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And baseball's got this new thing called central scouting. A lot of scouts don't work for just one team anymore. After they watch a kid play, they send their reports to a bureau that feeds them into a computer. All the teams subscribing to the service then get a look at the readout. There's very little incentive to be the scout who beat the bushes and found the next Babe Ruth. The legendary Yankee scout, Tom Greenwade, would have had to feed Mickey Mantle's stats into the computer. The St. Louis Browns would have drafted him. Mickey Mantle of the St. Louis Browns. Mickey would have had to get drunk with Ned Garver.
This is a wonderful new system, except for one thing. They tend to miss a certain kind of player. Guys like Whitey Ford. Whitey would never get a contract today. Scouts don't hang around as much at places like Aviation High in New York, where Whitey went to school. Maybe Whitey would have gone to college. Maybe not. Even so, his stats wouldn't look good enough on the printout. Today, a player has got to have "the tools"—great arm, size, speed, power, etc. Five-feet-nine isn't big enough to be a pitcher today. The speed gun doesn't clock a sneaky fastball. There's no little box on the IBM card for cleverness. Guts and brains are tough to gauge if you don't get to know a kid well.
Scouts used to do that. They would talk to you after games, take you out to dinner, get to know your parents, become your friend. I remember that lots of guys signed with certain teams because they were friends with some scout. Or friends with a bird dog.
Bird dogs were people who scouted for a scout. They were usually retired guys who roamed the most obscure ball fields, getting to know players. The bird dog who found me was an elderly gent named Mr. Fred. Mr. Fred would watch me pitch and then buy me a hot dog and a Coke after the game. A small investment for the future. He used to give me tips. He'd tell me to wear a jacket over my arm to keep it warm between innings, or not to drink cold water on a hot day, things like that. I liked Mr. Fred. He was a bird dog for Art Stewart, the Yankee scout who signed me.
If a kid signed, the scout sent the bird dog some wandering-around money. If the kid made it to the big leagues, the bird dog got money and a nice gift at Christmas as long as the kid stayed up there. You could always spot a bird dog in the stands by his uniform—wide-brim hat, binoculars, stopwatch, pad, pencil and cigar. But not anymore. With central scouting, there is not much need for bird dogs. Like an endangered species, they're becoming extinct.
Another baseball species already extinct is the suspect. That's what players called guys who weren't prospects anymore. A suspect was an older guy kept around to fill out a roster, or because he was a local hero in some minor league town. He was a real downer to have around the clubhouse. The suspects were continually bitching. They always complained that they should be playing in a higher league. I would ask a suspect what his batting average was in this league. Strangely enough, it was always low.
Today, there aren't enough teams to carry suspects. As soon as a kid ceases to be a prospect, "he gets his No. 1 box punched," as my Savannah roommate, Stu Livingstone, used to say (Box No. 1 means "released unconditionally" on the standard form given to every player who gets released, transferred, sold or waived). Suspects weren't all bad. You could learn a few things from them. Like how to chew tobacco or pick up a cocktail waitress.
Players today don't pick up girls too often. They don't need to. Their regular girl friends come live with them, even on road trips. Of course, that's against the rules. It's a $200 fine if you get caught. Smart managers, like Bobby Dews at Savannah, never check on their players. Last summer we got a letter from Hank Aaron reminding us about the fine for having girl friends in our rooms. For college guys who had lived in coed dorms, it was the funniest item on the bulletin board.
Except for the all-night bus trips, life on the road in the minors is very different now. Years ago, we'd stay at some old downtown hotel. We'd spend the day walking around town, playing pool, going to the movies. Now, the teams stay at those budget motels located at highway interchanges 20 miles from town. I didn't like being stuck out there. The only things you can walk to are a waffle house, a gas station or another motel. I wanted to visit the towns. I never felt like I was playing in the Southern League. It was more like the Interstate League. The scenery was always the same. It's bad enough when you stay at a motel and wake up looking at the wall and not knowing what town you're in. In the Interstate League, you can look out the window and not know what town you're in. The only thing to do was sit around the pool—no swimming after noon—and play backgammon. Or read a book. Now that's different. If you read books 10 years ago, you were strange. Twenty years ago, you were downright weird.
In spite of the age difference, I felt more at home with the Savannah Braves than I ever did with the Yankees. I always liked minor league players better. Major-leaguers lose perspective about themselves. It was that way with the Yankees. They thought fans were a nuisance. They hated reporters. And it's even worse now. "The old Yankees just ignored us," says a friend who covers the team. "The new Yankees scream and holler at us from across the room." Too many big-leaguers think playing baseball is some great contribution to society. They used to think the world owed them a living. Now, it's a fortune. Bill Russell, the former basketball player, said they're like that because they've been on scholarship since the third grade. Today's gargantuan salaries reinforce those misperceptions.