The story of California is the story of prospecting: chapter upon chapter of hopeful searching by relocated souls. All that changes is the object of the search, be it gold, real estate or a role in the Hollywood myth-making machine. This is another chapter in the story.
Ron Vaughn is a prospector. One bright, clear and cool Saturday morning in December, he pulls out of his driveway in Corona, 50 miles east of Los Angeles, in his pickup, whose odometer is clicking toward 60,000 miles after only 20 months. He's a scout for the Oakland Athletics, assigned to L.A., Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. He is headed to Cypress to watch high school kids play. He's panning for gold with a clipboard, a radar gun and a seat cushion.
"Ninety percent you can eliminate even before they warm up," Vaughn says when he gets to the field. "Just look at their bodies. A kid should have some strength and size." He scans the metal bleachers and recognizes three other scouts among the two dozen or so spectators. "It's always the same guys," he says. "A lot of scouts, this time of year, they shut it down. They figure they can see a guy in the spring. I enjoy baseball. I'm 50 years old. I'd like to still be doing this when I'm 80. My goal is to still be working in baseball when I kick the bucket."
Says Rod Dedeaux, the longtime USC baseball coach who retired in 1986, "If you look at some of the great baseball scouts, you see they are humble people who have such a love for the game. They're Baseball Joes. Ron is a credit to the game. He really loves it. He's a Baseball Joe."
A skyscraper has rivets. Baseball has scouts: unseen, underappreciated but fundamental to the strength of the game. Good thing that rivets don't fail as often. Scouting has an 83% failure rate; that's the estimated percentage of drafted players who never make it to the big leagues. The ragged game at Cypress shows why. Vaughn is watching 16-year-old kids who have never taken razors to their chins and trying to determine whether eight years from now they'll recognize and hit big league fastballs that rise and sink, sliders that break fiendishly late and curveballs that start out headed right for the medulla oblongata. No other sport requires its talent pickers to forecast as far ahead as Nostradamus.
Among scouts Vaughn has become a legend, all because of an evaluation he made 16 years ago as an assistant coach to Dedeaux. Vaughn hit the mother lode. At the conclusion of the 1982 college season he decided that an 18-year-old freshman pitcher, a baby-faced righthander who had batted .200 that year, should go to the Alaska summer league and devote all his attention to hitting. Vaughn prophesied that the future of Mark McGwire, a good pitching prospect, would be even brighter if he were converted to a hitter. With that assessment and his mentoring of McGwire that summer as an assistant coach for the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, Vaughn launched the career of the most prolific single-season home run hitter.
"I can guarantee you that if Mark had stayed a pitcher, he wouldn't have had anything close to the success he's had," says San Diego State baseball coach Jim Dietz, who was skipper of the Glacier Pilots during the summer of 1982. "He'd probably be out of baseball right now. Because he had someone like Ron who championed him early on, Mark was really blessed."
For getting McGwire to dedicate himself full time to hitting and for tutoring him privately for years afterward, Vaughn gained nothing besides respect in the off-the-radar world of scouts. He didn't get rich, and he certainly didn't get famous. He did, however, get something else for going to Alaska and turning McGwire into a hitter. He got fired. He became an Unemployed Joe.
"I have no doubt Ron lost his job at USC because of me," McGwire says.
Ron Vaughn never had a Ron Vaughn. He grew up in Chanute, Kans., during the 1950s and early '60s, not a major league team within 150 miles. He came to love baseball by listening to Jack Buck and Harry Caray call St. Louis Cardinals games. Before his father would get home from his job as an auto mechanic, Ron would sit close to an old wooden console radio and warm himself in damn near the same way other people wanned themselves before fireplaces. Stan Musial always looked immaculate and heroic on the radio. Ron was 14 the day he heard that Stan the Man had retired. He cried over the news. Even to this day Vaughn—who, if he were any more reserved, would need to be hooked up to jumper cables—gets teary-eyed just thinking about Musial.