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USA Today: Baseball's oldest bird dogs refuse to give up the hunt
Baseball's oldest bird dogs refuse to give up the hunt
By Bob Nightengale, USA TODAY
They don't see so well anymore, with one unable to read or write, but they still can track a baseball.
They don't hear like they once did, but the crack of the bat is loud and clear.
Their bodies are ravaged with arthritis, congestive heart disease and weakened spines, but rarely do they miss a day of work.
They are baseball's forgotten servants who date to its golden era, and they refuse to let age stand in the way of the game they fiercely love.
They are baseball's oldest talent evaluators, a group of major league scouts born in the 1920s, whose observations remain valuable, even if their salaries have never adjusted for inflation.
"They claim we're the backbone of baseball," says scout Phil Rizzo, 78, of the Seattle Mariners. "Well, damn it, then prove it to us. Treat us with respect. I'll tell you in plain English, if there were no (bleeping) scouts, there would be no baseball."
These men, ranging in age from 78 to 87, survived the Depression. Fought for their country. Raised their families, even if it meant working two jobs.
Today, many still earn less than the poverty level — with four of these veteran scouts earning less than $10,000 a year..
"If it were about the money, we never would have gotten into baseball in the first place," says New York Mets scout Harry Minor, a native of Long Beach. "I got $6,000 my first year in 1960, and I make $8,000 now. But you know what, I've got it made. They pay for my health insurance. I get a $600 car allowance. And they pay for my stamps.
"I've got a beautiful wife and family. And I've got baseball. What more do I need in life?"
These scouts, who have discovered and signed some of the greatest players in the game, long ago vacated their front-office positions. Some were shoved aside by their club after decades of service.
George Genovese, who has a scouting award named in his honor at the annual Professional Scouts Foundation dinner, was fired in 1994 after 32 years with the San Francisco Giants. It didn't matter that he signed the likes of Bobby Bonds, Gary Matthews, George Foster, Garry Maddox and Chili Davis. The Giants were having cut-backs, and at the age of 72, Genovese was among the first to go.
"When teams cut back, the first thing they do is let some of the scouts go, and age works against them," says Arizona Diamondbacks special assistant Roland Hemond, 78, former general manager of the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles. "That's usually the last time you see him. They aren't able to go to spring training. They can't afford an automobile so you don't see them at major league parks. And they don't invite you to their homes because they're embarrassed of their living condition.
"The next thing you know, they're dead, having died in poverty."
Needy scouts find a friend
The Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation, founded by Hemond and fellow White Sox executives Dennis Gilbert and Dave Yoakum, has raised nearly $2 million in five years for needy scouts. Yet, many are too embarrassed to seek assistance. The foundation was created too late to save the likes of former scout Sloppy Thurston, who last pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers before scouting, and died penniless in 1973, Hemond said.
Detroit Tigers scout Ellis Williams died from a heart attack in 2002, but the family had no money for funeral services until Gilbert paid for the expenses.
This is why the golden boys of scouting actually feel fortunate, even though in many cases, their opinions have been devalued, with some executives relying more on statistical analysis.
After publication of the 2003 best seller Moneyball, a look at the Oakland Athletics' methods of statistical analysis, 103 scouts lost their jobs, according to Hemond.
"They've done everything they can to screw it up, but it's still a beautiful game," says Minor, who has worked since 1967 for the Mets. "You come to the ballpark every day, and something's going to happen that you've never seen before. That's why I love it."
Says Mariners scout Bob Harrison, 87, who lives in the same home he bought in 1959 in Long Beach: "This is my life. What else would I do? My wife has passed. My kids are grown. I don't want to just sit at home."
Harrison, who has signed 27 major league players, hasn't missed a paycheck since 1961. He last missed a day of work eight years ago when he buried his wife. Arthritis makes his legs weak. But there are no plans of retirement.
"I'm not going to hang around and embarrass myself," says Harrison, who just in the last week, drove from his home to scout games in San Diego, flew to Oakland, and drove to Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and Angel Stadium in Anaheim. "But as long as I'm productive, I'm going to keep working.
"I'm lucky. I'm in good health. I worry much more about my friends than myself."
Dave Garcia, 87, former manager of the Angels and Cleveland Indians, no longer can read or write his name with his eyesight, but still shows up to work at 4:30 every afternoon for each San Diego Padres home game, watching the games from a handicapped seat.
Minor, 80, who had a pacemaker inserted two years ago and wondered if he'd survive last year after fluid was discovered in his lungs, spends every spring in Phoenix, and summer nights watching the Dodgers or Angels.
Al LaMacchia, 86, who has congestive heart disease, has his wife driving him around Texas, watching minor league and major league games for the Dodgers. He was in San Antonio catching a minor league game Monday and in Arlington, Texas, on Tuesday scouting the Mariners-Texas Rangers game.
Genovese, 86, once responsible for signing virtually every player in the Giants' starting lineup in the 1970s, spends his afternoons peering through his pop bottle-thick glasses scouting high-school games for the Dodgers.
"These guys were my heroes growing up," says Gary Hughes, 67, a Chicago Cubs special assistant. "They are true icons in this game. I can't tell you what a great feeling it is to see them.
"They may need baseball, but I'll tell you what, we need them."
Revering the game's history
Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi, son of the late Buzzie Bavasi, a longtime team executive, perhaps has shown more admiration for veteran scouts than anyone. ("No one has done more for the older scouts than he has," says Washington Nationals assistant GM Mike Rizzo, son of Phil Rizzo).
"These guys aren't charity cases," says Bavasi. "I hire them because they're good. They have the experience, and they all know the tricks."
These men are old enough to remember the time when Carl Hubbell, long after his retirement, was beside himself when Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale had the gall to hold out for $100,000. And never did they imagine that one day a team would pay Nolan Ryan $1 million, let alone guarantee $278 million to Alex Rodriguez.
"I may be an old man," says Garcia, "and my mind is not as good as it used to be, but it's still pretty good. That's why I get upset when I hear these announcers say that someone has made the greatest play they've seen. They were saying that (St. Louis Cardinals outfielder) Rick Ankiel's throws last week were the best ever. Come on. I don't mind them praising guys, but you ever hear of Roberto Clemente, Rocky Colavito, Ollie Brown and Cito Gaston?
"People talk about how great A-Rod is. I saw him strike out four times in a game this year. I never saw Joe DiMaggio strike out four times in a month. And to say Albert Pujols is better than Stan Musial? It shouldn't bother me, but it does because nobody brings up players in the past.
"It's just like cellphones. They were a great idea, but how would we ever have come up with it without Alex Graham Bell inventing the telephone? Let's give credit for what the old-timers did."
Minor, who writes notes on his faded black notebook, can't stand using a computer, and still doesn't know how to retrieve messages on his cellphone. If you want a report from Garcia and LaMacchia, it better be by phone.
"I trust my eyes," says LaMacchia, who pitched for the Washington Senators and St. Louis Browns in 1943, '45 and '46, "not some computer. I have trouble breathing sometimes, but as long as my eyes keep working, I'll be OK."
Worrying about each other
Minor, responsible for the signings of stars like Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Kevin Mitchell and Lenny Dykstra, and around long enough to serve on scouting staffs for the Mets' 1969 and '86 champions, swears this will be his final year of scouting.
Harrison, exhausted and irritated going through the metal detector at the Oakland airport last week, wonders why he keeps plugging away.
LaMacchia, part of two World Series titles with the Toronto Blue Jays but still livid they didn't draft Roger Clemens or Tony Gwynn as he
recommended, worries how long his heart will hold out.
"Harry keeps saying it, and you hear all of his friends say they're going to retire," says Liz Minor, Harry's wife the last 56 years. "But they say that every year. They can't let go. And they shouldn't. They love baseball, and care so much for each other. They're always worrying how each other is doing. It's their life, and it always will be."
Their dear friends, veteran scouts Jerry Gardner and Gene Thompson, died in recent years. But here they are, lifelong friends still going strong, surviving heart attacks, hernias, hemorrhoids, heatstroke and, yes, general managers.
"I tell Liz that at my funeral, don't play that song, I Did It My Way, Minor says. "The only way you survive in this game is by doing it 'their way.' "
One generation at a time.
"These are the guys that should be revered in the game," says New York Yankees vice president Gordon Blakely. "It's a shame they're not. We should be doing everything possible to keep them around, not shooing them off.
"They're legends, and always will be."