Not Many Tools, Several Good Players

I saw some good amateur baseball this weekend. It’s kind of crazy that I hadn’t sought it out in so long. Perhaps I’m part of the problem. The home team lost two of three against two different clubs over Friday and Saturday, but I still have the same hopes and aspirations for that group of kids in the Washington University dugout I had for my cohort when we were trying Red Man plug at the end of the bench for the first time. And hadn’t shaved for six days. Or hadn’t any clean pants at the fraternity house.

I’ve heard the rationales for why Major League Baseball tends to eschew NCAA Division III baseball scouting. They are sound ones and can generally found not to be wanting– the kids often come from cold weather climates, meaning seasons are short; they don’t get to play as much; small leagues, due to lack of population density/competition, class, even segregation; career goals/lack thereof; physical immaturity, and on and on.

We don’t know where we’re going to find 20-year-olds who appear to be good enough to maybe pay to see what they can do matched up against better competition. Heck, most 20-year-olds don’t know where they are, period. You want to show up at the pond where the fish are jumping into the boat, so that’s where the radar guns and the charts are taken.

I know the stories about scouts scouring the country to find a hidden gem. But the resources aren’t limitless. Neither is the information. The latter is getting better, in some areas with startling currency, in others, like injury prevention, it’s still somewhat mysterious.

No one and no industry is perfect. By definition, there are market inefficiencies in baseball. They are not making mistakes on a massive scale. There is no conspiracy. But they’re still missing out on some guys, and the kids need to be told why and should be told why. Here’s why:

22-year-olds are taking off the uniform on a spring day their senior year for the last time and they don’t know it. Guys are dropping the ball and glove at 24 and they’re not aware why; they aren’t certain if they completely owned their achievements and failures; they love the game but haven’t had proper direction and coaching, they played on bad fields, or got in some trouble. Or a myriad of other factors and reasons.

I’m not advocating popsicles for all, favors (oh, boy…), and I don’t want to see kids run through buzz saws getting hurt. I could be wrong about all this. But I saw a good brand of baseball this weekend and I know a few of those guys intensely believe they are good enough to go pro. A few of those may not be wrong.

You must understand that these kids all were near the top of the teams they played on as children or teens, no matter the level. They may not have ever seen a pro prospect in one of their games. They have already fashioned a backlog of vivid memories of success on a baseball diamond. They want to see if they can burnish new memories at another level, one they don’t find so foreign or intimidating once they see and participate in some games.

They also know they are supposed to be going to school for an education, as a ladder up to a career. The administration knows it. The league knows it. The umpires are paid like it.  (And the umpires aren’t bad. Pride, brother.)

You aren’t going to see outstanding tools all over the field in Division III. What you’ll see are snatches of talent, hints of upside. Sometimes you’ll see a good all-arounder with no outstanding skill, like our center fielder Fred Webb back in the ’80’s. Maybe, you won’t believe your eyes. Maybe, there were no eyes.*

Every organization in baseball has filler, guys they need to fill out a roster at a certain level. Scouts call them “org” guys. They are there to fill out a league around the players in which they have more initial interest. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to find more “org” guys from the domestic collegiate level, picking among a cohort of players who are career-oriented, educated, and love the sport? Nobody at Washington University is forced to play baseball at 22. They are there because they love it and they believe.

Inhering in that conversation is this: there isn’t the pressure to win. At least our manager didn’t manage like it. When I went to Washington University I was promised that there would be open competition for every position every year. I was a left-hander who played every day somewhere on a baseball diamond before college.  Even shortstop.

I have oodles of examples of my ability to either do something others could not do, or take the measure of guys who were supposed to be better than me.  But I was not tall, or fast, and I didn’t have prodigious power. My fingers aren’t long enough. I could throw and catch, I could hit, I knew how to cover ground, and had good instincts and knowledge.

Just a little more, to prove my bona fides: I was the #1 pitcher in high school senior year, and played first base and batted cleanup. They changed the orientation of the field that year and erected a fence. I hit the first home run there. Later, senior year in college, I hit an opposite-field homer after sustaining a dislocated shoulder. I shut out Valparaiso. I beat Western Kentucky. I broke an aluminum bat with a fastball.

Every year there were two to four guys with mustaches waiting around to claim first base or catcher or right field. And every year they were indulged. That’s the way they roll in Division III.  Evidently, there’s nothing that can be done about it. For no other reason, I had to wait until senior year to play somewhere other than on the mound, which hurt my prospects of even getting scouted. Scouts don’t know why some guy isn’t playing. Sure, they can ask, but leagues where the best guys aren’t playing every day are not leagues they are generally interested in. It’s kind of obvious and circular all at the same time.

We had a guy named Marc Gluckman. Six-foot-four, left-handed, smart, viciously competitive. The guy was two years older than me. Junior year he just mowed through the league. He was 11-1 with a bunch of shutouts and baskets of strikeouts. He had two pitches: a fastball with great tailing action in the high 80’s, and a nice changeup. Guy could not throw a breaking ball. Never spun or twirled  a breaking ball to save his life. He was a two-year All-American. As far as I know he was never offered a contract. Shouldn’t he have gotten a look? Couldn’t they have taught him a curve or slider, just as a “show-me” pitch?

We knew if Gluckman couldn’t get signed it was curtains for us. All of us–me and two fraternity brothers who were pitchers on the team, Matt Feigenbaum and Steve Vetter–thought we were better than Gluckman in one way or another. For instance, Matt thought he threw harder than Marc. (We didn’t really know; it was close). Steve had amazing tail on his heater; he was the stereotypical left-hander who can’t throw one straight. He also taught me the slider. I thought I was the all-around stud with the best arsenal.

In fact, if you look at those years at Washington University you will see that in the two years Gluckman and I were on the same team the coach selected me for the big-game starts, the ones we were not expected to win–like Missouri, Western Kentucky, Henderson State. This was the one pre-game decision he made that gave us what he thought was our best chance to win that day. It’s the only one many managers consider, sorry to say.

In game two of a doubleheader yesterday Illinois Wesleyan brought in a relief pitcher in the fifth inning. We don’t know when he last pitched. I don’t know his name. I don’t know if he’s 18 or 24. What I do know is the kid has bulging thighs, good mechanics, and had to be running the ball up there near 90. I saw enough to want to know more, were I looking for talent. I guarantee you that kid thinks he’s good enough.

Officially, no one saw him, but for family members, employees, and hangers-on.  I don’t know if somebody’s “on him”, as they say. If the profile is right, go take a look.

I would wager the majority of readers here don’t know what it’s like to face 90+ mile an hour fastballs. You don’t just see it–which is barely, as it all takes place in about .4 seconds–but you hear it. The ball is rippling through the air, causing a sizzling noise. I didn’t see many of them myself, for the reasons outlined above. When I did, I usually whacked ’em.

It takes guts to stand in there and do something with gas like that. The guy could be wild. It’s effing dangerous. Your reflexes must be elite, your hand-eye coordination good; you have to be locked in and know how and when to load your swing, your aim aggressiveness but with a defined type and/or location of pitch you are seeking. Thinking. Not thinking. Suffice to say, there’s a lot going on.

I also would bet that most readers are not aware of how good Barry Bonds was as a baseball player. The man got on base almost half the time for 21 years. I’ve never seen anyone better. The only ones who know how good he was are him, his teammates and foes, those who covered him, and baseball hounds, and that is a mighty few, when you get right down to it.

I’m not saying to worship the man. (Ha, funny, I know). But know that here strode a giant. A Real Giant.

Oftentimes the easiest place to look is closest to the tree, and it all works out. Sometimes, we have to look harder.

*Scouts

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