Radar Love

On the trail for golden arms with baseball's most devout junkies, the scouts.

The Walkin' Cane Band The Savannah July 21
It's eight o'clock in the morning, and Ron "Whitey" Hafner is slathering horseradish on kielbasa. He rose at 4 to make the pungent sandwiches, wrap them in foil, and drive to Bowling Green from his home near Toledo. The trunk of his Oldsmobile presents a makeshift picnic spread; Whitey sits on the bumper, eating one kielbasa and then another. It promises to be a hot day, but in Formica-flat Northwest Ohio, cool breezes run unfettered.

A scout for the Seattle Mariners, Whitey is in Bowling Green to watch the Great Black Swamp Classic. The four-day amateur baseball tournament -- named for 3,000 square miles of wetlands that once stood here -- draws teams from Ohio and adjacent states. Whitey is a part-timer, an extra set of eyes for Ken Madeja, the Mariners' full-time scout for the area. Though he moves like a sunburned crab, "He's a diamond rat," says Madeja. "Whitey's out there hustling all the time."

At 63, he passes for one of the high school players' grandfathers. Fifteen years ago, he retired from his work as an electrician and, it seems, the cumbersome task of buying new clothes. A white belt cuts across the light blues of his polyester slacks and shirt. His chin whiskers suggest the Kringlesque actor and director Richard Attenborough. What used to be a head of blond hair (hence the nickname) is now a thin white ring.

A handicapped parking space near Carter Park's entrance allows Whitey to serve as the tournament's unofficial master of opening ceremonies. Complimentary kielbasa for everyone. A 300-pound man accepts a sandwich on his way into the park. "He's a good umpire," Whitey says after the man passes, "because he gets along with people."

Scouts and umpires are similar spirits. They love the game without being able to savor it. To them, baseball is not a lyrical yarn, unraveling toward the final out, but a series of autonomous acts -- a pitch, a swing, a sprint down the first-base line. A scout can be in the midst of a discussion about the $8.95 prime-rib dinner he scored the night before, his head turned away from the action, yet his thumb will still start a stopwatch as the ball crosses home plate. Whitey has clocked so many hitters running to first, he can estimate the speed within a tenth of a second. He owns a radar gun, but mostly it stays in the trunk.

Branch Rickey, the Dodgers executive who signed Jackie Robinson, was one of baseball's earliest scouts, according to author Kevin Kerrane's ode to scouting, Dollar Sign on the Muscle. Rickey was a turn-of-the-century catcher who couldn't cut it in the big leagues. In one game, he allowed 13 runners to steal. He went on to coach baseball at the University of Michigan and frequently sent reports on players to the St. Louis Browns. Prior to World War I, players like Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner were discovered and signed by independent minor-league teams and then sold up the chain. But when Rickey was later named general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, he created the system whereby teams funneled players through minor-league clubs they controlled.

Rickey's invention forced organizations to find their own talent, "the arms behind the barn." Former vaudeville juggler Cy Slapnicka scouted for the Indians in the 1920s and '30s. In 1935, Slapnicka leaned against his car and watched a 16-year-old pitch a semi-pro game outside Des Moines. He signed Bob Feller for a bonus of $1 and an autographed ball.

In Slapnicka's day, clubs could sign -- and hoard -- all the talent they could find. The scheme was similar to college football before scholarship numbers were capped, when the Ohio States and Michigans could hide athletes from other schools. To stake a claim now, baseball franchises have to wait until their pick in the June draft. Instituted in 1965, the draft loosened the leg irons clubs kept on players; it also robbed scouting of much of its magic. Today, amateur parks, like the one in Bowling Green, hold few secrets. Some Black Swamp teams furnished scouts and college coaches with player guides. Only in Latin America, where players are not subject to the draft, do Fellerian finds survive.

Cincinnati Reds scout Don Hill, who lives in Ashtabula County, thought he had a buried treasure in Stow grad Beau Dannemiller, a right-handed pitcher who had a 7-2 record during his sophomore season at Malone College. Dannemiller flunked out after the 2000 season, but Hill didn't forget him. "I dug and scratched and figured out where he was at."

Hill hoped Dannemiller would have disappeared from other teams' radar. In this summer's draft, however, Colorado took him with the 484th pick. "Three weeks before the draft, six scouts knew about him," Hill says.

"Everybody knows where the good players are at," says Nick Venuto, a Massillon scout who works for the Houston Astros. "And if you don't, that's how you lose your job."

The Manchester A's, a collection of high school seniors-to-be from metro Akron, take fielding practice before the first Black Swamp game. Whitey unfolds his lawn chair next to a dugout. Most scouts sit behind home plate, but Whitey likes to watch from the side, preferably in the shade. The drills tell him much of what he needs to know. "If there's nobody that throws hard and they're small, I get the fuck out of there," he says. Organizations nowadays are in love with size. Still, a 155-pound shortstop catches his eye.

"That shit's got quick hands," he says between spits of tobacco juice.

Like the shortstop, Whitey was small growing up, but he loved sports. His father built a home near a Toledo park that offered tennis, basketball, swimming, and a lighted ballfield. "I was there all the time. All the man had to do was whistle to get me home."

Too slow for basketball, Whitey concentrated on baseball at Toledo Macomber High School. He was able to hide his wanting stature -- he weighed 135 pounds holding his breath -- in a squat behind home plate. After high school, he gained 30 pounds and was invited to the Philadelphia Phillies' spring training in 1958. He beat out 20 guys for a job in the minors that paid $325 a month. On one team in Tennessee, he was the least athletic of three catchers on the roster. He nonetheless played in all the home games, because the two studs hadn't adequately learned the position; the manager was afraid they'd get booed as they kicked the ball around. "They could throw, but they couldn't catch," Whitey says. "I could play. I held my own against some pretty good players."

Released by the Phillies, Whitey hooked up with an independent team in Pensacola, Florida, and then with the Chicago White Sox organization. By this time, Whitey was more employee than prospect. He traveled from affiliate to affiliate, filling in whenever a regular catcher was injured. For two shimmering months, he played at today's equivalent of Double-A. He caught his last game in 1964.

He moved back to Toledo. Circuits and wires provided a decent living. He bought a few apartments and fixed them up. Evenings and weekends he officiated high school basketball games. Baseball was dead to him. He couldn't bear to watch it as a civilian. He never got around to marriage.

One day 15 years ago, Whitey was working on a light tower when his groin locked up. Too paralyzed to move, he could only beg the heavens. "God, if you put me down, I'll quit." He made it to the ground safely and kept his promise.

Single and semi-retired, he started hanging around ballparks again. Soon he was feeding information on players to anyone who listened, his tips credentialed by his minor-league career and involvement in high school sports. "Don't tell the other guys," Madeja finally told him. "Just tell me."

So for the last 13 years, Whitey has drawn a salary as a baseball scout. "They've given me a raise every year," he says. "I got no bitch."

Speed and arm strength are a scout's bread and water. Without passing ability to run and throw, the player might as well chase butterflies in the outfield.

Scouts may start a "card," a sheet bearing vital statistics, on a player as young as 15. These notebooks resemble a teacher's grade ledger. Scouts speak incessantly of "tools," a player's ability to run, hit, field, and throw. Citizenship also counts. Scouts take note of attitude and hustle (which are not the same things), and can recite the grade-point averages of players they're following seriously.

Whitey keeps it simple. A Black Swamp program spread across his lap, he grades players' arms while they take infield and outfield. An "8" is Roberto Clemente; a "3" is your Aunt Alice. Most players rate a 4; a few are 5's. "But there's a lot of guys in the big leagues with below-average arms," he says.

Whitey's lawn chair is paired with Mike "Turbo" Trbovich's. Turbo's been a scout for 38 years, the last 8 with the Rockies. When he worked for the Dodgers, he encouraged them to draft pitchers Orel Hershiser and Tim Belcher, who played their college ball in Ohio. Pushing 70, his voice is a coarse whisper. "I'm going to wear out," Turbo says. "I'm not going to rust out."

Whitey and Turbo declare the Diamond Stars, a team from Cincinnati, the best in the tournament, simply by watching them take infield. Whitey gives the shortstop's arm a 5+/6. Former Indian Pat Tabler's son, Tyler, plays third base.

While they concur on the Diamond Stars, Whitey and Turbo squabble about almost everything else. One-tenth of a second difference between their stopwatches is grounds for debate.

"I don't like those glasses," Whitey says when a bespectacled player comes to the plate.

"Sixty percent of the guys in the major leagues wear contacts," responds Turbo.

"The hell they don't."

"You think 'contact' is dancing close."

Turbo notices that another hitter makes a slight lunge toward the mound on every pitch. "He's making an 83-mile ball a 88-mile ball," he says, predicting a strikeout. Two pitches later, the batter whiffs.

Projecting how a 17-year-old will perform six years down the road is more difficult. Hill calls prospects "suspects." Whitey calls them "smells," as in "I got some good smells in Lorain." Scouts try to imagine high school kids with mature physiques. Do they have a few more inches to grow? Will they pack on fat or muscle?

Big feet were not the least of what Whitey saw in Bryan Vickers, a Toledo catcher the Mariners drafted this summer. He also likes to know how big a kid's parents are.

Scouts have long memories. They may not remember a player's name, but they don't forget his fastball. During one Black Swamp game, Whitey thought he recognized the third-base coach of a Cincinnati team. He got a closer look. Sure enough, he had scouted him 10 years ago.

Scouts admit they have biases -- skills they covet, shortcomings they look beyond. Some want to see results (home runs, strikeouts); others ignore the box score and concentrate on the ease with which a kid plays. They may root for undersized players, but for today's power game, they covet big guys who "make the field look small."

They're free to talk to players and their parents. Scouts want to know where a kid is coming from, so if they draft him, they have an idea of what it will take to sign him. A high school player with a scholarship from Stanford has a ton of leverage; graduating college seniors have none. Hill likes to know if a kid has a serious girlfriend who can bust a signing with a stamp of her foot.

Still, some players mystify them. Whitey watched Tony Clark play in Triple-A Toledo before he joined the Detroit Tigers. Clark is 6-foot-7, and Whitey thought major-league pitchers would bore holes through his big swing. Clark eventually posted three 30-plus homer seasons. Nor did Whitey like Brooklyn product Clint Nageotte when he first saw him during his junior year. Before the next season, Nageotte added 30 pounds and 10 miles to his fastball. The Mariners took him in the fifth round, and he's now pitching in Single-A.

Sometimes it's just a matter of taste. "Just like girls," Turbo says. "You like blondes. I like redheads."

Old-timers often compare players to women, or as Whitey would say, "broads." It burns Whitey to be teased by a player who turns his effort on and off. He attends most Toledo Mud Hens home games and can't stand it when batters shave two-tenths of a second off their time to first when big-league bosses are in town. "I don't want that guy. He's putting me on." He nudges Turbo. "Maybe that's why I'm single."

Whitey had a bunch of girlfriends, he says, but baseball was his true love. The only woman in his life is his 87-year-old mother, whom he dotes on. When Whitey was a young man, he invited a woman named Janet to watch him play. He figured he'd dazzle her -- collect four hits, cut down a few base runners. Instead, he went 0-for-3. "I was so damned embarrassed. I never asked her out after that. I thought she was a jinx."

Whitey ran into Janet not long ago. She hadn't lost her looks or her sweet disposition.

"Me and my stupid jinx. What a fucking idiot."

Ken Tirpack spits his dip into a McDonald's coffee cup from the bleachers of Bowling Green State's Stellar Field, his gelled hair crusting in the sun. At 31, Tirpack looks more like one of the many college coaches in attendance than a professional scout. He's a part-timer for the Indians and has to supplement the pay with a warehouse job. If he got a full-time job, he could expect to make $30,000 a year.

Tirpack's playing days are not far behind him. He can click on ESPN and see guys he played with who are now in the big leagues. The Youngstown native played in the Twins' system for six years before being released. "I had a real hard time for a couple of years," he says. "I still thought I could play."

Scouts are clingers. They don't quit playing; they are told to stop. The bleachers behind home plate, where they congregate, resemble a dugout, with guys peering out from behind wraparound sunglasses, sharing tins of Copenhagen. The Astros' Venuto, 34, pitched at Kent State and was drafted by the Oakland A's. Like 83 percent of the players who sign pro contracts, Venuto never made it to the majors. He was let go after three and a half years. This is Venuto's eighth year of scouting. "The only thing better would be playing every day."

Bobby Heck, 35, caught Venuto in Oakland's system. He says it was easy to hang up his spikes, because he knew it wasn't for a lack of effort. The East Coast supervisor for the Milwaukee Brewers, Heck's responsible for the U.S. and Canada east of the Mississippi, as well as Puerto Rico. "In scouting, you're still competing," he says. "You're competing against other guys. You're competing against yourself to see how many games you can see."

Springtime is the worst, especially for scouts who work the north. Pressing for the June draft, they contend with frozen fields and rainouts. They may be told the team stud is going to pitch, only to find the blubbery catcher filled his start. "When you drive 200 miles to watch a kid pitch two innings and then turn around, it can wear on you," Madeja says. Summer brings more reliable skies and post-draft relief. Heck's turning a trip to the Cape Cod League into a family vacation.

Don Hill of the Reds has scouted since 1974, the year he retired from East Ohio Gas. He's missed countless wedding anniversaries. His boss forced him to stay home for his 50th. Still, he says, the game grows on him more each year. He's 73.

Hill watches from behind the backstop at Elmwood High School, one of the Black Swamp venues. Bugs the size of bats feed on cornstalks next to the field. His only protection from the sun is a ballcap, but he doesn't have a drop of sweat on him. Hill's been "fighting some elements," as he puts it, and has to undergo chemotherapy. Scouting helps him stomach the poison. "You sure don't think about it when you're watching a ball game."

The Don Hills are dwindling, even as baseball has expanded. Fifty years ago, there were 28 minor-league teams for every big-league club. Now there are six or seven. Teams need fewer players, and by extension, fewer scouts.

In 1974, 17 major-league clubs pooled together and formed a central scouting bureau. Overnight, 250 jobs vanished. By league vote, all teams must now subscribe to the Major League Scouting Bureau. Player information today is as accessible as the weather forecast.

Organizations vary in their reliance on the bureau (and scouts within the bureau). They also hold their own philosophies, which means they still need their own scouts. The Mariners, for instance, draft more high school players than most teams. Madeja gleefully mentions a 6-foot-7 Russian pitcher the Mariners scouted in St. Paul, Minnesota. Since the kid wasn't born in the U.S., Canada, or Puerto Rico, Seattle was able to sign him without waiting for the draft.

Most scouts never caught a whiff of the big leagues, but Whitey and Turbo fondly recall Denny Galehouse, a 15-year major-leaguer who scouted for five decades after his playing days. Born in Marshallville, Galehouse pitched for the Indians from 1934 to 1938 and then bounced between the St. Louis Browns and Boston Red Sox. During much of the 1944 season, he worked in Akron war factories during the week and pitched for St. Louis on Sundays. He threw two complete games in the World Series that year, giving up a total of three runs.

In 1948, his career winding down in Boston, Galehouse went 8-8. The Red Sox finished the regular season tied with the Indians. In the game to decide the pennant, Boston manager Joe McCarthy gave the ball to Galehouse. It was a stunning move. The four other Sox starters were a combined 59-30. McCarthy said he picked Galehouse because he was rested. Fresh arm notwithstanding, the Indians won, 8-3, and went on to take the World Series, their last crown. Galehouse pitched two innings for the Red Sox the following season, and his major-league career was done. He died in 1998.

Whitey and Turbo call Galehouse their guru, a quiet man they held on a pedestal. Early in his scouting career, Whitey's boss gave him a list of 45 prospects he wanted checked out. Not knowing where to begin, Whitey showed the list to Galehouse, who looked it over and checked two names. "Go see this guy and go see that guy," Galehouse said. "You owe me dinner. I saved you 4,000 traveling miles."

When he speaks, no member of the Indians organization draws a bigger media throng than General Manager John Hart. He's the architect, Oz behind the designer shades. Scouts, by contrast, lay pipe and put up drywall. Or, as former Reds owner Marge Schott once put it, they just sit and watch baseball. While most clubs don't share Schott's view, the hall of fame declines to recognize scouts, even though it enshrines umpires, broadcasters, and reporters.

"We're faceless people," Heck says. "Do we love it? Yeah. But you can walk into the front office, and people don't know your face. They know you by the expense report you signed."

Scouts with a decade or more of experience have usually worked for more than one team. Baseball is a clubby business. When a new general manager is hired, scouting departments are likely to feel a shake-up. "We're just like players," Whitey says. "We get released."

Despite all the game's cruelties, scouts carry large sweet spots for the players. Sure, they whine about the way they wear their hats or the time they spend water-skiing. Twenty years ago, first-round picks said "Thank you, sir" to $100,000 signing bonuses. Now they want $3 million.

But for every player drafted, scouts recommend countless others to college coaches. Some mature into prospects, but most hit the ceiling of their abilities at Heidelberg or Youngstown State. "Our phones ring off the hook," Heck says. "There are so many players college coaches haven't seen that get scholarships."

"To me, that's keeping the boy off the streets," Hill says.

Otherwise, satisfaction is slow to come. The legendary Tony Lucadello scouted Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana for 40 years. An astonishing 49 of his signees played in the major leagues. Today's scout sends a player to the show once every five to eight years.

"I guess it's a disease," Turbo says. "It gets in your blood."

At the Black Swamp tourney, Turbo watches the game in its entirety. Whitey cuts out after a few runs through the batting order. He's off to another park. More players to smell, more kielbasa to serve.

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