Image credit: Mike Radcliff (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)
The signature white visors. The patches on their sleeves. The Tommy Bahama shirts. The Twins’ scouting staff did everything it could to honor its longtime leader last July during the draft.
But then Minnesota provided Mike Radcliff with the ultimate tribute, simply by following a procedure established three decades earlier. They chose the player he recommended.
“It was such a special day, an emotional day for all of us,” Twins scouting director Sean Johnson said of using the fifth overall pick to select North Carolina high school outfielder Walker Jenkins. “It meant so much, because we know it would have made Mike so excited.”
Radcliff, who rose from area scout to scouting director to vice president of player personnel during a 36-year career with the Twins, had watched Jenkins the previous September at a Perfect Game showcase. He rated him in his reports the next day as an 8, the highest grade possible on the 2-8 scale, “one that a scout might use maybe once or twice a decade,” Johnson said.
To anyone’s memory, Radcliff had bestowed that grade on just two other high school hitters, Joe Mauer and Bryce Harper. “When we saw that report, when we saw that grade, we knew Mike’s meaning,” Johnson said. “He was saying, ‘This is the best prospect in the draft.’”
But it was a draft that Radcliff knew he would never see. The scouting giant was terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, and it finally claimed him on Feb. 3, 2023, the eve of spring training, Radcliff’s favorite time of year. The disease cost the Twins one of their most respected leaders, and it cost the scouting world one of its hardest-working and most generous mentors.
“He had the best eye in the business for evaluating players. Not only physical skills—anybody can run a stopwatch or a radar gun—but he had an eye for mechanics, intangibles, makeup,” said Terry Ryan, the longtime Twins general manager who hired Radcliff to help evaluate Midwestern amateur players in 1987.
The two had crossed paths while covering the same area, Radcliff for the MLB Scouting Bureau.
“He loved hitters. He could fall in love with a great swing. He always was looking for grace, efficiency, smarts, quickness—and I never saw a scout better at seeing it before anyone else, or working harder to find it.”
For that career, which helped bring stars such as Torii Hunter, Justin Morneau, Byron Buxton and Mauer to the Twins, Radcliff is the 2023 winner of the Tony Gwynn Award, presented annually by Baseball America to an individual who has created a legacy in the game and inspires others to do the same.
Radcliff, 66 when he died, is the first posthumous honoree.
“As a person, Mike could make human connections like nobody else, with players, with scouts, with everybody,” said Twins pro scout John Manuel, who helped create the Gwynn Award as BA editor-in-chief nearly a decade ago, then worked with Radcliff since 2017.
“And the gift he gave to scouts is the realization that if you’re going to put your name next to (a recommendation of) a player, you better have conviction,” Manuel said, “and the way you develop that conviction is to work—see the player, find out who he is inside, find out why he has that swing and what he can do with it.
“That’s the lasting legacy he leaves us, a level of passion and caring that you can’t fake.”
It’s a work ethic that perhaps only Radcliff’s auto mechanic could properly quantify. Radcliff, who lived in suburban Kansas City his entire life despite Ryan’s attempts at convincing him to move to Minneapolis, was legendary for his insistence upon personally scouting nearly every player the Twins drafted—and his willingness to drive hours at a time to get there. He was normally on the road more than 200 days per year.
He always arrived several hours early, in order to observe batting practice where, he believed, a hitter’s routine revealed how serious and thoughtful he was about his craft, sometimes more so than his game at-bats.
“Nobody could ever beat him to the ballpark,” Johnson said. “I tried, and I never could.”
Even when cancer struck in late 2019, Radcliff would only make modest adjustments to his schedule.
“He would schedule his chemo (treatments) for Mondays,” Johnson said. “He told us, ‘I need a day or two, but I’ll feel better by Wednesday, and then I’ll go to this game on Thursday and that game on Friday.’
“He insisted on going to games every weekend and then getting home for treatments on Monday. He just couldn’t bear to miss seeing kids, looking for prospects. You could see there were times he was really tired and zapped by the medications, but his mind was always sharp.”
Just like it had always been. Radcliff was known by his peers for his incredible memory, for his ability to watch 100 prospects at a showcase and recall everything he saw. One friend remembered chatting with Radcliff and a group of scouts during batting practice before a game in the 2014 Arizona Fall League, with nobody paying attention to what was happening on the field.
Nobody except Radcliff, who suddenly exclaimed: “See that? (Max) Kepler went opposite-field five times that round. He’s getting it!”
“He never stopped observing, learning, wanting more. Ever,” Ryan said. “He read about six newspapers a day and about three books a week.”
And if he had a specialty, hitting was it.
“The hardest thing to do in scouting is figuring out who’s going to hit. And it’s also the most important thing,” Johnson said. “And Mike loved the challenge of trying to find those guys.
“He’s the guy who would sit at a showcase—and it could be seven hours long or 12—and he wouldn’t miss a swing. It seemed like he never got up. It was rare that we ever saw him eat something or drink something.”
That’s how he uncovered Jacque Jones in San Diego, and Torii Hunter in Pine Bluff, Ark. It’s how, once he added international scouting to his portfolio, he helped sign Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco and Miguel Sano in one busy summer.
“One of the things Cliffy was best at was sniffing out a player’s instincts. His track record of sniffing out amateur hitters is amazing,” Manuel said. “Scouting amateur hitters is so hard. The quality of competition varies. You’re talking about metal bats versus wood. There’s different ballpark dimensions. And you’re trying to judge raw power? In the last 30 years, find me a team that was better at identifying hitting prospects than the Minnesota Twins—and the reason is Mike Radcliff.”
Scouting, though, isn’t what most of his peers will remember. It’s Radcliff’s humility, his sense of humor and his willingness to help anyone who asked. Radcliff, Ryan recalled, once noted that every time he reached his hotel after a game, the light on his phone would be flashing and a dozen or more messages would be waiting.
“I don’t know a guy who was happier when cell phones were invented than Mike,” Ryan said. And he became even more excited when cars were modified to allow him to make return calls as he drove.
He talked to fellow scouts, to Twins executives, to family and friends and reporters, willing to trade observations on the NBA, the Kansas City Chiefs or any of the hundreds of players he had watched play baseball.
“He has mentored every scout in our system, and lots more around the league,” Johnson said. “I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about Mike.”
Added Ryan:“I don’t believe he had a single enemy his entire life. And it’s a competitive business.”
Perhaps the most competitive moment Radcliff ever felt came in 2001, when the Twins owned the No. 1 overall pick. Southern California righthander Mark Prior, one of the best college pitchers ever, was widely expected to be the pick. But Georgia Tech third baseman Mark Teixeira and Mauer, a Twin Cities high school catcher, were also highly rated.
On draft day, Ryan turned to his expert. “Pick who you want,” the general manager told Radcliff, who did so by drafting Mauer, the local kid who would go on to win three AL batting titles and the 2009 MVP award.
Mauer, who will make his Hall of Fame ballot debut in 2024, was the face of the Twins for more than a decade. It was Radcliff who made it happen. And who knows? Perhaps Jenkins will someday carry that same imprint.
“I hope the Twins are a Mike Radcliff organization for a long time, at least in our scouting group, because we’ll never have a better mentor, a better example,” Johnson said. “The way he treated people—he always had time for us.
“He had an elite work ethic, but never wanted credit—it was always the area scouts, no matter if it was he who sent them out to see a particular kid.
“His legacy is just that he was the gold standard for every aspect of the job.”