Dodgers Scouting Legend Mike Brito Isn’t Done with This Game
Mike Brito doesn’t have a seat at Dodger Stadium.
To be more specific, the cardboard cutout of Brito is without a place to recline, instead taking up space at the very bottom of the aisle, next to the best seats in the house.
Without fans in the park this season, the Dodgers joined other teams in placing cardboard cutouts in the seats, a way to pay homage to loyal patrons watching from home.
For Brito, his cardboard’s placement is fitting for one of the most iconic people to take up real estate just in the background of all the action.
Much like Jack Nicholson at Lakers games, Brito is that familiar face you look for when the team is home. While he no longer stands at games clocking pitch speeds, the baseball scout’s image has left an indelible mark in the minds and hearts of Latinos all over the world.
The man who discovered Fernando Valenzuela is north of 80 but not yet ready to call it a career.
“Oh, yeah, I'm still scouting sure,” Brito tells En Fuego. “I’m never going to retire as long as I got energy I'm going to keep working.”
Brito is used to the demanding nature of scouting. He would normally spend more time outside of Los Angeles than he would within its confines.
But we are in a much different world in 2020, and this is a far different season. Brito is staying close to home these days, although he is quick to remind that retirement isn’t a thought on his mind.
We chat about what keeps him busy. You won’t be surprised to know that he bides his time in much the same we all do, gobbling up Netflix fare. And you’ll be not the least bit shocked that one of his recommendations to me is the 1991 Edward James Olmos joint “Talent for the Game,” a movie about a scout that finds the next great star pitcher.
Brito knows a little bit about that.
With Cigar and Hat
The man lives and breathes baseball. There is a youthful excitement evident when he talks about this hallowed game. Much like all of the greats, when you close your eyes you can see Brito in vivid color.
Born in Cuba in 1935, baseball’s most famed scout may have very well come into this world puffing on a cigar and wearing a Panama hat. Because that’s the only way any of us have ever seen him.
In reality, that’s not so far from the truth. “You’re not going to believe it but I used to smoke cigars when I was 15 in Cuba,” Brito laughed.
While some of us carry a certain way of walking or a cadence in speech, something we rely on to make us comfortable, Brito has his cigars and hat, two items that make him whole. One teammate once told him, “You could hit .300 with that cigar.”
Had he employed smoking into his professional career, perhaps. But his days in the majors was short-lived.
He likes to joke that he is on the bottom of the list when it comes to the pantheon of players once signed by baseball scout Joe Cambria.
While missing out on being the one to sign Minnie Miñoso, Cambria brought the likes of Sandalio Consuegra, Camilo Pascual, Connie Marrero, Willy Miranda, and Mike Fornieles to the Washington Senators.
Cambria was also successful in convincing someone else to put pen to paper. “He signed a young catcher from Cuba named Mike Brito,” he said. “I was the worst signing he ever made.”
Like Oakland A’s executive Billy Beane would also prove, sometimes talent on the field doesn’t pan out into the sterling on-field career you hoped it might. But it doesn’t mean baseball is done with you.
Brito immersed himself in the game and quickly discovered that he had a knack for finding players. His most fortuitous discovery is the guy he found when he was still playing.
Brito had been working as a scout in the Mexican League in 1976. But he also operated the Mike Brito League in Los Angeles, where Brito would also suit up and play.
One auspicious weekend he came up against a pitcher who also spent time at third base. With the bases loaded, the pitcher would strike out Brito with what he thought was your average, nasty, run-of-the-mill offspeed pitch.
The pitcher was Robert “Babo” Castillo, and he asked him after the game, “What kind of pitch was that; was that a change or what,” Brito remembered asking. “He said no that was a screwball.”
So enamored with his encounter, Brito called up the Dodgers and recommended they sign Castillo, which they did.
He would spend nine years in the majors, playing for the Dodgers and Twins during that span, garnering a 3.94 ERA over 250 games.
Brito was offered a full-time gig as a Dodgers scout by then general manager Al Campanis. Campanis would lose his job in 1987 for remarks he made about Black ballplayers and mangers on “Nightline.”
Brito remembers an executive who was instrumental in bringing the most beloved Latino pitcher into the majors.
Brito was in Silao, Guanajuato, Mexico, to see a shortstop by the name of Ali Uscanga. Pitching that day was a 17-year-old by the name of Fernando Valenzuela.
The scout was impressed by his poise and command. He threw maybe 86 or 87 miles per hour at that point, but he pitched with the confidence of a player well beyond his years.
Brito brought Campanis to see Valenzuela pitch and the two were convinced that they had the left-handed pitcher for which they had been searching.
But even a phenom needs a little polish before they become an icon, someone who would later begin a passionate baseball fervor known as Fernandomania.
“I think Fernando needs to come up and get another the pitch to be a success in the big leagues,” Brito remembered telling Campanis at the time.
The general manager shot back that it would have been nice to know that before signing the yet unproven pitcher.
“Well (Campanis) was a smart man, a very smart baseball man,” Brito said. And the two brainstormed adding to Valenzuela’s repertoire.
“What about a splitfinger or maybe the screwball,” Brito suggested. “Al Campanis told me, ‘Mike, we don’t have anyone who throws the splitfinger.’”
Ah, but they had someone who knew how to throw the screwball. The previous signing of Babo Castillo seemed all the more prescient.
And Babo complied, teaching his young mentee the intricacies of the pitch that would turn an unknown athlete into the Fernando that would sell out stadiums across the league.
“Fernando was amazing,” Brito continued. He didn't talk too much but he was a very smart guy. He learned the screwball in two weeks. He was throwing the screwball as good as Babo or better than Babo at full velocity.”
The rest is, well, absolute bedlam. Valenzuela’s rookie campaign is the stuff of legend. He made the All-Star team, had 13 wins a 2.48 ERA and 180 strikeouts in just over 192 innings pitched.
“Fernando made noise everywhere he (went). I remember everywhere he pitched he got 15
(thousand)-20,000 extra people. When we were on the road they’d ask if Fernando was going to pitch one of the three games and he sold out everywhere he pitched. That was amazing.”
Radar Gun Guru
Growing up a Dodgers fan you expect to hear the melody of Nancy Bea on the stadium organ, smelling the aroma of thousands of Dodger Dogs being prepared and Mike Brito standing behind home rocking the radar gun and donning his Panama hat.
For 20 years he remained a visual institution, as inextricably L.A. as the wavy pavilion roof. And it all started thanks to some temporary mechanical issues with an otherwise hard-throwing right-hander.
“Bobby Welch was struggling with his fastball an Al Campanis told me, ‘Mike, what are you going to do tonight?”
Brito explained he was just going to watch the game that night back in 1982. Campanis had other ideas, neither knowing that they would revolutionize the game. Before then, teams didn’t take a thorough account of the velocity of each and every pitcher.
“’Well, if you don't want to do nothing, I want you to go get your radar gun and clock velocity on Bobby Welch and give me a report on what he was doing months before and what he’s doing now,’” Brito recalled Campanis saying.
He went on down and clocked Campanis, and he would continue doing so up until the Dodger Stadium renovations took away Brito’s vantage.
Thanks to the invaluable information, Campanis was sold on the experiment. Brito remembered the GM saying, “From now on every time you’re in L.A. I want you to make a report on every pitch and give a copy to Tommy Lasorda and the orignals to me.”
A Career Unfinished
Brito has been instrumental in filling the organization’s coffers with talent. Along with Castillo and Valenzuela, Brito has had a hand in bringing Ismael Valdes, Vicente Romo, Antonio Osuna, Joakim Soria, Denys Reyes, Juan Castro, Julio Urías and Yasiel Puig to the bigs, just to name a few.
And if you are wondering about the next arm of note, Brito says you need to keep an eye on Victor Gonzalez.
“He throws 94-96 [M.P.H.] with a slider, curve and change and (he’s) got good command,” Brito says. Gonzalez, who has had Tommy John surgery is a 24-year-old who struck out 19 in 18.1 innings pitched this season.
There is more work to be done. And Brito is going to continue scouting and enriching this game he loves with more talent.
“I like to be scouting,” Brito said. “I love baseball. “I feel like I'm 40. I don’t feel like I’m 80. I’m not going to be scouting all my life until the man upstairs calls me. [But] as long as I have energy I’m going to be scouting.”
As soon as traveling restrictions are eased, you can bet that Brito will be back on the road, looking for the next great Dodger, doing so with hat on head as he ever so coolly puffs on a cigar.