Taking A Chance
Tryout camp gives everyone a chance to catch a scout's eye
LAKELAND, Fla.—The open tryout is probably the most unlikely way for any of the 700 players who fill out major league rosters to be discovered. But that hardly mattered when I found out that the Detroit Tigers were holding an open camp during spring training.
I rose from my desk, grabbed a Durham Americans jersey out of the Baseball America storage closet (which used to double as the women's bathroom) and asked my boss what he thought of me participating.
Six weeks later, I was waiting anxiously on the grass behind shortstop with almost 150 others. I was on one of the back fields of the Tigers' spring training complex in Lakeland, Fla., at an open tryout, the longest shot at getting a chance to taste professional baseball and play for the team I've watched and cheered for since before I could even hold a ball. My adrenaline was pumping faster than ever before.
Some of the biggest names in the business were there, staring with straight faces behind their sunglasses, hiding any hint of their thoughts. This was no fluke. The Tigers' assistant scouting director James Orr ran the event, and was accompanied by such bigwigs as player development director Glenn Ezell, East crosschecker Murray Cook and Latin American player development director Manny Crespo.
All types of players were in attendance—young guns decked out in their high school garb, former players looking for a second chance as professionals, and guys who looked better fit for a beer in the bleachers. We were all living the dream. For the only thing better than a story about trying out for a major league club is playing for one.
Finally, Rolando Casanova shouted out my number: "Four-Oh-Six!" That was my cue to step into the spotlight. I stepped up to shortstop with everything I had ever learned in my baseball life racing through my mind:
"Right, left, field. Right, left, throw. Stay down. It hurts more to watch the ball go between your legs than it does to take if off the chest."
I got four chances. I fielded the straight groundball with ease and fired my first throw without a problem. That was easy. "Maybe, just maybe, if I do this cleanly, somebody might notice, or say something," I thought.
The second groundball is in the hole. I picked it no problem, set myself and threw another bullet on target to first base. Next was the forehand. Not as clean, I knocked it down and was able to get a solid throw off. That wasn't so bad. I was feeling pretty good by that point. After all, it's been five years since I've faced any sort of legitimate competition.
Finally the slow roller, everybody's favorite, the one you can make look really pretty. I'm feeling good. If I handle this like Brandon Inge or Scott Rolen, just maybe . . .
I charged the infield grass, completely focused on the ball. I fielded it cleanly and funneled my hands to make the transfer. As I separated, I got an awkward feeling that my body was going in an unwanted direction. I was losing my balance. My instincts took over and I flipped a one-hopper to first base, right before falling flat on my face behind the pitcher's mound. Everything I did, the clean fielding, the solid throws, now will be remembered by one moment: taking a mouthful of grass in front of the Detroit Tigers scouting department.
Nick Phillips, another second baseman, tried to contain his amusement.
"I knew who you were, being with Baseball America and all," Phillips said. "That was pretty funny. I tried to put my glove over my face."
Major league scouts and executives sift through endless masses of information, just to try to have a slight edge over their opponent when the draft arrives. When all 50 rounds are complete, around 1,500 players have been selected—most don't sign or come close to the majors.
So why would the Tigers hold an open tryout with 200 18- to 60-year-olds? For one thing, players who were recently released often wind up at tryouts, and the Tigers' tryout had its share. "There were eight pitchers with major league service time," Orr said. "Or they were at least on a 40-man roster."
The Tigers have an open tryout every year. Every year, the size changes along with the talent pool. The 2006 tryout featured a smaller group with solid talent. The Tigers signed since-released outfielder Michael Hernandez, a nondrafted free agent from Oklahoma State, out of that event, and later traded him to get righthander Armando Galarraga from the Rangers.
Orr said this year was their largest turnout, but the quality was still good. Only one player was signed out of the group, but several others are on a short list in case of injuries.
Blaine Neal was this year's lottery winner, as he inked a deal with Triple-A Toledo. The righthander debuted with the Marlins in 2001 and pitched 33 innings out of the bullpen the following season, posting a 3-0, 2.73 mark. A couple of trips to the disabled list and a couple of trades derailed Neal's career, and he never quite matched his success of 2002.
"We don't rely on the tryout," Orr said. "There are guys with ability that could help us, but we don't have needs right now. We keep our eyes out for big league prospects."
For Love Of The Game
John Armenio is a lefthander/first baseman, one of those still looking for that last chance. Armenio spent two seasons with Seminole (Fla.) Community College before playing for the Slippery Rock Sliders of the independent Frontier League. He was pumped up for the camp but facing reality at the same time.
"I think I can play," Armenio said. "I've seen the competition and I think I can hang in there. I'm 22 years old. I know guys that are 26, 27, still doing this. We'll see what happens."
When he's not grasping for the last limb, Armenio passes on every bit of knowledge he can to young players. He teaches pitching and hitting lessons at several baseball training facilities around Long Island and even tutors the occasional adult wanting to work on his swing for a senior league.
The Tigers tryout was Armenio's second in two days. The Friday before, he found out about a Marlins tryout taking place the day before the Tigers' audition. Armenio and his father, John Sr., drove all day from Long Island to make it. They didn't get a hotel room and slept at a rest stop for a few hours before continuing down the road, chasing John Jr.'s dream. He also planned to attend tryouts for independent teams.
Phillips, an infielder who spent four seasons between Darton (Ga.) College and Valdosta State, was relaxed.
"It was a little more organized than others," Phillips said. "I got the feeling they were actually looking for players."
Phillips and his roommate, first baseman Chris Harris, were there to take their final shot. Phillips plans to attend graduate school in the fall, and Harris has a teaching job. They both realized it was a long shot, but they hated to look back and regret that they never tried.
The entire event was controlled chaos, a lot of hurry up and wait. Everyone hustled to the next station, then started kicking the dirt around and waiting.
After being separated by position, everyone spread out in the outfield corners to stretch, jog and toss. After a quick jog my legs were burning. I feared for what my arm would feel like after throwing. After some light tossing most of the infielders ventured over to watch the catchers then outfielders run their drills. Catchers made a few throws to second, followed by the outfielders getting four throws, two to third and two to home. It was pretty clear every player's window of opportunity was small.
"I felt it was crowded," Armenio said. "It's hard to get a look when you get three ground balls. You're hot then cold."
Nobody stood out. There were some good arms at every position, but nothing that would elicit the scouts' interest. A couple of outfielders showed some strength by launching the ball over the third-base fence. Obviously, their accuracy was something to be desired. Other throws barely made it to the infield.
Batting practice followed fielding drills. With more than 100 position players, a pitching machine handled BP duty rather than a human. Everyone got 10 swings. While one person was in the spotlight, dozens of others were scattered around, shagging balls and chatting.
Everybody on the field got their chance to hit. When the rounds were finished, six players were sent through again for an extra look. Phillips was one of them. "I think I did all right," he said. "I was a little out in front in the beginning, hitting it off the end of the bat."
When results were posted, Phillips graded out with average fielding tools and below-average hitting, but he was above-average compared with the entire camp.
Big League Advice
I had to leave prior to taking BP but walked out of the complex on cloud nine after trying out for my favorite team. I thought of all the people I had to tell about the experience. Thanks to my girlfriend, news had spread like wildfire of my big league audition. Now I had tons of calls to make, trying to make the slow roller sound better than it looked.
A fan near the gate snapped me back to reality, pointing out that someone was calling for me. A Tigers scout ran up to me and introduced himself as Manny Crespo.
Immediately overwhelmed, knowing Crespo's reputation as a coach and scout, I tried to focus on what he was saying to me. It didn't take long to realize that Crespo, ever the teacher, was giving me a tutorial on how to field a slow roller while acting out the proper technique.
"And that's why I fell on my face," I said as he finished. We shared a laugh and he was quickly on his way back to the field.
Very few get the chance to taste the big leagues, much less have a major impact on the game's history. The number is even smaller for those who want that second chance or last look. An open tryout is one of the longest shots at tasting pro ball, but the experience is worth it.
Chasing a dream can end with disappointment for many, but the chase is the story. Like Phillips said, looking back, you won't have any regrets. A botched ground ball, foolish swing or even a face plant hurts much less than a regret, years down the road. For those who won't make it, this is the closest they can come to the real thing. Might as well take the chance.
And for the record, I'm still with Baseball America.