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Do scouts overlook minor leaguers?

By Terry Pluto
October 15, 1983

Ten minutes with a group of scouts is enough to know that their next original thought will be their first. They tend to stay together, file the same reports and spout the same opinions. It is safer that way.

Of course, there are exceptions--Jim Russo, Birdie Tebbetts, Gordon Lakey, Paul Snyder and Clyde King come immediately to mind. But a majority are clones; guys in glaring sports coats with white shoes and cigars. They've swilled beer with the right people in the right places. They've laughed at the right jokes. They are experts at saying exactly what their superiors want to hear. They've had their jobs for 20 years and you can bet they will have them for another 20.

Most scouts perform like a television censor. They like to say who won't make it, who can't play, and whose game lacks something. They are negative nit-pickers.

The easiest method is to say a minor league player won't be successful in the majors. You'll be right more than 90 percent of the time. I've sat with scouts during Triple-A games and had them tell me that it will be lucky if one player makes the majors. Jesse Orosco, Von Hayes and Chris Bando were in that game.

Furthermore, it is simple to follow the party line and praise the pre-ordained prospects. Let's hear it for David Green, Don Mattingly, John Shelby and Julio Franco. The front office expects to hear that those guys will be stars. And they probably will.

But give me the scout who said he didn't care about how many times Danny Goodwin was the nation's No. 1 pick, the guy was an average talent.

And give me the scout who said he didn't care how many years Mike Easler played in the minors, the man can hit.

Finally, give me a scout who can watch a game with "marginal" prospects and finger the one player who helps a big league club.

"I spent the 1981 season as an advance scout for Texas," said Cleveland Indians manager Pat Corrales. "I learned something real fast–sometimes the player who hits .280 at every level will hit .280 in the big leagues. The guys they say have an 'outside' chance, sometimes really come through. But often, they won't give those players a chance."

While scouts can cover themselves by rejecting all prospects but the famed "Blue Chippers," big league general managers have their own method of dodging a gutsy decision.

When an opening occurs, they obtain a hack veteran rather than stick a rookie in the spot. Consider the California Angels. They needed an outfielder. In their farm system was perennial prospect Bobby Clark and an impressive young hitter named Mike Brown. Hey why let these guys battle for the position when you can sign Ellis Valentine?

That's right, Ellis Valentine. Talk about wasted talent. Talk about someone who will make a manager weep. Talk about someone scouts loved for far too long.

So Ellis Valentine did just enough to get by while Brown ravaged Pacific Coast League pitching.

Ellis Valentine has one thing going for him–he looks like a player. Scouts lose their heads when someone walks on the field who "looks" like he should play. They love their lean, 6-foot-3 players with muscular upper bodies and the quickness of a cougar. So what if they can't hit a curve or have the baseball instincts of a roach?

Kirk Gibson also falls into this category. Detroit manager Sparky Anderson saw Gibson for the first time and proclaimed him another Mickey Mantle. Gibson was a football star. He has blond hair and is represented by an advertising agency. And once a week, he does something like Mickey Mantle. But the rest of the time, he is more like Mickey Finn.

There are a million examples. Instead of keeping one of their many young infielders, the New York Yankees have Bert Campaneris on the bench. Campaneris spent last year in Mexico and is older than the Dead Sea Scrolls. Last year, the Yankees refused to stick minor league home run champ Steve Balboni at first base. Instead, they traded for John Mayberry and gave him $2 million. The only place Mayberry was an all-star was with a knife and fork. It seems the Yankees will trade for any high-priced reject instead of using the products of their farm system.

You have to wonder what the Philadelphia Phillies are thinking. They traded for Sixto Lezcano, an honor graduate of the Ellis Valentine College of Five at the Winter Meetings. At the time of the Lezcano deal, Hayes was hitting .270, meaning he was not a complete washout.

This is not to advocate the policy of the Minnesota Twins. No team will win with seven rookies in the lineup. But Sixto Lezcano, Ellis Valentine and the rest will carry you no farther than mediocrity.

Responding to scouts
December 15, 1983

Chicago columnist Mike Royko said it this way: "Sportswriters are a group generally regarded as nice but retarded members of the journalistic family."

According to my mail, most baseball scouts would agree with Royko, at least if the subject is one certain sportswriter. I used to think that nothing could match the wrath of a scorned lover. I found something--a scorned scout.

A few weeks ago, I suggested that some scouts were not the world's most original thinkers. I concentrated on the major league level, citing the "Ellis Valentine" mentality. That's where the same prospects are recycled because "they look like a ballplayer," while less heralded players are continually passed over.

The column drew the most reaction of anything ever printed in Baseball America. All my hate mail came from scouts. Those supporting my stance were anything but scouts, including the people who compile the highly regarded "Baseball Abstract."

Last month, the Mets' Lou Gorman wrote an intelligent and sensitive response that was published in our Letters to the Editor space. If most scouts were like Lou Gorman, there would have been no need for the column. You see, Lou Gorman works hard and makes sense. He is not afraid to speak his mind, as he did in his articulate defense of scouts.

But Mr. Gorman's letter lacked the color of those I received. To protect the innocent and/or guilty, no named will be attached to the letters printed here.

From a contending scout: "That article said scouts run around together, smoke big cigars, wear big plaid coats and white shoes. Also, that they make the same reports to the office . . . I know that there are a lot of people who think they can scout, especially ones that never put on a jocky strap. Baseball America is a credit to baseball, but to have some nut write what he did was a shame.

–I don't know about "jocky" straps, but I have worn jockey shorts, even while typing.

From another contending scout: "If I were a betting man, I would bet that Mr. Pluto has never seen a minor league game and that he doesn't know what a jock strap is. He would probably think it was something to tie up his hair."

–I use my jockstrap as a slingshot. As for the bet about never seeing a minor league game, the scout wins. I haven't seen one, I've watched hundreds, everywhere from Waterloo to Tacoma to Savannah to Paintsville.

From a National League scout: "I read with interest the story on scouts. I assume that Terry is a man, but you couldn't tell by the picture. Looks enough like a woman to me . . . I do know one thing, he doesn't know what he is talking about when he downgrades scouts. You probably will lose the best boosters you have. I have talked to a lot of scouts and they think the column will hurt them in their scouting, for people have a tendency to believe what they read."

–At least, the scouts didn't get personal . . . I doubt anyone will throw a scout out of their house because of a column in Baseball America.

From a well-dressed scout: "If I had hair like Mr. Pluto, I would not be quick to make fun of white shoes and a flashy sport coat . . . That Edgar Allan Poe look doesn't make me think he knows much about the latest men's wear."

–I like white shoes as much as the next guy. Wear them most of the time. They say Nike or Converse on the sole. As for poor Mr. Poe, he was dark and sinister. From what I've been told, I probably have more of a Ben Franklin look.

From an unhappy scout: "One of the things that tells me Mr. Pluto didn't do his homework was the names he printed who were supposed to be good scouts . . . A couple of those were real dandys. Good ear scouts."

–See, you can't even say something nice about some scouts without having other scouts rip you.

By now you have an idea that these men felt they were wronged. They would give a Lebanese terrorist a better scouting report than they did me.

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