"I have a good eye for talent, and a lot of
ex-ballplayers don't. Not just anybody can be a
- Judy Johnson
(William Julius Johnson, Hall of Fame, 1975)
Ed Kranepool got sent down to Tidewater, Virginia in what might have been a career-ending demotion in April of 1969, but happily Ed turned things around and came back to Shea even stronger. Came up from Tidewater. Sent down to Tidewater. The players came and went. I pictured coastal dunes, inlets, salt marshes, and never-ending waves. Triple-A ball had a curious appeal. But I never got to Tidewater, and the Mets are no longer there.
In a figurative sense, I’ve been trying to get to Tidewater all my life.
"There's no reason a woman couldn't be a scout today." Bob Carpenter, longtime owner of the Philadelphia Phillies, voiced those words more than twenty years ago to author and English professor Kevin Kerrane in Dollar Sign on the Muscle (Beaufort Books, 1984). "She'd have to be free enough to travel all the time, because scouting's a lonely job for anyone."
Sometimes it seems as if I'm living the life of a baseball scout. The crazy drives to distant fields all over the country. Airport delays. Long stretches of time spent alone. "Free" hotel breakfasts. Great seats three rows behind home plate.
Scouts invest serious amounts of time and modest sums of money zig-zagging all over the country, living out of suitcases and trunks of cars, and studying the Grasshoppers, Isotopes, Crawdads, Nuts, Lugnuts, Hot Rods, Biscuits, Loons, Flying Squirrels, and countless others. They drive along sleepy country roads like Freedom Parkway, seeing how America lives, just as I do, and pondering signs that convey bittersweet messages: “Bread of Life Books: Going out of Business.”
You have to not mind staying in hotels that feel like all the other hotels you've experienced on the road. Same framed poster hanging in the bathroom. Same throw pillow on the bed. You have to not mind being alone. Four walls and a couple hundred square feet - life reduced to one simple room - and if you’re lucky a bonus microwave, mini-fridge, and decent coffee maker housed together in a tidy console with a sleek granite counter top that suits me just fine.
Three or four sets of nice clean towels and the illusion that someone is taking care of you in a very basic yet agreeable way. Even if housekeeping mistakenly leaves mouthwash instead of shampoo, which you don't notice until it's too late.
You can’t let late arrivals drag you down or sudden thunderstorms in the middle of nowhere. The skies let loose on me last Friday just after midnight and I couldn’t locate the controls for the wiper blades on a Ford Focus economy car as rain pounded on my windshield in total darkness. Seldom have I known anything quite so terrifying. If you've never traveled in heavy rains with no wiper blades, don't ever try it.
I couldn’t find the hazards either, so I pumped the brakes repeatedly while decelerating and veering to my right, straining to see the breakdown lane, which looked to be very narrow, and only blackness beyond. Headlights in my rear view mirror were fast approaching, probably an 18-wheeler at 70 mph or better. I swallowed hard but kept my cool, bracing for the impact that - had it come - surely would have rocketed me off Interstate 95 in the middle of the night just a few miles north of Savannah, Georgia.
Finding shelter beneath an underpass, I finally found the control on the very outer tip of the directional signal to the left of my steering wheel, so back on the road I went, arms still tingling from the rush of adrenaline and fear. "There's no reason a woman couldn’t be a scout." Was someone talking to me?
Michelina's Lean Gourmet three-cheese ziti with marinara sauce popped in the microwave was my entrée at 2 a.m. What a strange life. I had no flatware for the pasta, so I improvised with a paper lid taken from one of the glasses in the bathroom and shaped that rippled circle of paper into a spoon, then sat happily at my desk, spooning ziti out of cardboard, checking the box scores on my computer, and feeling grateful for high-speed wireless internet.
It didn't look good for the Class A Mets. They’d already dropped two to the Augusta Green Jackets, 4-1 and 15-2, and now stood in last place in the southern division of the South Atlantic League, 7.5 games behind, their record 13-21.
I wasn't so sure about the Savannah Sand Gnats. What a peculiar name for a ballplayer: a tiny biting fly, a "no-see-um," a flea that breeds in sand and tidal marshes throughout the lowcountry. Ask any Marine about sand fleas. Ask Tug McGraw about the twelve weeks he spent on Parris Island as a young recruit. See what he has to say about sand gnats as a name for a Class A affiliate of the New York Mets.
The Sand Flea mascot was riding around in a golf cart just outside the ballpark when I arrived this past Saturday afternoon. Historic Grayson Stadium sits at the corner of Waters Avenue and Victory Drive. Enormous ceiling fans paddle 95-degree heat that hangs in the aging rafters just above a rickety catwalk that leads to the small press box. Hank Aaron once played here; so did Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Jackie Robinson. The stadium was once home to the Savannah Indians, the first organization in the South Atlantic League to break the color barrier when young Izzy Israel and Junior Ready took the field on Opening Day in 1953.
Section L, Row 3, Seat 16. I do not know a single person in this ballpark. No colleagues in the baseball business, no friends or family. In fact, I don’t know a soul in this town or anywhere in this state. Every single person around me is a total stranger.
players in Sand Gnats jerseys hail from Santo Domingo, Lake Wales
and Mount Joy, Ann Arbor and Mobile, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Fort Worth and Jupiter, Coastal
Carolina, Florida Southern, and Dartmouth College. I narrow it down to one player, the kid who smokes a double down the left field line in the bottom of the sixth - a middle infielder taken in the 26th round out of Mississippi State just a few weeks ago.
Scouting has never been an exact science. It remains both a technical and subjective means of assessing talent and projecting success, even as the industry grows increasingly sophisticated and mathematical. “He gave me that good feeling,” a scout might say.
"My baseball knowledge is more intuition," Leon Hamilton once explained to author Kevin Kerrane. "I don't know what it is. I see a guy, and I like what I see, and I'm not afraid to gamble, so I go get him. Maybe it's somethin' in his face or maybe in the way he acts out on the field. I feel thisaway: a ballplayer's not a number to me; he's a ballplayer, or else he's nothin.' A guy can either play or he can't play. There ain't no in-between. And I got a little mad one time about the numbers," continued the longtime Cleveland Indians scout. "There was a big meeting in our organization about how to grade, and I got up and left the room and got a phone book, and come back and says, 'There's all the names and numbers you want, right there.' Big thick phone book. Big city." (Dollar Sign on the Muscle, 127).
Switch hitter .290. 1-out dble LF, bott 6. Team best .357 with RISP. highest GPA @ Omaha 2007 out of 200 in CWS. 26th rd '10. .400 Tate h.s. Those would be my amateur scouting notes.
After the Gnats' 5-1 win, I exited onto Victory Drive thinking about one player in particular. I liked the stats. I liked that double smoked down the line and the run scored. Good-sized kid and still growing. Plus, he had "that look." Fine baseball name too, so I decide to take my chances on MLB draft #782.
James Eugene Butler III. Good thing he goes by “Jet.” I’m pretty sure I know how the kid got his nickname. Jet Butler grew up in Pensacola, Florida - "cradle of naval aviation," home to NAS Pensacola and the elite Blue Angels.
My return trip lasted thirteen hours. One rental car, two planes, a $25 dollar two-hour bus ride, and finally my own Chevy. Somewhere along the way I imagined what I'd say if I were a scout making a phone call to the Mets' front office, or perhaps to another baseball guy like me.
Hey there's a kid just starting out, down in Class A Savannah. Switch hitter out of Pensacola and Mississippi State. Sand gnat, name is Jet . . . .
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