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Clubs have turned to world-wide scouting

By Jim Callis
November 29, 1993

Forget about the $700,000 the Blue Jays gave Brazilian righthander Jose Pett two summers ago. Forget about the $800,000 the Braves lavished upon Australian shortstop Glenn Williams this July.

Forget that in the last two years the Angels have signed the first Russians, the first New Zealander and the first Guamanian. Forget all of this.

The clearest indication that baseball fever is storming the globe faster than Mitch Williams can throw ball four came this summer when Wayne Morgan, director of international scouting for the Blue Jays, attended a European tournament in Italy:

"This small country began to make a comeback," Morgan says, "and the Tomahawk Chop started. The fans had these plastic water bottles they banged on for the drums, and it sounded pretty good."

The spread of baseball, and the Tomahawk Chop, has exploded since the International Olympic Committee's October 1986 decree made baseball an official Olympic sport, starting with the 1992 Barcelona Games. According to the International Baseball Association, the number of baseball-playing nations has increased from about 60 to nearly 100 since the IOC announcement. Baseball federations across the world have received more money and endorsements, and now can dip into Olympic solidarity money, television dollars earmarked for the development of sports.

Where 60 nations were playing baseball seven years ago, an equal number received World Series broadcasts this October. Major League Baseball International Partners (see Page 18) has helped spread the gospel of baseball while in turn reaping the benefits of soaring sales of licensed products.

Baseball's worldwide development has been good news for major league teams searching for talent. Throughout the game's history, the player pool has expanded, first from a regional to a national scope, then to the inclusion of blacks, then to the Caribbean.

Since the inception of the amateur draft in 1965, it rarely matters which team finds a prospect first or is willing to pay him the most money. Teams make a choice, then wait another 28 selections before they get another player.

There are few scouting secrets these days. All players from the United States, its territories (most notably Puerto Rico) and Canada, and all players at U.S. colleges or high schools, are eligible for the draft. Any noteable prospect is known by virtually every team.

Many clubs have academies in the talent-rich Dominican Republic, topped by the Dodgers' state-of-the-art Campo Las Palmas. These essentially are mass-production prospect factories, with the best players eventually migrating to the United States. The scouting net for several teams extends as far south as Venezuela.

Thus the true battleground for the aggressive and progressive scouting departments has shifted to the world's mostly untapped markets: Australia, Europe, the Orient and South America. Any player age 16 on July 1 the year before his contract begins is fair game. It's an arena with few rules that rewards organizations willing to spend lots of time and even more money.

"You're looking for any angle of obtaining and procuring the best talent possible," says Chuck LaMar, Braves director of scouting and player development. "As scouting in the United States has gotten more competitive, and scouting in Latin America in some ways is saturated in some places, the competitive scouting organizations are looking for that edge in bringing the best talent into their organization.

"The cutting edge in baseball, the last frontier, is the international scene."

Morgan is the pioneer of global scouting, though he didn't get his current title until three years ago. A former area scout for the Yankees and Astros before joining the Blue Jays, Morgan began chasing international talent 12 years ago.

Many foreign prospects are discovered at international tournaments, where nations use their best eligible players. Morgan saw Korean lefthander Don Wong Choi pitch at the 1981 Intercontinental Cup in Edmonton, and says Choi had a chance to pitch in the major leagues immediately, especially with a fledgling club like the Blue Jays.

Morgan went to see Choi six times before signing him to a major league contract reportedly worth around $250,000, an unprecedented bonus at the time, though Morgan says the money has been overestimated. Signing Choi, it turned out, was the easy part.

Korea was in the process of forming its own professional baseball league. When the government discovered Choi was heading to Toronto, it threatened to jail Morgan if he tried to leave the country with the contract.

"It's part of the game," Morgan says. "There's always some type of problem involved. It never seems like it's easy."

Morgan made five copies of the contract and mailed them to five North American addresses. The Blue Jays planned on bringing Choi to spring training in 1983, but the government intervened again.

Choi was given a choice: Serve a mandatory military commitment before going to Canada, or pitch in the Korean league and have his military service waived. Choi opted for the latter, and became a star in Korea.

A decade later, the Blue Jays and Morgan, along with the Braves and international scouting supervisor Bill Clark, are the acknowledged leaders in worldwide scouting. (Clark was on an extended scouting trip to a South American nation that the Braves would prefer remain nameless, and couldn't be contacted for this story.)

About half the major league organizations have expanded their scouting interests beyond North and Latin America. Other major players in the global market include the Dodgers and scout Jim Stoeckel, and the Marlins and director of international operations Orrin Freeman. Atlanta, Florida, Los Angeles and Toronto were the four organizations that made serious bids on both Pett and Williams.

Global scouting is a complex, expensive business. Travel costs alone are enormous. In 1992, when Freeman was establishing the Marlins' network, he flew about 200,000 miles and ranked in the top 1 percent on three airlines' frequent-flier lists. Morgan has visited at least two dozen nations.

"To be most effective, you would travel very little and see only the very best players," says Freeman, part of an Expos front-office exodus to south Florida. "International scouting is almost the opposite. It's going to get better, but it's very, very different now."

Major league organizations also must deal with visa limits on foreigners imposed by the U.S. government. The commissioner's office divides up the visas, about 500, among the 28 teams. While Latin American prospects can be developed at an academy until they're ready for the minor leagues, prospects from other areas of the world usually are brought straight to the States so they don't have to experience two doses of culture shock.

"Our problem is we're finding as we look that we don't have as many opportunities," says Stoeckel, a former Davidson College coach who spent 10 years coaching with the Dutch national team. "A guy has to come into our organization and compete not only with the other guys in the organization, but to get one of our 25 visa spots in the U.S."

Organizations also have to educate their personnel about foreigners. "Some of our people think Kym Ashworth just eats kangaroo all day," says Stoeckel, referring to the Dodgers' prize 17-year-old Australian lefthander.

Then there's the seamy side, which none of the global scouts likes to talk about publically. But most have encountered instances of teams hiding players, or of getting a verbal commitment from a player only to see another team swoop in and grab him. Some foreign coaches serve as bird-dog scouts for a major league team, and will deny other organizations access to their players.

As Morgan learned 10 years ago with Choi, all the money and effort easily can go for naught. That's why Freeman maintains national crosschecking duties in addition to his foreign responsibilities. "It keeps me sane," he says.

International scouts also have to deal with the unexpected. After a nine-hour flight from Miami to Brazil during the race for Pett, Freeman was detained at the Sao Paulo airport when customs officials found an item resembling a handgun in his luggage.

"What's that?" an official asked in Portuguese.

"It's a radar device to measure the speed of a baseball," Freeman said.

"What's baseball?" the official replied.

Fortunately for Freeman, he was accompanied by Angel Vasquez, the Marlins' director of Latin American operations who could explain.

Sometimes the stories aren't so funny, at least at the time. Morgan and his wife Karen were driving to a tournament in Parma, Italy, two summers ago when they got pulled over by three policemen at a terrorist checkpoint.

"They had a sting on for a man and a woman in a German car, which is what we were driving," Morgan says. "They had machine guns and bulletproof vests on, and didn't speak English. What saved me was my tournament pass with my picture."

The most fertile international market today is Australia, where baseball is gaining fast on cricket and Australian Rules Football.

Each of eight teams in the thriving Australian Baseball League, which began play in the winter of 1989, has a major league affiliate that provides four players. At the grass-roots level, enrollment in national T-ball leagues has reached 400,000.

The results already can be seen in the United States. Where Aussies once were a rare sight in professional baseball, five played in the majors this season: Brewers lefthander Graeme Lloyd and catcher Dave Nilsson, Padres righthander Mark Ettles and infielder Craig Shipley, and Yankees righthander Mark Hutton. Another 22 played in the minors.

"The people of Australia are a big, strong, aggressive people, which makes good baseball players," says Freeman, noting the large number of fights in Australian baseball games. "Their mechanics are good. They have throwing form from playing cricket, and the fundamentals from hitting that cricket thing carry over."

Freeman thinks Williams' bonus will encourage more Australian youngsters to play baseball. LaMar looks at the $800,000 as an investment that made up for the Braves forfeiting their first-round pick to the Cubs as free-agent compensation for signing Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux.

The Braves first spotted Williams at a world youth tournament in Australia two years ago, and LaMar says they projected him as a first-round pick this year at age 16 and a possible No. 1 overall pick if he were to enter the draft as a high school senior. The Braves were one of five teams to bid more than $500,000 for his services.

Major league organizations find the going easier in Australia than other areas because of their association with ABL teams. The Braves might have taken Australia's top young prospect, but they also send four players to the Waverley Reds each winter, and pay the Reds a development grant for their youth program. Other teams have similar arrangements.

"We try to give back," LaMar says. "As Major League Baseball expands into the international market, we have to be more and more aware of giving back rather than taking. Right now a lot of these countries perceive that we've been taking their best youth players and not putting anything back."

The Dodgers' association with the Adelaide Giants helped them land Ashworth, the top-rated prospect in the Pioneer League this summer, his first in the United States. Dodgers minor league manager Joe Vavra skippered the Giants last winter and saw Ashworth in Adelaide's youth program. Los Angeles signed him in December.

A cooperative effort could have landed Australian righthander Phil Brassington for the Marlins, but the timing was wrong.

On a trip to Australia, Freeman had met Andre Desjardins, a former assistant coach at the University of New Orleans who had settled Down Under after marrying an Australian. Desjardins, now a high school coach, later called Freeman to tell him about Brassington, one of his players. But the Marlins had only two short-season affiliates for the 1992 season, and at 22 Brassington would have been too old for both.

Florida let him get away, so Desjardins steered Brassington to his alma mater, Lamar University. Brassington pitched one season for the Cardinals before the Royals drafted him in the fifth round this June.

Australia has more players in major league organizations than any of the other new markets, but Europe might be the site of the next explosion.

The Netherlands, homeland to Giants center fielder Rikkert Faneyte and Yankees shortstop prospect Robert Eenhoorn, has been the leading European baseball nation for years. Counting the Netherlands Antilles, Holland had 10 players in pro ball this season.

Freeman has high hopes for second baseman Ralph Milliard, signed by the Marlins off the Dutch national team last year. Lefthander Christian Rugenburg drew six-figure bonus interest from several clubs at the World Port tournament in Rotterdam this summer, as well as at the World Junior Championships in Windsor, Ontario.

Other European nations are catching up. The Expos signed Spanish outfielder Xavier Civit in February, and Italy might be the next country to send a player to the United States.

Baseball is surging around the world. Stoeckel mentions Africa as a future talent source, and in 1991 Nigeria made the first appearance by an African nation at the World Junior Championships.

Pett, whom scouts called the most refined 16-year-old pitcher ever, was a product of the burgeoning baseball program spawned by Japanese immigrants around Sao Paulo.

The former Soviet Union started playing baseball in 1987, with the stated desire of winning an Olympic medal by 1996. That won't happen, and the three players signed by the Angels were future coaches rather than prospects, but the seeds have been planted.

International scouts foresee baseball continuing to infiltrate nations around the world. The possibilities seem limitless.

"My area keeps growing, from southern California to the western United States to the United States to the whole world," Freeman says. "I might be the first guy on Mars."

It might be easier to get a player from Mars than the Orient. Japan, Korea and Chinese Taipei long have been fascinated by baseball, and all have their own professional leagues. That's the problem for major league organizations.

A gentleman's agreement between Major League Baseball and Japan's two major leagues prohibits the groups from raiding the other's territory. If a Japanese team wants a Japanese player, an MLB team can't touch him.

Righthander Makato Suzuki provided an interesting exception to the rule this September. He left Japan two years ago as a fringe player not tied to any team, and joined the Class A California League's independent San Bernardino Spirit, where he developed a mid-90s fastball this season. Sixteen MLB teams bid for Suzuki, who signed with the Mariners for $750,000.

There's no rule banning MLB teams from signing Koreans or Taiwanese, but it's nearly impossible to land a player from either place. National pride runs high, and both nations can enforce military-service requirements to keep players from leaving for North America.

Freeman is high on 20-year-old Korean righthander Park Chen Ho, whom he saw at the World University Games in Buffalo this summer. But even if the Marlins could work out a deal for him, Freeman says, "It would be treason for that kid to leave Korea."

That doesn't mean scouts won't try. Undaunted by his failure to import Don Wong Choi, Morgan got the signature of Dong Hee Park, the ace of Korea's 1988 Olympic team, on a contract. But as with Choi, the government pressured Park into staying.

Morgan has pursued Taiwan's best prospects as well. In 1983, he clocked a young pitcher named Kuo Tai-Yuan at 97 mph. Morgan spent the winter before the 1984 Olympics trying to sign Kuo, enduring a harrowing ride through the back streets of Taipei in the process.

Videocassettes still weren't commonplace, so Morgan had brought an 8-mm reel of Toronto highlights to impress Kuo. When Morgan arrived at the field where Kuo was training, the coach took one look at the reel and said, "Cassette." A bystander who spoke English told Morgan he could help him.

"So I had to jump on the back of his moped, holding onto him and this huge reel, and weave 40 minutes through crowds, traffic and back streets," Morgan says. "It was insane, right out of 'The Deer Hunter.' "

Morgan paid "a ridiculous amount of money" to have a man project the film on a screen and make a cassette tape of the images, which took hours. Morgan survived another moped ride back to the field, only to have the coach greet him with more bad news: "Beta."

Morgan had a VHS tape, so he had to go through the whole process again. The rigmarole seemed worthwhile when Kuo gave Morgan a verbal agreement to sign after the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where Kuo struck out 12 in a 2-1 loss to a U.S. team that included the likes of Will Clark, Barry Larkin and Mark McGwire.

When Morgan went to sign Kuo officially, he learned that Kuo's brother had cut a side deal with Japan's Seibu Lions. The brother had a failing business, and the Seibu corporation paid him under the table to deliver Tai-Yuan to the Lions, which he did for less than the Blue Jays were offering. Kuo, who changed his name to Taigen Kaku, has gone on to star in Japan, going 96-51 in nine seasons and helping Seibu win three straight Japan Series from 1990-92.

More recently, Morgan was interested in righthander Kuo Lee Chien-Fu, the ace of Chinese Taipei's 1992 Olympic silver medalists. But Kuo Lee had been overpitched in Barcelona and Morgan couldn't work him out, so he didn't make an offer. Kuo Lee signed with Japan's Hanshin Tigers in September 1992, receiving a 1993 contract worth $800,000.

The forbidden territory richest in talent is Cuba, which provided more major league players than any foreign nation until Fidel Castro assumed power in 1959. Castro cut off the pipeline, and since 1977 the commissioner's office has prohibited teams from pursuing Cubans. A few defectors have trickled out in the last couple of years, most notably Cardinals righthander Rene Arocha.

By keeping its stars, Cuba has dominated international baseball. The island nation has won the last 14 major international tournaments it has entered, including the 1992 Olympics, and has a winning streak of 83 games in such events. Cuba's 18-and-under team has won 10 of the 13 World Junior Championships.

For years speculation has had Castro opening the doors to Cuba soon, possibly selling players to raise money for the poverty-stricken Communist nation. Until then, the commissioner's office won't even let scouts visit Cuba, fearing some organizations would get a head start over others. The progressive organizations have countered by tracking players at international tournaments.

"I've seen their under-18s play, I've seen their under-16s play, I've seen their three national teams play," Freeman says. "We have a book. When they become eligible, we'll be prepared."

The Cuban mystique overshadows the age of its Olympic team's stars. Mainstays such as center fielder Victor Mesa, 33, and DH Lourdes Gourriel, 36, are too old to be offered a major league opportunity. The clock has started to tick on the national team's best prospects: third baseman Omar Linares, 26, long considered the best amateur prospect in the world; slugging second baseman Antonio Pacheco, 29; acrobatic shortstop German Mesa, 26; and hard-throwing lefthander Omar Ajete, 28.

"Even Linares and Pacheco are getting some age on them now," Morgan says. "They're good players, but most of the other players are older and maybe wouldn't be the type of players you'd be interested in. They're big and strong, but they're swinging aluminum bats."

"I think Cuba has been overplayed," says Stoeckel, who keeps a running list of Cuban prospects. "I don't think as many guys would sign right away as people intimate."

Scouts say only about six members of the national team are still legitimate prospects. The real focus once Cuba opens up will be on younger players, such as righthander L.J. Hernandez, who has dominated Team USA at the last two World Junior Championships. But therein lies another problem: Once Cubans leave the 18-and-under junior team, they often drop out of sight.

"Kids who are 19, 20, 21 are the ones you'd want to sign," Freeman says. "But they can't play 18-and-under, and they can't move out the guys on the national team. They're kind of lost in the shuffle."

With regard to scouting, baseball has a long history of promoting cost-cutting and parity. That's why the draft was created, and that's why the face of global scouting soon might change.

At their September meetings, scouting directors voted in favor of making all players worldwide eligible for the draft. General managers supported the recommendation at their recent meeting in Naples, Fla., Owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association now must approve the proposal, but insiders think it could be in place as early as 1995.

Baseball already has expanded its draft to include foreigners three times in the last eight years. The Brewers won a 1983 bidding war for Puerto Rican lefthander Juan Nieves, who had starred at a Connecticut boarding school. After the Brewers signed Nieves for the then-princely sum of $110,000, baseball responded with a 1985 rule change that made all players attending U.S. schools subject to the draft.

The best Puerto Rican prospects continued to receive six-figure bonuses over the next few years. Outfielder Juan Gonzalez got $109,000 from the Rangers in 1986, righthander Ramser Correa received $125,000 from the Brewers in 1987 and outfielder Melvin Nieves took $103,000 from the Braves in 1988. So in 1989, the draft expanded to include players in U.S. territories.

Two years later, after Canadian talent had improved noticeably, the draft extended to cover that nation.

As with the previous changes, the idea of a world draft has spurred debate. The Blue Jays and Braves, who have succeeded in getting Pett, Williams and others, prefer the status quo. Less affluent teams point to the enormity of the bonuses given those players (see chart, Page 14) and the possibility that Cuba soon might open, and say it's time for a change.

"The wealthiest clubs kind of eliminate everyone from the bidding," Freeman says. "When somebody exceptional where you'd consider him a first-round draft pick comes along, you don't mind paying him the money. But all 28 teams can't be involved in that. The money has gotten huge. But if I was Atlanta or Toronto, I'd probably do the same thing."

LaMar says a worldwide draft won't necessarily reduce costs, because teams now ignoring the global market would be forced to start a global scouting network, a significant expense. He also doesn't think the Pett and Williams bonuses were outrageous.

"I truly feel like the money we gave Williams, and if you talk to Toronto, I'm sure they feel like the money they gave Pett, was in line with their abilities if they were in the United States and eligible to be drafted," LaMar says. "Other teams look and see that they weren't eligible to be drafted and say we're spending too much money. Truly, our scouting reports on Jose Pett and Glenn Williams told us they would be first-round picks at 16, let alone 18 years old."

The Dodgers' Stoeckel, whose team has signed more than its share of international prospects, says both sides have a point.

"With the way bonuses have escalated in recent years, it's probably a good idea," Stoeckel says. "It punishes the clubs who work hard at it, but the key to baseball is to have competition. People want competition, fans want competition. Selfishly, you want to dominate, but it's probably a good thing to give everybody a chance."

Whether or not the world draft becomes reality, LaMar says teams will continue to rely more heavily on a truly global market. Though the cutting edge may be dulled, LaMar concedes the world-draft concept is good for the game in the long run.

"I think you'll see more and more countries develop youth programs and players capable of playing in the major leagues," LaMar says. "I think, like the NBA and NFL, the exposure of baseball will continue to grow throughout the world. We have to be ready for that growth."

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