Epy Guerrero, scout who helped open Dominican pipeline to majors, dies at 71

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The Blue Jays' Emilio Bonifacio paid tribute to Epy Guerrero. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

Emilion Bonifacio, Epy Guerrero

"They say now that Epifanio 'Epy' Guerrero has 'the eyes'—that he can see the future major leaguer in a young ballplayer the way the visionary poet claimed to see a world in a grain of sand." — People, 1989.

If you don't know the name of Epy Guerrero, the legendary scout who passed away on Thursday at age 71, then at least you know his work. He was a key figure in opening the talent pipeline from the tiny Dominican Republic to the majors. In 1973, he founded the country's first baseball academy, and in more than four decades of work for the Astros, Blue Jays, Yankees and Brewers, he is believed to have signed more amateur players who reached the majors than any other scout — 52 according to a new exhibit devoted to scouts at the Hall of Fame and on their website, though estimates have gone as high as 60.

A native of Santo Domingo, Guerrero played briefly in the minor leagues in 1961 and 1962, though he didn't find the level of success that younger brother Mario, who spent eight years in the majors from 1973-1980, did. He soon found another path to the bigs, however, when he was hired as a part-time scout by Pat Gillick for the Astros in 1965. Guerrero's first major signing for Houston came in 1967 when he inked Cesar Cedeno, a player who soon became the Mike Trout of his day. Cedeno debuted in the majors at age 19 in 1970, and two years later hit .320/.385/.537 with 22 homers and 55 steals. The Houston Chronicle's Jose de Jesus Ortiz noted that at the time Cedeno was signed, "the Dominican had sent only 18 players to the majors. A recent estimate put 2,300 players from the Dominican in major league organizations."

After Guerrero opened his academy, the expansion Blue Jays began using it, and eventually 29 of the 30 teams built academies on the island, whose population grew from 4.5 million in 1970 to around 10 million today. It was with Toronto that Guerrero made his greatest impact, serving as the fledgling organization's chief Latin American scout from 1978 through 1995, a span roughly coinciding with Gillick's run as general manager and one that included five postseason appearances in a nine-year period (1985-1993) as well as back-to-back world championships in 1992 and 1993.

For the Jays he signed future All-Stars Tony Fernandez and Carlos Delgado, and was also key in the acquisitions of Alfredo Griffin (1979 AL Rookie of the Year, traded from the Indians), Damaso Garcia (two-time All-Star, a player he'd signed with the Yankees), George Bell (1987 AL MVP, a Rule 5 pick from the Phillies) and Juan Guzman (1992 All-Star, traded from the Dodgers). "He had a knack for noticing the special player who maybe didn't have the polish, the people who maybe were a little crude," said Gillick in 2009, when Guerrero was honored with a Legends in Scouting Award from thel Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation.

Indeed, a 1987 Sports Illustrated feature by Steve Wulf noted:

When Fernandez was 15, Epy Guerrero had helped the family to arrange and pay for an operation on the youngster's right knee—a chipped bone had made it painful for him to run. Actually, Guerrero had been watching Fernandez for years, trying to entice him to Santo Domingo, but Tony did not want to leave home. "Before the operation he could run 60 yards in only 7.3 seconds," says Epy. "Now he runs it in 6.5 seconds." Soon after the surgery, Guerrero signed Fernandez to a Blue Jays contract, and to this day the two remain very close.

Elsewhere in the feature, Wulf detailed Fernandez's ascendance to All-Star status, shining a light both on the growing flood of Dominican players and on Guerrero's instrumental position:

Fernandez is the head of an extraordinary class of shortstops from the Dominican Republic. April 27, 1986, wasn't a particularly notable date in major league history, except that nine Dominicanos played shortstop that day: Fernandez for the Jays, Rafael Santana for the Mets, Alfredo Griffin for the A's, Julio Franco for the Indians, Mariano Duncan for the Dodgers, Rafael Belliard for the Pirates, Jose Uribe for the Giants and Rafael Ramirez and Andres Thomas for the Braves. All of them appeared in at least 86 games at shortstop last year. Three others, Manny Lee of Toronto, Juan Castillo of Milwaukee and Domingo Ramos of Seattle, started games at shortstop during the year.

Exact figures aren't available, but at least 71 shortstops from the Dominican Republic were under contract to major league teams last season. Every team had at least one in its system; the Blue Jays had no fewer than eight…

Such was Guerrero's popularity that People magazine profiled him in 1989, an unusual spot for someone from the unglamorous end of the industry to wind up.

After Guerrero left the Blue Jays, he worked for the Brewers, for whom he signed current Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar in 2003. He continued to advise the Blue Jays in later years, notably telling then-manager Cito Gaston in December 2008 to reconsider trading Jose Bautista. From a 2012 tribute in The Toronto Sun:

“I phoned Cito after seeing Jose play for Licey and said ‘you better keep this kid,’ ” Guerrero said. “He was figuring out the timing on the leg kick, getting it down right.”

Bautista does not doubt the story.

“After 2009 when I hit 10 home runs in September, they wouldn’t have traded me,” Bautista said. “After 2008? They probably would have, I hadn’t played that much.”

Bautista grew up in the Dominican Republic acutely aware of Guerrero's legacy, and he later got to know the scout and his family. Along with Delgado and former Astros minor leaguer (and major league manager) Manny Acta, he was one of many within baseball who weighed in on Guerrero's passing. He told the Toronto Star, "After the United States, the country that develops and brings the most talent to the majors and to the minors is the Dominican Republic, and he was one of the first guys to put the infrastructure in place to get all that talent up here, so his legacy is huge just with that.”