The bird dogs always came first. They just appeared one spring day in your sophomore year of high school as if drawn by the odor of freshly cut outfield grass. On that day you knew for sure that your fastball, which had slowed considerably in the jump from a Little League to a high school mound, had once again begun to smoke like a burning pine. You knew also that your life would never be the same again. Baseball could no longer be considered a game for you from that day forward. It was, instead, your career.
They were called bird dogs because they sniffed out talent, although the name does not do them justice. The bird dogs were kindly, stooped old men in plaid shirts and string ties. They owned taverns and hardware stores, and once had even played ball with Kiki Cuyler and Georgie Cutshaw. Now in their last years, they measured out the weekday afternoons at an endless succession of high school baseball games. They were always easy to spot, even from the mound, since few adults bothered to watch the meaningless games your coach let you pitch as a sophomore and because they always stood directly behind the home-plate screen, as if they would not feel comfortable unless viewing the world through a maze of wire triangles.
Few of the bird dogs ever got paid a cent for their efforts, although once in a while one would be promised a $100 bonus if the boy he touted ever made the major leagues. But even if that boy did make it, by the time he did the bird dog usually would have died. That wasn't why they went through the effort. They did it to pass time for one thing and because they loved the game for another—but most of all because they appreciated young talent. Just watching it develop was reward enough for old men.
One day in my sophomore year at Fairfield Prep (1957) I struck out 19 apprentice plumbers, bricklayers and carpenters from Bullard-Havens Technical High School. That night Johnny Barron, an aged Cincinnati bird dog, called at my house. When I answered the phone he asked to speak with my father and after that my mother, as if like some Victorian suitor he was seeking permission to court me—which in a way he was. Finally I took the receiver with trembling hands. His voice surprised me. It was battered and broken but completely at ease, as if he was talking to an old friend. And in his mind I guess we were old friends. Hadn't he just seen me pitch?
Johnny took much for granted as we talked. He detailed my strengths and weaknesses with a familiarity that would have annoyed me if not for the warmth in his voice. He concluded his little talk by saying, "And when you do make the big leagues it will be your fastball that brings you there. It's a marvelous fastball."
It was a strange word to use, I thought, the kind of word one used in discussing a painting or statue or some other thing of beauty. He was a strange man, too, and I wondered how he knew such things. (As it turned out, he didn't.)
"We can't offer you a contract until you're a senior," he told me. "By that time most of the other clubs will be bidding a lot of money for you. I'll be out of the picture by then. Our scouts and front-office people will have taken over. But I hope you'll remember that I was the first scout to appreciate your gift. It will mean a lot to me."
Although I was not sure what he wanted or why, I promised, and he hung up, satisfied. I seldom pitched a game that year without spotting his face somewhere in the sparse crowds, and often I would not feel comfortable on the mound until I did. When I signed in 1959, however, it was with the Braves, not with the Reds. But I still kept my promise and had the local paper carry a small article saying how Johnny Barron Sr. of Haddon Street, Bridgeport, Conn., had been the first scout to contact me.
After the bird dogs came the full-time scouts. They moved in like carpetbaggers in your junior and senior years to take advantage of the friendships cultivated by the bird dogs. By that time the bird dogs had drifted out of your life, like first lovers who could not bear to see the others.
The scouts were younger men, usually in their 50s, and their appreciation for talent was more professional than esthetic. They were not unkind men, however, although they were certainly not so lovable as the bird dogs. But then again, when you got your first whiff of that big bonus cash, maybe you were not so lovable either. And just maybe it was a good thing that the bird dogs like Johnny Barron could not see you now.