2021 Tony Gwynn Award: Mike Brito (Los Angeles Dodgers)
Forty years ago, a phenomenon unlike anything seen before it swept through Major League Baseball.
Fernando Valenzuela, a 20-year-old lefthander from Mexico with a twirling windup and an unhittable screwball, won his first eight career starts for the Dodgers, throwing five shutouts among them and captivating North America. Valenzuela won the National League Rookie of the Year award, the NL Cy Young Award and led the Dodgers to the 1981 World Series title, becoming MLB’s first Mexican superstar and an icon for generations to come.
This past season, on the 40th anniversary of Fernandomania, another Mexican lefthander, Julio Urias, won 20 games for the Dodgers, bookending four decades of franchise excellence fueled in no small part by Mexican players.
The common tie that binds them all is Mike Brito.
Brito, 87, has been the Dodgers’ top scout in Mexico since 1978. He has signed 32 major leaguers in 43 years, including Valenzuela, Urias, Yasiel Puig, Ismael Valdez and Joakim Soria. When the Dodgers won the World Series in 2020, a Mexican pitcher, Victor Gonzalez, won the clincher. Another, Urias, got the save. Both were signed by Brito.
But Brito’s impact goes far beyond just one team’s on-field success. He opened Mexico as a major talent source for MLB after teams had largely disregarded it for years. Through his continuous signings of stars from Mexico and other Latin American countries, he played a direct role in making the Dodgers an international brand. Many of the players he signed, led by Valenzuela, created generations of Dodgers fans in the Mexican-American community, transforming the franchise’s cultural identity.
Brito did more than just sign players. He impacted scouting and the game beyond borders.
For his contributions to baseball, domestically and internationally, Brito is Baseball America’s 2021 Tony Gwynn Award winner for his lifetime of contributions to the game.
“You can be good, but if you’re not lucky, you’re not going nowhere,” Brito said. “I consider myself a very lucky guy.”
What Brito humbly attributes to luck, his contemporaries ascribe to a tireless work ethic, a relentless pursuit of the players he likes and a desire, above all else, to give players a chance.
Up until the coronavirus pandemic, Brito could still be found, in his mid 80s, running tryouts in small towns throughout Mexico. Often, a day or two later, he would be sitting in the press box at Dodger Stadium, evaluating the current club.
Brito walks with a cane now, and the pandemic has prevented him from traveling like he once did. Still, he remains a full-fledged member of the Dodgers’ scouting staff as their Mexico scouting supervisor.
“I’m retiring next year and I said, ‘Mike, when are you going to retire?’ ” said Jaime Jarrín, the Dodgers’ Hall of Fame Spanish-language broadcaster and a close friend of Brito’s for nearly 50 years.
“He said, ‘Jaime, I’m going to work until the day I die because I love what I do.’ He moves very slowly now, but I don’t know how he does it, he’s very active. He’s very, very active, always trying to find out if there is a tournament in Mexico so he can go down and cover it.”
Brito was a pioneer in scouting Mexico. Before he signed Valenzuela, fewer than 40 players born in Mexico had ever played in MLB.
Rather than focusing only on the big cities, Brito hosted tryouts in small towns throughout the country, dedicated to unearthing players who had the talent to be signed but lacked the exposure.
When Brito found a player he liked, he did more than just recommend him. He made sure the player had the support to succeed.
“My best memory is in ’79, when he signed me for the Dodgers,” Valenzuela said, “and he traveled with me from Mexico through the California League for about a month. I think he’s always tried to help young players from Mexico and it’s great.
“He signed a lot of players and he’s pretty good. He’s never done it for attention. He’s tried to give opportunities to the players.”
That level of care sprang from Brito’s personal experience of what it was like to be young and chasing a dream thousands of miles from home.
Brito was born in Cuba in 1934—his birth year has erroneously been reported as 1935—and grew into one of the country’s top young catchers. He played for the Cienfuegos Elephants and was spotted by Joe Cambria, the historic Washington Senators scout who signed Tony Oliva, Camilo Pascual and Zoilo Versailles among dozens of other future major leaguers from Cuba.
Cambria signed Brito for the Senators, an event Brito likes to recall self-deprecatingly.
“Joe Cambria was like how I’m a scout in Mexico,” Brito said. “Everybody knew him. He was a very popular scout in Cuba. But he made a mistake when he signed me.”
Brito began his professional career in Hobbs, N.M., in the Class C Longhorn League in 1955. He played three seasons in the Senators’ system and reached Class B, roughly the equivalent of High-A, before being released. He was 23 years old and 2,000 miles from home, coming to the realization he wasn’t talented enough to achieve his major league dreams.
“I threw well for a catcher and had some power,” Brito said, “but I would not consider myself a good hitter. I just played hard.”
But while one door closed, another opened. Following his release, Brito played four seasons in Mexico, spending time with Juarez, Chihuahua and Aguascalientes. It was his introduction to the country where he would make an everlasting impact on MLB.
Brito returned to the United States in 1962 after his playing career ended and settled in Los Angeles. He worked as a truck driver and, in his spare time, ran an adult amateur baseball league called the Mike Brito League.
Brito played in the league himself, and in 1975, he faced a former Royals minor league infielder named Robert “Babo” Castillo, who had switched to pitching and struck Brito out with a screwball.
Through an old teammate in Mexico, Brito began scouting for Mexican League’s Reynosa franchise in 1976 and signed Castillo for the team. Brito and Castillo moved to the Monterrey club together the following year.
Brito also had an in with the Dodgers. Los Angeles general manager Al Campanis was Brito’s manager with Cienfuegos in Cuba in 1954. Brito got in touch with Campanis and recommended Castillo to his former manager.
In 1977, spurred by Brito’s recommendation, the Dodgers purchased Castillo’s rights. The following year, in 1978, Campanis hired Brito as a scout for the Dodgers, with Mexico as his coverage area.
Immediately, Brito assumed a special place in the Dodgers scouting hierarchy.
“The funny thing is when he came to the Dodgers, he didn’t work under the scouting department under Ben Wade, who was the head of scouting for the Dodgers in the ’70s and early ’80s,” Jarrín said. “He was the only scout to report to Al Campanis.
“(Campanis) wanted Mike to become ‘his’ scout. Al Campanis liked Mike very much and he saw he was very hard-working. So Al Campanis was the one who would send him to Mexico to all those little towns, and that is how he found the prospects for the Dodgers.”
In his first year on the job, Brito found Valenzuela. The lefthander’s success made Brito an overnight celebrity in both Mexico and Los Angeles, where his white Panama hat, ever-present cigar and white, Stalker radar gun made him immediately identifiable in small Mexican towns and on televised games from Dodger Stadium.
Brito even began acting and appeared in seven Mexican films. He also played a scout in the 1991 movie “Talent For The Game.”
But while Brito achieved a level of notoriety rare for his profession, scouting never took a back seat. He continued to build a talent pipeline from from Mexico to Los Angeles. He followed Valenzuela with the signings of Valdez, righthander Antonio Osuna, outfielder Karim Garcia, shortstop Juan Castro and lefthander Dennys Reyes, among others. Other teams, inspired by Valenzuela’s success, began scouting Mexico more heavily, but none could match Brito’s record.
“He believed in me and my stuff,” Valenzuela said. “That was a big help. Because a lot of players, they have a good future, good stuff, especially for pitchers. But sometimes, for some reason, the scouting doesn’t give the guys more opportunities if they have a bad outing on their pitching days, so they stop looking at them.
“(Brito) keeps following and not only giving you one look, but more than that. I think that’s what the players need sometimes. Because every player is going to have a bad outing, a bad game, so I think he’s always continuing to look for those players. I think that’s the difference in Mike Brito from other scouts.”
The successes continued into the new millennium. In 2012, Brito led a group of Dodgers scouts and officials to Mexico to sign Puig, who Brito first saw four years earlier playing for the Cuban national team in Canada. The group also scouted the local talent while they were there and signed an additional five players off of that trip, including Urias and Gonzalez.
Brito was a signing scout for all of them. It was a trip that reinforced to then-Dodgers vice president of scouting Logan White what made Brito so successful.
“The thing I learned from Mike was that he wasn’t afraid,” said White, now a senior advisor with the Padres. “He was never afraid. He was always going to try to do the extra thing, find the extra player, go the extra mile and stuff like that. Mike was very aggressive. I respected his ability to never be afraid of anything.”
Brito’s legacy has long been secure. He is one of the most impactful scouts in baseball history, one who transformed both his franchise and the baseball standing of an entire nation.
Even after Brito is gone, his life’s work will endure through the scouts he worked with, the players he signed, the Dodgers organization and baseball in Mexico, as a whole.
“I’m lucky,” Brito said. “I’m aggressive and I’ve been very lucky. It’s been something good, something you never forget, something I’m always going to keep on my mind.”