You Can't Beat The Draft

The bird dogs spot the bright young players first. Then come the scouts, the evaluators of baseball talent. The scouts used to be salesmen, wheedlers, con men, but the free-agent draft changed all that
July 26, 1970

The bird dogs always came first. They just appeared one spring day in your sophomore year of high school as if drawn by the odor of freshly cut outfield grass. On that day you knew for sure that your fastball, which had slowed considerably in the jump from a Little League to a high school mound, had once again begun to smoke like a burning pine. You knew also that your life would never be the same again. Baseball could no longer be considered a game for you from that day forward. It was, instead, your career.

They were called bird dogs because they sniffed out talent, although the name does not do them justice. The bird dogs were kindly, stooped old men in plaid shirts and string ties. They owned taverns and hardware stores, and once had even played ball with Kiki Cuyler and Georgie Cutshaw. Now in their last years, they measured out the weekday afternoons at an endless succession of high school baseball games. They were always easy to spot, even from the mound, since few adults bothered to watch the meaningless games your coach let you pitch as a sophomore and because they always stood directly behind the home-plate screen, as if they would not feel comfortable unless viewing the world through a maze of wire triangles.

Few of the bird dogs ever got paid a cent for their efforts, although once in a while one would be promised a $100 bonus if the boy he touted ever made the major leagues. But even if that boy did make it, by the time he did the bird dog usually would have died. That wasn't why they went through the effort. They did it to pass time for one thing and because they loved the game for another—but most of all because they appreciated young talent. Just watching it develop was reward enough for old men.

One day in my sophomore year at Fairfield Prep (1957) I struck out 19 apprentice plumbers, bricklayers and carpenters from Bullard-Havens Technical High School. That night Johnny Barron, an aged Cincinnati bird dog, called at my house. When I answered the phone he asked to speak with my father and after that my mother, as if like some Victorian suitor he was seeking permission to court me—which in a way he was. Finally I took the receiver with trembling hands. His voice surprised me. It was battered and broken but completely at ease, as if he was talking to an old friend. And in his mind I guess we were old friends. Hadn't he just seen me pitch?

Johnny took much for granted as we talked. He detailed my strengths and weaknesses with a familiarity that would have annoyed me if not for the warmth in his voice. He concluded his little talk by saying, "And when you do make the big leagues it will be your fastball that brings you there. It's a marvelous fastball."

It was a strange word to use, I thought, the kind of word one used in discussing a painting or statue or some other thing of beauty. He was a strange man, too, and I wondered how he knew such things. (As it turned out, he didn't.)

"We can't offer you a contract until you're a senior," he told me. "By that time most of the other clubs will be bidding a lot of money for you. I'll be out of the picture by then. Our scouts and front-office people will have taken over. But I hope you'll remember that I was the first scout to appreciate your gift. It will mean a lot to me."

Although I was not sure what he wanted or why, I promised, and he hung up, satisfied. I seldom pitched a game that year without spotting his face somewhere in the sparse crowds, and often I would not feel comfortable on the mound until I did. When I signed in 1959, however, it was with the Braves, not with the Reds. But I still kept my promise and had the local paper carry a small article saying how Johnny Barron Sr. of Haddon Street, Bridgeport, Conn., had been the first scout to contact me.

After the bird dogs came the full-time scouts. They moved in like carpetbaggers in your junior and senior years to take advantage of the friendships cultivated by the bird dogs. By that time the bird dogs had drifted out of your life, like first lovers who could not bear to see the others.

The scouts were younger men, usually in their 50s, and their appreciation for talent was more professional than esthetic. They were not unkind men, however, although they were certainly not so lovable as the bird dogs. But then again, when you got your first whiff of that big bonus cash, maybe you were not so lovable either. And just maybe it was a good thing that the bird dogs like Johnny Barron could not see you now.

Unlike the bird dogs, whose virtues were intrinsic to their natures, the scouts were men who embellished their natures. It wasn't that they created virtues they did not possess; it was just that they overaccentuated the virtues they had until they became caricatures of themselves.

Jeff Jones, for example, was "sincere." He was a large, egg-shaped New Englander with shrubs for eyebrows and an endearing stutter that could melt the hardest of hearts. Jeff did not toss his sincerity about like bruised fruit either; he deposited it where he knew it would do the most good—with the mother of a prospect.

"Why, Miz Jordan," he would say, "dddon't you worry about your bbboy! When he gggoes away to the minor leagues I'll watch over him as if he were mmmy own son."

And when Jeff did not look after you as well as he should have, it was understandable. Jeff Jones signed 15 sons a year and, after all, a father can only do so much.

Ray Garland was "flamboyant." He was a sharp, dapper little man who had long ago become a master of the grand gesture. To this day I can remember Ray in only one pose. He is standing, unprotected, in a heavy drizzle that has drenched his camel's hair overcoat the color of Gulden's Mustard. His left arm is extended away from his body, his hand clutching an umbrella that is over the head of my mother, who is sitting dryly in her wicker chair, watching me pitch.

John Pollodoro was "enthusiastic." He was a little Italian with poorly fitted false teeth. When John got excited his teeth started clicking faster than the words could escape from his mouth and he looked like a poorly dubbed foreign movie whose image was out of joint with its sound. One day in my junior year I saw him sit next to my girl friend (now my wife) in the deserted stands of a West Haven ball park. He was jabbering away like a machine gun, but my girl was just nodding primly and moving down the bench away from him until finally she and he were wedged into the far corner of the stands. After the game she told me she had been frightened of him. "When he found out I was your girl friend he even offered me a job," she said. "I know what kind of job he was offering. My mother told me about such things."

I told her she was mistaken, that Johnny was just trying to find some way he could get to me through her. "Be nice," I said. "He could be buying our house someday."

And finally there was the scout I'll call Jack Brown. Jack had no essentially admirable qualities that he could exaggerate like the other scouts. He was just a likable, harmless old fellow whose face was so red it seemed always on the verge of spontaneous combustion. Jack was a drinker and often was in no condition to match wits with the sharper scouts, although maybe this worked to his advantage. Everyone felt sorry for him, and I'm not so sure he didn't sign more than a few players because of sympathy.

One day in my senior year Jack drove me to a tryout camp outside of Boston. We arrived the night before and took a motel room on the outskirts of town. I went to bed immediately, but he said he would sit up a few minutes. He sat nervously in a chair by the window, every so often glancing over at me to see if I was asleep. When he thought I was, he withdrew a paper bag from his coat pocket and began taking long swigs from it. I watched him through half-closed eyes until I fell asleep.

When all the scouting is done, when all the dinners, half-kindnesses, half-truths are in the past, the hard bargaining begins. The fight for the cash. The scouts are brushed aside now, just as the bird dogs were a few years before. The farm directors, general managers and vice-presidents take over. They are younger, colder, bread-faced businessmen who were once accountants or timekeepers. They seem unable to speak to you directly, even when you're in the same room with them. They always talk around you, to your parents, as if you were off on a long trip, maybe, or as if you did not really exist except as a talent somehow abstracted from the human being who possessed it.

But in the long run you never signed with a farm director or a vice-president or even the clubs they represented. In those days you signed a contract with a man, and the man was usually the scout who had made the deepest impression on you. It did not matter how insincere you felt their previous acts of kindness might have been, you could not entirely forget them. You knew even then that an older man cannot spend two years of his life courting a boy without a little of himself rubbing off in the bargain, until even he is not so sure how much his original motives have been blurred and how much this boy really means to him. And you begin to wonder if maybe Jeff Jones did not really wish he could protect you at McCook and Davenport and Palatka and all those places you end up; and maybe Ray Garland would have held that umbrella for your mother even if you had been a .220-hitting second baseman; and maybe Jack Brown didn't want you to see him drink, not only because he wanted to sign you, but also because he wanted to protect you from a vice he thought you were too young to understand.

And if you never did make the big leagues, you did not feel badly that you let down the Braves or Yankees or some pasty-faced farm director. You felt badly because you had let down Jeff Jones or Ray Garland, as if your bonus money had been fished solely from their own shabby pockets.

I signed with Jeff Jones in 1959, when he was with the Braves; when I left baseball in 1962 because I lost my fastball, I seldom saw him or any of the other scouts again. Only Jack Brown used to pop up once in a while at a high school or American Legion game. I would see him behind home plate in the midst of a group of parents, rambling on in that indefinable drawl of his that could have been the faded remnants of a Southern past. And when his attention wandered from the action it invariably seemed to settle on his hatred of the free-agent draft. Jack did not really know how to hate, so when he came to the free-agent draft his tongue would knot in his mouth until he couldn't speak, just sputter. He hated the free-agent draft because, as he said, "It's taken all the heart out of scouting. It's made everything automatic and meaningless," and then he would fall sullen and silent.

It was difficult to see why Jack (and most of the other oldtime scouts) hated something that made his job easier. The free-agent draft was initiated in 1965 to prevent the scouts and clubs from cutting each other's throats in bidding wars over untried youngsters. To eliminate such wars, the major leagues made all free agents eligible for two drafts each year, one in June, the other in January. If the boy did not sign with the club that drafted him, he went back into the pool for the next draft. The process repeated itself until he either signed with a club that had drafted him, enrolled in a four-year college, in which case he could no longer be drafted until he was graduated, or had passed 21 or was no longer drafted.

At no point, however, was the boy free to bargain with any club other than the one that had drafted him. This kept his bonus demands within reason. The only thing the clubs had to do was make sure their offers were just tempting enough to convince a boy it was foolish to waste six months of his career until the next draft, especially since the second club might offer him an even smaller bonus than the first. Now, instead of prospects pulling in $175,000 bonuses like Rick Reichardt, the No. 1 pick in the country was lucky to get $70,000, and the fourth and fifth picks struggled to grab $30,000.

Jack Brown and the other scouts hated the draft not because they no longer had to spend large sums of money but because it made their occupations half-obsolete. Before the draft a scout's job consisted of evaluating talent (it did not take much insight to know a fastball that sounds like ripping silk is big-league stuff) and convincing (i.e., conning) the prospect into signing with the scout's club. If teams offered the prospect roughly the same bonus, what made him pick one team over another? It was usually a scout and the impression he'd made on a boy. But that's exactly what had become obsolete.

"It no longer mattered if the kid and his parents loved me," said Brown. "If we didn't draft him he couldn't sign with us no matter what."

I never understood just how much scouting—and maybe baseball—had lost because of the free-agent draft until a few weeks ago, when I drove to Stamford, Conn. to watch an 18-year-old Stamford Catholic High School pitcher named Art DeFilippis. A husky lefthander with thick arms, DeFilippis has a smooth sidearm motion and a fastball that behaves like a screwball. In four years of pitching he had won 35 games, lost two, struck out 451 batters in 248‚Öì innings and allowed only 13 earned runs. The Sporting News ranked him as one of the top 12 prospects in the country, which made it likely he would be drafted in the first round. (He was eventually drafted second by the Washington Senators, which made him the 38th pick.)

It was not hard to spot Art DeFilippis' father on that hot May afternoon as his son took the mound against Xavier High School of Middletown in a state tournament game. He was sitting in an aluminum deck chair on a high rise that runs above the first-base line. He is a rugged-looking, olive-skinned man with a thin gray mustache, and he had a long green cigar clenched between his teeth. His pretty blonde daughter sat beside him, looking a little confused, as if not quite sure what to make of this fuss over her younger brother. Every so often she would look up and smile at the many friends who stooped to whisper in her father's ear. Their question was always the same. "Any news from the scouts?"

"What do I know?" said Mr. DeFilippis in disgust. "I see them at every game. I say hello and they don't even say a word to me. Look at them!" he said, gesturing with his cigar to the 16 or 17 older men clustered behind the homeplate screen. He said something in Italian and his friends laughed. His daughter watched the game as if she had not heard a thing.

Someone brought Mr. DeFilippis the latest Sporting News with the story about his son. He read the article carefully, nodding, and then he showed it to his friends. He slapped the paper with the back of his hand and said, "See, what'd I tell ya?" The friends nodded solemnly.

It was only the scouts who did not come over and whisper in Mr. DeFilippis' ear. They sat in deck chairs or stood in small clusters. Although many of them were strangers to me, they did not look so different from the old men I had known 10 years ago. They were still tanned and weatherbeaten from their long Florida springs, while we in New England were just beginning to turn red on these first few warm days, and they still dressed a little flamboyantly for older men, in bright alpaca sweaters and banlon jerseys and white and black tasseled loafers. Some smoked cigars, a few chewed tobacco and only a handful, it seemed, kept careful notation of the game's progress in their little black notebooks. They looked much more relaxed, convivial, than I ever remembered scouts being. Scouts were nervous, frantic men before the free-agent draft, always trying to figure some way to outsmart their cohorts in latching onto a prospect. Now they looked as if buzzing in Art DeFilippis' ear was the farthest thing from their minds.

I walked over and sat on the hill behind home plate, a few feet beneath the scouts. They were talking about good restaurants nearby and their next stops and old friends they hadn't seen in a long while, and none of them seemed to concentrate very much on the game. But then again, it was a boring game. Art DeFilippis had already fanned eight of nine batters with a fastball that was tailing and sinking when thrown low and rising when thrown high. He had a nice loose motion, and I could tell he loved pitching just by the way he savored every moment he was on the mound. He must have been pitching a long time, since Little League at least, because he knew when to turn his back on a batter, when to throw over to first base to hold a runner and when to look for a ball's rough spots after it had been fouled off. Only once in a while, however, did any of the scouts comment on him. Often they even had to ask one another how he'd gotten that last batter out, because they'd missed it.

In the fourth inning DeFilippis hit an inside-the-park home run. "He hits, too?" asked a heavyset, white-haired man in his 60s who sat down beside me.

"I guess," I said. He asked the other questions about DeFilippis (What kind of boy was he? Did he like the game? Was he interested in signing?), and we talked for a while, only half-watching the game, until finally he introduced himself as Paul Florence, a Houston scout. Ten years ago, I told him, he had scouted me when I was in high school. He said he remembered, although I'm not sure he did because he kept calling me Bob after that.

"Who did you finally sign with?" he asked.

"Jeff Jones," I said. "He was with the Braves then."

"Ah, Jeff," he said, smiling and nodding with satisfaction. "I'll bet Jeff romanced the hell outta you in those days, didn't he?"

"As a matter of fact, he did. Aren't you doing the same with the kid?" I asked, pointing toward the mound.

"No, it's not necessary anymore. Not after the draft. If it wasn't for the draft I'd be romancing his whole family, maybe take them all to dinner tonight and invite them down to Houston. But that would be foolish. I'd just be getting his hopes up, and mine, for nothing if we didn't get to draft him. All I do is watch him pitch a few times, write up a report on him and turn it in. The front office decides what to do about him after that."

Art fanned his 11th of 12 batters in the fourth inning, and I could see his father clapping politely as he left the mound. Paul Florence continued talking.

"You didn't romance the kid just to get at him, either, you know. The thing was, the more time you spent with him the more you learned what he had inside. What made him tick. You couldn't measure that just by watching him pitch. You had to know the boy for that. Now, with the draft, you seldom get to know any of the boys you scout. They're just names." He stopped for a minute and then added, "It's all so depersonalized. There's no excitement, enthusiasm in it anymore. No life—you know what I mean?" He looked at me, a little confused, as if even he were not so sure he knew what he was trying to say. "You know what I mean?" he asked again.

The innings drifted by and as the seventh was about to begin, Paul stood up. "There's no sense staying any longer," he said. He shook my hand, said goodby and then added, "It's a shame, a real shame."

"What is?"

"It isn't only baseball, you know. Everything's depersonalized. No one cares about the people they deal with anymore, not the waiters or department store clerks or anybody. Did you ever see those smiles you get from the stewardesses on an airplane? It scares me to death, the way when they turn around those smiles disappear. It's like they had to be taught how to smile because they didn't really know."

Paul Florence left and so did most of the scouts. One who remained was Bob Clements, a tanned man in his mid-50s. Clements was formerly a Pittsburgh scout but is now the assistant director of the Major League Scouting Bureau. The bureau, organized in 1968 and run by Vedie Himsl, a former Cub executive, offers free-lance scouting services for a fee to all the major league clubs. Although not all clubs have availed themselves of its services, it seems just a matter of time.

"We owe our existence to the free-agent draft," Clements said. "Before the draft, clubs spent a fortune scouting a kid. One year Kansas City spent over $600,000 in bonuses, and that's not even including what it cost to keep 30 to 40 scouts on the payroll. If a club liked a kid enough they'd move a scout right into his town for a few years so the scout would get in the kid's good graces. And then they had to spend $100,000 to sign him anyway. I wouldn't give an 18-year-old kid $100,000 if he could self-levitate."

Clements turned to a scout next to him and asked how DeFilippis got that last out. The scout said "Strikeout," and Clements marked it in his notebook.

"Now things have calmed down a lot," he continued. "The draft has eliminated all the special treatment the big prospects used to get. Now they're all the same to us. There's no distinction. And because it's no longer necessary for a scout to get personally involved with a boy, you don't need as many scouts. That's where we come in. We offer to scout kids and turn in reports on them to all the clubs. It beats duplication of effort. Then all the clubs have to do is send a scout to see the kid in his senior year and they make up their mind how high they want to draft him. They can cut a lot of deadwood off their payrolls that way. Instead of 30 to 40 scouts they'll need only six or eight."

I asked him if eliminating scouts wasn't just another step toward depersonalization of baseball.

"We're not the cause of that," he said, as if personally hurt by the accusation. "The free-agent draft did that. We're just filling a need that came up. Why, before the draft all those oldtimers were complaining how tough it was trying to sign a kid. Now they're complaining it's no longer fun. I don't believe any of them. I bet you won't find one in 40 who would rather go back to the way things were before the draft—except, of course, those whose jobs we'll replace."

"Then you think baseball is a lot better off because of the draft and your organization?" I said.

He looked up quickly. "No, I didn't say that. I never said things were better or worse. I just said this is the way they are, that's all. And there's nothing that can be done about it. You have to learn to live with it."

It was the ninth inning now. Clements stood up, folded his chair and tucked it under his arm and said goodby. He was the last scout to leave. Even the fans along the first-base line were beginning to fold up their blankets and chairs in anticipation of the last out. Art DeFilippis had already fanned 20 batters, and one more would be a new career high for him. Mr. DeFilippis looked worried about his son, who was exhausted after all those strikeouts and the inside-the-park home run. As I walked past, I could hear him talking.

"I don't know who he'll sign with," he was saying, "but whoever it is, they'll have to meet our price. That's our only consideration now. I got a call this morning from a New York organization called Pro Scouts. They want to be Artie's agent for 10%. Maybe I'll let them do the dealing for us. Who knows? And if nobody comes up with the cash Artie can go to college on a scholarship and then step into my business when he gets out. He can make $20,000 a year with no problem, so why should he sign a contract for nothing, huh? Why?"

Art DeFilippis fanned his 21st batter, and his players mobbed him, as did the remaining fans. He didn't seem to notice that there were no scouts around now, until I mentioned it to him.

"When I was younger," he said, "I always heard stories about how the scouts took you to dinner and all. Every kid does. But none of that's happened to me. I've hardly said a word to them."

Most of the people had gone by now. I started walking across the Stamford Catholic football field toward my car, when I heard a voice call out my name. I turned around to see Jeff Jones walking toward me, a huge grin on his bushy-browed face. He didn't seem to have aged at all in the 10 years. When he stuck out his hand I hesitated for a moment, remembering all that bonus money he had sunk into me, and I felt that I should make some explanation or apology to him.

"I thought it was you," he said, and began talking as if we hadn't seen each other in a few days and he was eager to catch up on lost news. He asked about my parents. He said he'd always liked them, especially my mother. At first I thought it was strange he said nothing about my wife and kids, until I remembered, of course, he didn't know about them.

I asked him why he wasn't out to dinner with the DeFilippis boy right now, and he said he never did that anymore. "It used to be fun competing with the scouts, but now what difference does it make?" Then he added, prodding me lightly with his elbow, "And I was good at it, wasn't I?" I noticed he didn't stutter as much as he used to. "You know, I could never understand why you didn't make the big leagues," he said. "F thought for sure you would. What happened in the minors?"

"It was just one of those things," I said. "You remember, Jeff." He nodded, but I'm sure he didn't.

"Yes, that's the way things turn out. Well, I hope you saved all that bonus money. You didn't waste it, did you?" I told him I bought a house with it, and he nodded his head in approval.

"Good, good, I'm glad you got something out of it. I always liked to see my boys do well, even if they don't make the big leagues for old Jeff." We had reached the parking lot. "What are you doing now?" he asked.

"I write," I said.

"Oh, I see. So that's why your hair is so long," he said. "That's all right. It's the style today. But you must remember never to let it go to extremes. You must never go to extremes, Pat," he said with a stern look. It was the same kind of look I remember the day I left for the minor leagues and he had told me I must never do anything to embarrass him now, because I was one of "Jeff's boys." He had again fallen into that half-sincere, half-created tone that he had used so often with me and a thousand other boys 10 years ago.

"I wrote a book, too," I said. "It's about baseball in the minors."

"I hope you included old Jeff in the book," he said. And when I said yes, I had, and looked away from him, it must have occurred to him that I had written something that might not have shown him in his best light.

"You treated old Jeff right in that book, didn't you?" he said, and he put his arm on my shoulder. "I sure hope you did right by me, Pat. You know I always liked you. I had a special interest in you...."

"Like a father would a son?" I said.

"Yes, that's it," he said. "Like a father would a son." And just for a moment that old charlatan had me believing he always did have a special interest in me, and I felt suddenly close to him and Jack Brown and Ray Garland and all those other old men, and I thought, damn it, Artie DeFilippis will never even know what he's missed.

FOUR ILLUSTRATIONSROBERT CUNNINGHAM

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)