand, looked like a beast when he took his rightful place on the mound. He had to be at least 6'5" and 230 pounds. His neck was thick and his shoulders were broad. His thighs wreaked of power and bulged out like the shape of elbow macaroni. His calf muscles looked as big as grapefruit. He could do without the tattoos though. A barbed wire tattoo rounded his left bicep and his right forearm was covered with some sort of a spider web image. I must admit though that it did add to the mystique.

His beard resembled that of Abraham Lincoln. I guess the whole beard without a mustache is popular these days. Draped down the back of his neck from underneath his ball cap were dozens of curly black locks. If I had to pick a starting pitcher that his body most resembled, I would have to choose Josh Beckett.

Dallas took a deep breath, stepped up to the rubber, and peered over top of his glove. The catcher shot him a quick signal and positioned himself right down the middle of the plate. I readied my radar gun as Dallas began his wind-up. The catcher shifted ever so slightly to the inside as Dallas was about to deliver.

As the ball shot out of his hand, I immediately thought fastball. It was headed dead center into the zone. The batter, who must have been reading my mind, recoiled but instantly found himself jammed beyond comprehension as the ball cut down and in. His bat went limp as it grudgingly crossed the plate for strike one.

A cut fastball. Just like old times. A quick glance at my radar gun confirmed the devastation. 91 MPH. I had one of those moments, like, "Is this heaven?" Unfortunately, a little voice in my head answered, "No. It's Iowa." I immediately became suspicious. Where did this kid come from? What was his story? I began to look all around for other scouts. None. Agents? None.

Before I could continue with my paranoia, Dallas delivered a nearly identical pitch. Miraculously, the hitter caught it about 4 inches above his left hand and dribbled it down the third base line. No doubt there would have been splinters all over the infield had he used a wooden bat.

Diego began to rush in from third but hesitated as he saw the catcher throw off his mask and charge down the line. The ball was in no-mans-land. After a brief hesitation of his own, the catcher called off Diego, pounced on the ball, and made an off-balance throw that took the first baseman off the bag.

The hitter was safe and Dallas wasted no time in displaying his agitation. He snapped his glove at the ball when the first baseman threw it back to the mound. Under his breath I could hear a variety of four letter words. Dallas stomped his way back up the mound and waited for the next batter to enter the box. He shook his head in frustration as the catcher made several attempts to call the pitch. Without warning, Dallas entered his wind-up, cocked back his right arm, and delivered a ferocious four seam heater. My JUGS radar gun registered an eye popping 95 MPH. Only one problem. He drilled the batter in the ribs and then blew him a kiss. Both benches emptied. The cops were there in less than five minutes to clear both the field and the parking lot. So much for the friendly exhibition. I barely had time to tell the Wekiva coach that I would call him tomorrow to discuss my new "project" a.k.a. Dallas Parker.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Fielder's Choice (Part I)


Just when I think I’ve seen it all in my 31 years of baseball, something like today happens. After I arrived at the field in Lake Brantley, I made my way over to the head coach for Wekiva Community College who was standing along the third base line. We had a good relationship, at least in my mind. Last year I recommended several players from the Longwood area to go play for him. Both players weren’t quite ready to play pro ball, but I knew they would make an immediate impact for Wekiva. And they did.

One of those players, Diego Gutierrez, improved his play so much at third base that we took him in the 34th round of June’s draft. We all knew that when we drafted him that he wouldn’t forego his sophomore year which is why he is dubbed a "draft and follow" prospect. We basically own the right to negotiate and sign him up to a week before next year’s draft. Of course, if he does really well in his sophomore season, he might be projected as a 10th rounder in the upcoming draft. I would then make him an offer comparable to a 10th round pick hoping that he would accept in lieu of re-entering the draft. If on the other hand he bombs his sophomore season, we would pass on giving him an offer and let him re-enter draft for anyone’s choosing. But that would not be a good thing for me. My job is to know that this guy won’t bomb.

And after looking at Gutierrez during infield practice, I could see that his arm strength had indeed improved over the summer. Not only did his ball seem to carry through first base on a line, but his feet were quicker and his hands were softer. Prior to summer, his throw to first had a bit of an arc from the normal third base position. His arm was average to below average which meant that at best he could throw out only average to below average runners. Although I've compared his power hitting mechanics to that of Hank Blalock or David Wright, his fielding tool has always been suspect. But not anymore.

As I started to speculate where the much improved Gutierrez would fit into next year’s draft, I was distracted by the deafening pop of a catcher’s mitt coming from a makeshift bullpen further down third base line. What did we have here? Hadn’t I seen all their pitchers? None of their freshmen pitchers had been drafted. How pleasantly odd.

I stood in disbelief as I watched this hulk of a right-hander throw one heater after another. Every third pitch he mixed in something that looked like a nasty forkball.

“Who’s he?” I asked the Wekiva coach, pointing to the pen.

“Oh, him? I was wondering when you were going to notice. His name is Dallas Parker. A walk-on freshman,” the coach replied with a wink.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Shallow Center

I must confess that the wind and rain from Wilma spooked me last night. I couldn't wait to pick those guys up, drop them off and get back to my hotel room. As it was, I was nearly 20 minutes late thanks to a rubber necking t raffic jam on the Beeline Expressway. As I pulled up to "Arrivals," I spotted my boss, Toby Bradford in the distance, shrugging like he was being reprimanded without cause. That's when his boss, Donald DeSear, came into plain view. DeSear looked as sour as a man going through an IRS audit. Not that I would know what that looks like, of course. After a few niceties and helping them with their luggage, we were off to their hotel.

"I guess now's as good a time as any," DeSear announced as he looked back towards Bradford in the back seat.

"Fine with me," Bradford replied.

I cringed at what might be coming. 31 years in baseball had to count for something.

"The front-office," DeSear said, "has decided to drastically cut the player development staff."

"How drastically?" I asked.

"By about half," he answered.

The big glob in my throat thickened making it difficult to breath. I tried to swallow but to no avail.

DeSear continued, "We had to make some difficult decisions. I've been trying to meet face-to-face with those who will be affected."

I shook my head. I've never been fired before. Never. "So do I at least get some sort of--"

"Relax," interrupted DeSear. "The club decided to eliminate the area supervisor role. Instead of firing Bradford, we let Manny and Rhett go this morning. You and Bradford will be working Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina. But quite frankly, this wasn't my decision. If it were up to me, I would've given Rhett some more time."

How's that for a nice vote of confidence from your new boss? Gone are the days where I could simply hang my hat on the household names I brought to the Big Show during the late 80's, early 90's. Luckily for me I must still have some friends up in the front office.

"To be honest Cutter, you're track record here lately isn't too pretty. Out of our fifty draft picks last year, eight came from your area. Three are draft and follow, three decided to enroll in a four-year college, and two are unsigned. Let's face it, the signability of your kids stink. That brings me to Russell Reed. "

Ah, Russell Reed. The silver spoon, five tooler from Isleworth. I convinced our national cross checker that the only way we could sign him was if we picked him in the second round. I can still remember DeSear calling me just seconds before he had to announce his pick. What could I tell him in less than 10 seconds that he didn't already know? We needed a blue chip prospect in center field. He was the best available at that given moment. DeSear pulled the trigger. Reed's father then befriended a pain-in-the-butt agent (or maybe it was the other way around) who's been nothing but trouble. Countless deals have fallen through. All involving the signing bonus, of course. What a shame. Now the kid's just sitting around in his father's mansion playing MVP Baseball 2005 instead of playing pro ball.

Anyhow, DeSear continued to rant about Reed and his agent. He went on to explain that both he and Bradford are meeting with Reed, his father, and the agent at their home tonight. The plan would be to sign him and get him into winter ball down in Puerto Rico. But unfortunately they are still miles apart in their negotiations.

As for me, he wants me to go see Diego Gutierrez, one of our draft and follow prospects just up the road at Wekiva Community College. He's playing a practice game tomorrow at a field in Lake Brantley against a local AAU team. Fortunately for me I have a couple kids on the AAU team that I wanted to get a good look at. This will give me an opportunity to do both.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Opening Day

My life is a freaking disaster. I wake up not knowing what city I’m in. The hotel rooms all look alike. One fast food joint after another. Crumpled up drive-thru bags litter the floor of my car. The same car that’s been without a/c since the beginning of time. My wife left me years ago. My kids won’t speak to me. And I have no relatives worth mentioning.

I get endless letters, calls, faxes and emails from parents, grandparents, wives, girlfriends, ex-girlfriends, coaches, agents, advisors, friends, acquaintances, twice removed cousins, and sometimes even the players themselves. Not to mention enough videotapes and DVDs to keep both FedEx and UPS in business for yet another year. I’ve even had to hire a recycling company to pick up the reams and reams of paper from alleged scouting agencies who’ve basically ripped off thousands of parents by promising that their special report will get little Johnny to the top of my prospect list.

And did I mention that I get calls from parents? One called me just yesterday to ask if I could go watch his son pitch that evening. The ball park was only 125 miles away. When I started to ask some basic questions about the type of ball movement the kid generates, his father responded with a very proud, “62 mile per hour fastball.”

I never even asked about velocity. The man just blurted it out like I would be instantly impressed. What was I missing here? I simply let his statement linger in silence until the arrogance wore off. Come to find out, the kid was only 12. How the man ever got my cell number, I’ll never know.

And to make matters slightly worse, I need to pick up my area supervisor and the club's national scouting director at 7:50 p.m. from Orlando International Airport. Unfortunately, my prayers for Hurricane Wilma to cancel their flight haven't worked out.

I was told that they had to discuss something with me in person. I have a couple ideas of what it might be, but no matter how you slice it—this ain’t good.