SI Vault
Kevin Kerrane
March 19, 1984
In 1981 the author went to an amateur baseball tournament in Johnstown, Pa. to research a book on baseball scouts. As this excerpt reveals, while the scouts discovered their gems on the playing field, he found his own off the field
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March 19, 1984

Diamonds In The Rough

In 1981 the author went to an amateur baseball tournament in Johnstown, Pa. to research a book on baseball scouts. As this excerpt reveals, while the scouts discovered their gems on the playing field, he found his own off the field

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"But the biggest surprise was that I had to make clear-cut decisions under tough circumstances. I'd go watch a high school hitter, and maybe the game was on a rotten field and he had to bat against a terrible pitcher and he got walked twice in three times up. Other sports are easier to scout because of the surroundings of the player; the pro football or basketball guys can take conditions for granted, even study movies. In baseball it's so easy to be wrong.

"You can love a kid and he can get drafted in the first round, and then he never gets out of Double A. And all you have to do is pick up The Sporting News to see how some of the players you said 'No' on are doing great. I missed on Renie Martin, Cal Ripken, Bruce Benedict. With Benedict it was early in my career, and I put too much weight on his weakness as a runner and a hitter; I liked the way he threw and caught, but I wasn't smart enough to know that a catcher can get to the big leagues just on that. With Ripken, I saw one of those nothing games where he walked a couple of times. Plus he was a pitcher at the time. And sometimes I go back and look at my lineup cards from six or seven years ago, and I see a player on there who's in the big leagues, and I have no idea that I ever saw him. I have one card with Dan Quisenberry's name that says he threw from a high three-quarters angle, but I don't remember seeing him. He was just another guy, nothing special.

"So it's a humbling job. But out front, boy, you've gotta be opinionated. Your boss calls you about a player and you've got to say yes or no; you can't sit on the fence. And that's the common thread I see in baseball scouts: They're opinionated people by nature."

The tournament would dump more than $500,000 into the Johnstown economy in a single week, but its greatest value was psychological. It confirmed the belief that Johnstown, a city with an unemployment rate almost double the national average, a city plagued by air pollution, floods—most notably the famous Johnstown Rood of 1889—dilapidated housing and a declining population (112,600 in 1960,92,900 in 1980), was still the center of something, able to attract strong young men from far away. It provided a history of its own as a basis of faith, especially in the list of promising amateurs who had played here: Al Kaline, Frank and Joe Torre, Sparky Lyle, Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew, Steve Garvey, Ken Singleton, Len Barker. And it elicited the response of the whole community, a rich mix of Dutch, Irish, Italian, Armenian, Lithuanian, Polish, German and Greek cultures, in the pageantry of a late-summer festival. On Monday evening a happy crowd paraded toward The Point—where the Connemaugh and Stony Creek rivers merge, and the site of the stadium that serves as the home field for the AAABA tournament—led by bands, beauty queens and the San Diego Chicken, to witness the tournament's official opening and a game between two of its worst teams, Johnstown and Altoona.

Estimates of the crowd inside the ball park ran as high as 14,000, almost double the attendance for the Pirates-Giants game at Three Rivers Stadium that same evening. The fans in Pittsburgh, 60 miles to the west, were still angry over the players' strike; the fans at Johnstown were buoyant and optimistic, even though their entries hadn't won a tournament game since 1975. The dimensions of the field were surreal, foreshortened and elongated like the strange baseball configuration of the Los Angeles Coliseum from 1958 to '61. The leftfield line ended at a wall 270 feet from home plate, and a 50-foot screen jutted upward to turn rising line drives into singles and long pop flies into home runs. A snow fence marked the left center field limit at 375 feet and then angled sharply away from home plate so that center and right seemed to stretch out to the rivers. The Point had been built for football, and this felt like a football night: bands and banners and hometown pride in the cool climate of the Alleghenies, whose steep ridges surround the city.

The bands were still playing when Randy Romagna took the mound for Johnstown. He was an 18-year-old right-hander, 5'10" and 180 pounds, who had been drafted twice by the Cincinnati Reds. Twice he had chosen to stay in school, and had completed one year at Indian River Community College in Fort Pierce, Fla. Romagna threw with a fluid motion, good rhythm and clear command of an overhand curve and fastball. He hung a slider to the first Altoona batter, who lined a single to left, and he hit the second batter with a slider that got away. Then he began using the slider to set up his other pitches, and he struck out the next two batters with fastballs that tailed in on the fists. Two more fastballs became two quick strikes on the fifth batter, and behind the scouts' section the beauty queens led the crowd in rhythmic clapping—1, 2; 1, 2, 3—as Romagna's curve came over the top and toward the hitter's belt buckle, then veered across and almost into the dirt for a swinging strike three.

Romagna said later that the energy of the crowd had "juiced" him. The relation was reciprocal: As he disposed of hitters in each subsequent inning, he juiced the crowd to new levels of noise. That sound had a clear effect on the Altoona players, who committed eight errors and made 10 wild pitches before the night was over. In the second inning Johnstown's Larry Green hit a grounder that skidded through the shortstop's legs and scooted under the glove of the charging left-fielder. Thousands of voices bounced off the brick walls, then echoed back from the ridges across the water to become a single continuous voice as Green made third base standing up.

"These kids must have left their gloves at that horseshoe curve outside Altoona," one scout said. A few innings later, with Johnstown leading 8-0, he stood up to leave. He didn't see any players he liked on either team. "I guess I've put in my appearance for tonight," he said.

Romagna struck out the side again in the sixth. He was spotting all three pitches low now, and Nickels observed that the first-inning single had been the last Altoona ball to leave the infield. "Romagna doesn't throw hard enough to suit me, but I can't take this game away from him—or this," he said with a gesture to the stands.

"Have you ever thought how much of America the old scouts have seen? The small-town ball parks? The Parade Grounds in Brooklyn? To me that's really grass-roots America. Just like this tournament is—kids from all over America, all the races, and some are going to fail and others are going to be great. I wish we had some Russians here tonight so they could see how deep the game goes in our society."

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