Longtime scout Tom Kotchman is the hardest working man In baseball
The Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame lacks the gravitas of its distant cousin in Cooperstown. Mounted on a brick wall at Hammond Stadium, the Minnesota Twins’ spring training facility in Fort Myers, Fla., the museum’s nine plaques are stuffed between two cement support beams and below a red water pipe. A Grapefruit League fan could easily stroll by the display without registering its presence.
In the shadows on the far left end, beside bronze portraits honoring Miami Marlins general manager Dan Jennings and Twins general manager Terry Ryan, hangs the emblazoned image of Tom Kotchman. His pupils have eroded slightly, giving them an inadvertently accurate blue hue, while wavy hair flips out over the collar of his golf shirt. The inscription underneath — three paragraphs, 191 words — is a lovely tribute to the area scout and minor league manager who has spent nearly four decades digging for and molding young baseball talent.
It’s also written in the past tense, which is a bit misleading. Just a 10 minute drive along a southwest Florida parkway, beyond the palm trees and patio furniture stores, Kotchman could be found one day last spring working two cell phones in an uphill battle to wrap up his hectic scouting season while simultaneously preparing for his 35th managerial campaign, his first as skipper of the Gulf Coast League Red Sox. He muttered to himself in between calls. Retirement was the last thing on his mind.
Kotchman, 60, has forged a career as accomplished and unorthodox as any in professional baseball. He’s won 1,740 games as a minor league manager, third on the active victories list; it’s a stunning achievement considering the abbreviated length of the Short Season Single A and Rookie league schedules, the levels at which he’s managed since 1990. Joe Maddon, then of the Tampa Rays and now of the Cubs, has said Kotchman might be the “best rookie league manager in history.”
But managing isn't all Kotchman does. As an amateur scout in northern and central Florida, a job he performs from September through June, he’s signed well over a dozen future major leaguers, an absurd total even for someone based in the fertile Sunshine State. Seven of his selections climbed all the way up the ladder between 2010 and the spring of 2014, third-most among area scouts nationally, according to Baseball America. This year, he earned Gulf Coast League Manager of the Year honors — his team went 36-24 and won the league title — as well as a lifetime achievement award from the Scout of the Year program, which he’ll collect at December's winter meetings. Along with his wife, Susan, a retired principal, he’s even raised two standout ballplayers of his own: Christal, a decorated collegiate softball shortstop, and Casey, who spent the better part of 10 seasons manning first base in the big leagues.
On a humid June morning in Fort Myers, Kotch, as he’s known around the game, was just trying to keep it together. Tanned and wiry with a few deep wrinkles on his neck and no hint of a spare tire, he sauntered into the grandstand at the Red Sox’ Jet Blue Park and slumped into a seat behind home plate, plopping a tattered, dusty black canvas shoulder bag next to his feet. Over the past year, Kotchman had logged some 35,000 miles on his company car scouring the state for boys with good arms and the Good Face. He can’t remember his last day off, though he figures it was probably around Christmas, when he usually takes a week or two to reset. He’s lost track of how many recent nights he’s slept in hotels. The 2014 MLB First-Year Player Draft ended five days prior, and the Red Sox—the organization that outbid several clubs for Kotchman’s services 18 months ago—picked five of his targets, including a third and sixth rounder. When the last names were called, Kotchman flew to Boston for a bi-annual physical, flew back to his house in Seminole, Fla., stuffed some clothes in a few bags, and drove two hours south to report for his 60-game summer season. “Oh, I’m not refreshed,” he says with a chuckle, a Nike golf hat pulled down to the rims of his gray glasses. “Scouting just wears you down.”
Complicating matters, the Perfect Game National Showcase—the country’s most prestigious scouting event for rising high school seniors— was being held, by total coincidence, at his Rookie league team’s home ballpark. Worlds were colliding, responsibilities blurring. A few hours ago, he had been on the road making sure his new draftees signed their first pro contract offers. (All five did.) Now, clipboard in hand, he was taking notes on the 2015 draft class, watching quietly as touted 17-year-olds in colorful Perfect Game t-shirts slugged line drives and fielded ground balls. The next morning, while the showcase continued on the diamond, he would enter his clubhouse coaching room and literally flip the light switch on and off, signaling his yearly transition from scout to manager, before finally getting an opportunity to review his new 35-man roster. By the afternoon, he’d toss his first round of batting practice in the cages behind the stadium’s replica Green Monster. This double-barreled lifestyle is grueling, and is something very few people have either the skill set or ambition to undertake. (Colleagues could only name one other Florida scout, the Mariners’ Rob Mummau, who also shoulders player development duties.) For the hardest-working man in baseball, it’s the existence he choose for himself.
The assessments of anonymous men in school bleachers and minor league dugouts have formed the foundation of professional baseball since its infancy. In Dollar Sign on the Muscle, the seminal book about the profession, Kevin Kerrane wrote that scouting is the game’s “personalized way of renewing itself, from year to year and generation to generation.” Smart baseball executives have always understood the value that skilled area scouts and low-level coaches provide. Information is currency, and in the statistical wilderness of amateur baseball, useful information about a player’s ability or makeup doesn’t always fit neatly in a spreadsheet. “The game is upside-down,” says Eddie Bane, a special assistant for player personnel with the Red Sox. “The guys breaking players in should be the ones making a lot of money, and it’s just not that way.”
If anything, the need for accurate, creative scouting and productive player development is more pronounced than ever. Teams are signing emerging prospects to deals that delay their first free agencies, sapping the market of star power. The latest collective bargaining agreement, inked in 2011, made it more difficult for front offices to hoard draft picks or acquire desirable assets by paying more than the commissioner’s draft slot recommendations. In this environment, the most sensible way to build a winner is to find the right players before others do and then train those players appropriately. It’s telling that when Tom Kotchman resigned from the Angels in late 2012 after 29 years of service to the organization, the analytically progressive Red Sox recruited him aggressively, despite his claim that he hasn’t copied and pasted since kindergarten.
Kotchman was born in North Dakota, spent his childhood in a rural town 60 miles outside Chicago and moved to the Florida coast when he was 13. His parents, who had been farmers, made sure their son inherited the work ethic their vocation demanded. A six-footer in high school, Kotchman starred in both basketball and baseball but chose to focus on the latter, suiting up at Chipola College in the Florida panhandle for two years and then at Georgia Southern for two more. When asked how the lead sentence of his own scouting report might have read, Kotchman’s suggestion is self-effacing: “Limited ability but worked hard.”
The Cincinnati Reds signed him to play third base in 1977, and he batted .296 in 60 games at Low A. He moved up to High A the next year but one day he took an 0-2 fastball from future Expos righty David Palmer directly in the left eye; the shot knocked Kotchman out cold, and he landed awkwardly on his right wrist as he crumpled to the turf. “I remember looking up and seeing the trainer. I said, ‘Let’s go.’ I got up and -- boom -- right back down,” he says. “And this thing swelled up shut. When I got to the hospital, they had to pry the [eye] lid open and suck the contact lens out.”
A little cosmetic surgery and a few cortisone shots later, Kotchman returned to the field, but nothing felt the same. He finished the year batting .191 in 43 games, and with Pete Rose anchoring his position on the parent club, it seemed an opportune time to try something new.
Mike Compton, Kotchman’s manager that season, heard of a job opening for the '79 campaign in the New York-Penn League that he thought his battered infielder might like. Based in Auburn, N.Y., it was an unaffiliated co-op team, taking on castaways from multiple organizations. The team had no trainer, no groundskeeper and no assistants. Kotchman signed on as a player-manager and quickly ceded the "player" title. At 24, he had his first team. At 29, he latched on with the Angels. At 32, after three strong seasons in the California League, they promoted him to manage Triple A ball in Edmonton. Like his best players, it seemed only a matter of time before the hot commodity would get The Call.
Back home, though, his wife was raising their two children—then ages six and two—while working at her school full-time. The unequal domestic balance gnawed at Kotchman. “I saw them three weeks in seven months,” he says now. “When I got home, they’d changed so much.” He brought his concerns to management in 1989, and the Angels countered with an unusual deal: scout your home state of Florida for nine months each year, they told him, and manage the short season team in Boise the other three, from June through August. At the time, the offer seemed like a sensible compromise; 25 years later, Casey Kotchman calls his dad’s big league sacrifice “a blessing.”
“I’m comfortable with my decision,” Tom Kotchman says. “Like I tell my players: At some point, the cheering is going to stop. If you don’t have your family, what do you got?”
During a break in the Perfect Game showcase, Kotchman decided he’d like to absorb some air conditioning and drink a Cherry Coke Zero. On a normal day, the trip from a box seat in Jet Blue Park to his office below would take 60 seconds, tops. This was not one of those days. Fellow scouts and college coaches were scattered everywhere, easily identifiable by their visors and embroidered polos. Kotchman couldn’t step five feet without running into someone he knew. “What’s up?” he boomed to a pair of scouts seated in the adjacent section, who moaned sarcastically that their rival hadn’t left anybody for their clubs to draft. Maneuvering through the concourse was like walking with a politician down a rope line: waves, handshakes, smiles, fist bumps. The last man to spot Kotchman was Ralph Reyes, an old colleague from his days with the Angels. As Kotchman approached, Reyes bent down on his left knee and exaggeratedly bowed his head: The dean of Florida scouting was in the building.
The word scout derives from the French verb écouter, which means “to listen.” Kotchman has excelled at this job precisely because he knows who in Florida he should listen to and what he should be listening for. Relationships that he’s cultivated and maintained for years have borne fruit, even if he still has to filter advice about particular players and test it against his own eyes and intuition. “He gets access to information that other people just can’t get,” says Ben Cherington, the Red Sox general manager. “He’s the patriarch of a baseball family in the northern part of Florida. If you’re in that world, and Tom Kotchman asks you a question, you’re almost obliged to answer it.”
Amateur scouting is more art than science, and Kotchman’s taste skews toward athletic players who display a “respectful confidence” on the diamond. (A few years back, he filed an enthusiastic report on a lefthanded slugger named Tim Tebow; Tebow never returned his information card.) Tony Lucadello, an accomplished mid-century scout, famously shifted the angle at which he watched a player several times a game; he’d start 10 feet up the line before moving behind the bag and then scooting into the outfield. Kotchman has no similar routine. “You switch it up,” he says. “There’s no set thing.” Sometimes he employs the redirect, convincing his competitors behind the backstop that he’s high on one kid when he’s actually gathering intel on another. He also works like a dog. “He’s going to go way beyond the norm to find out whatever he needs to find out to help him make a decision,” says Ric Wilson, the Angels scouting director and Kotchman’s former boss. “He’s just relentless.”
Though he’s replaced his trusty partner Goldie, a dependable Chrysler Town and Country LXI minivan that logged 327,000 miles in nine years and blew through two transmissions, Kotchman still careens around the state daily in search of ballgames, often two or three in a row. There’s never a shortage; in his hardball-dense region, he says, “You can probably find some stupid showcase to go to on Christmas.” Late nights in the Panhandle sometimes require impromptu karaoke sessions, in which Kotch rolls down his car windows and wails to the oldies XM Radio station. Singing loudly (and poorly) helps keep him alert behind the wheel and scares away wandering deer.
Good scouts all must come to terms with the inherent uncertainty at the root of their craft. The constant stress of missing someone, or the feeling that an educated guess will come up craps, never goes away. The only antidote is to show up to the ballpark, make your phone calls, and give yourself more opportunities to succeed. A little luck helps, too. Kotchman saw Howie Kendrick play several times at St. Johns River, a community college in the Florida sticks, before the future second baseman sprained his wrist, missing the last three (crucial) weeks of his season and throwing several clubs off the scent. He stumbled on Michael Kohn, a College of Charleston product who has spent time in the Angels bullpen, only because his daughter was playing softball at the adjoining diamond. (Christal made sure her dad received Kohn’s velocity readings late in the spring, and was awarded a finder’s fee of $100 for her trouble.) Talent, in other words, is where you find it.
Once that talent is found, it’s vital to have steady hands available for polishing. In the Red Sox’ case, that task also falls to Kotchman. He relishes it. “You really, really see how important it is, that initial entry level,” he says. “People remember their first time: your first kiss, the first time you drove a car.”
Simply demonstrating how professional baseball players should comport themselves is the main priority of any Rookie league manager. These are new employees from all walks of life in need of basic job training. Organizational standards must be discussed, batting practice routines and conditioning protocols established, nutrition programs reviewed. Kotchman embraces those responsibilities while refusing to concede wins on the field. “Complacency Sucks” is something of a mantra, and he’s had the phrase screen-printed onto navy t-shirts for every player he’s managed since 1991, including the likes of Garret Anderson, Jim Edmonds and Troy Percival. (By season’s end, 11 players on the Angels’ division-winning 40-man roster had dressed in one of Kotch’s clubhouses.) He’s too competitive for moral victories, as the Gatorade jugs that occasionally fly through the clubhouse can attest. “Intense is one [word] that comes to mind,” says Marlins’ catcher Jeff Mathis, who Kotchman both signed and coached. “He’s really passionate about what he does.”
The depth of support Kotchman offers his impressionable players, when he’s stopped laying into them, is practically mythical. He’ll pull inspirational material from ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries and episodes of Criminal Minds, as well as from sport psychologist Ken Ravizza and actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. If a guy is sick, there’s Pedialyte in the cooler. The locker room is stocked with humidifiers and air fresheners. Overdue phone bills are paid and plane tickets home for unexpected emergencies covered, no questions asked. On the day the Angels traded starting pitcher Patrick Corbin to Arizona, in 2010, the lefthander got a call from his old manager, who told him the organization would come to regret the transaction. For a guy who spends nine lonely months schlepping through swamps and riffling through paperwork, those connections in the dugout are rejuvenating. “You put on a costume and get paid for it,” he says. “It’s nice to get out of street clothes.”
In the tight-knit scouting community, Kotchman’s move from the Angels to the Red Sox was met with shock. On the October morning the news broke, his scuffed flip phone was inundated with calls and texts. Jerry Dipoto, who had taken over as Los Angeles' general manager before the 2012 season, had intimated that he wanted a full-time scout in Kotchman’s area. “They didn’t like the dual-role thing, for whatever reason,” Kotchman says. “I didn’t ask.”
Boston had fewer concerns about the arrangement. Yes, scouting is deepening as data and technology infiltrate the game. “There’s a lot more paperwork, a lot more background work, eye testing, psychological testing, visits to the player’s home,” says Luke Wrenn, a veteran Florida scout with the Diamondbacks. “We’re more thorough than we used to be, for sure.” But from the Red Sox' perspective, the most fundamental task of any scout is still to beat the other 29 teams in his or her given territory, which Kotchman had demonstrated he could do, even on a condensed timeline. They hired him within days of his resignation.
Two years into his tenure, “the best area scout in the country,” as Eddie Bane calls him, admits he’s still figuring out the new chain of command. Evidently Kotchman’s messages are getting through. If a scout functions like an investment analyst, as Kerrane analogized in Dollar Sign on the Muscle, Kotchman is like the broker to whom you hand over your 401K with calm confidence because he’s proven he can find the most profitable funds. When a scouting report comes in, Cherington and Red Sox scouting director Amiel Sawdaye usually pepper their staffers with follow-up queries and counterfactuals. In Kotchman’s case, they’re far more likely to listen to the recommendation, slot the player where Kotch thinks he belongs, and be done with it. Every minute that’s not spent on quality control is then directed toward other assignments.
On the diamond, the front office appreciates Kotchman’s no-nonsense approach—“I’m vanilla with the player development stuff”—and his communication skills. There are few distractions in sparsely attended Rookie ball, and plenty of time for reflection and dissection. “Rookie level baseball, in some way, is baseball in its purest form. It’s like a baseball incubator,” says Cherington. “Someone like Kotch who has such a passion for it [and] has such a big catalogue of experiences to draw from, he can really get across a lot to a young player in an environment like that.”
Not everyone is cut out for a career in Major League Baseball’s basement. Considering the long hours and constant travel, area scouts don’t make a ton of money. (A group called the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation exists solely to help the families of senior scouts who run into financial problems.) Triumphs are rarely acknowledged. Last summer, the National Baseball Hall of Fame finally installed a temporary exhibit honoring scouts, but they still aren’t eligible for induction themselves. And managing rookie ball, with its bus trips and wild pitches and broken curfews, is no walk in the park either.
Relative obscurity has its benefits, though. Kotchman was available to see his kids grow up, and he carves out time to spend at home with his wife, who survived a dangerous brain hemorrhage in 2008. (Aside from periodic fatigue, she’s recovered fully.) He’s come to enjoy the competition and the camaraderie of scouting, too. “If you ever see a group of scouts standing around and [Kotchman] is in the area, I guarantee you he’s a part of that group telling a story,” says Homer Newlin, who works northern Florida for the Diamondbacks. And for a manager less interested in the finished product than in helping people improve, there’s no better teaching venue than a player’s first year or two as a pro.
Back in sweltering Fort Myers, Kotchman—a baggy Red Sox t-shirt hanging over navy shorts, a pair of red socks hiked up to his knobby knees—decided to throw his first batting practice session of the season. Into the cage stepped Jordon Austin, Boston’s sixth round pick in 2013. Kotchman scouted Austin out of Ocala, Fla., a thick and quick high school strong safety whose approach at the plate needed fine-tuning. Kotchman rhythmically tossed in fastballs, and Austin roped a series of liners into the side netting. “Very nice,” Kotchman beamed. “Nothing wrong with a triple the other way.” One pitch caught the inner half of the plate and Austin rifled it directly into the protective screen. His startled coach, without missing a beat, sarcastically chucked the next pitch eight feet over Austin’s helmet. Sweat cascaded down Kotchman’s neck, a huge smile spreading across his face. Right now, there’s nowhere else he’d rather be.
When asked to name his most important signing to date, Kotchman doesn’t hesitate. Carmine Giardina was pitching in Double A for the Arkansas Travelers, an Angels affiliate. A 6-foot-3 southpaw who can run a fastball up to 93 mph, Giardina struck out 45 and walked 30 in 56 2/3 innings this summer. When the season was over, he packed away his mitt and threw on a tuxedo: Giardina and his fiancée, Christal Kotchman, got married on Nov. 6. Pacing inside the Jet Blue Park clubhouse, names and deadlines floating around in his head, the father of the bride paused for dramatic effect. “It might be the best job of scouting I’ve done. Signed him in two different ways, I guess.”