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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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Baseball was here a hundred years before me, and it'll be here a hundred years after me.
Scout, Detroit Tigers

Billed as "Johnstown's greatest tourist attraction," the 37th annual tournament of the All American Amateur Baseball Association opened quietly in that central Pennsylvania city on Monday, Aug. 17, 1981 with noon games. At Roxbury Park, three miles from the city center, new snow fences denned outfield boundaries for the diamonds at each end of the commons. Buffalo was playing Baltimore on the east field; Columbus was playing Detroit on the west. Baltimore, better known as Johnny's Auto Sales, is a perennial amateur power. Coached by Milwaukee Brewers scout Walter Youse, it has the look and almost the talent of a minor league team. It had won 10 championships and five runner-up trophies at Johnstown, and was the 1981 favorite. Baltimore's lineup included seven players who had been drafted by major league teams out of high school; each had chosen to go to college instead, and to play for Johnny's during the summer as a sure way of maintaining the scouts' interest. John Thornton, a big catcher/first baseman, had turned down $25,000 from the Brewers in order to attend the Community College of Baltimore. "God knows how much he'll expect in two years," said Ed Katalinas as he watched the teams getting ready for the game. Katalinas, 71, assistant to the director of scouting for the Tigers, thought Thornton should have taken the money. "He won't get that kind of offer next time."

Katalinas sat alone on the high slope above third base of the east field. The younger scouts clustered around the backstop and shared observations on each hitter's stance and swing. Carmen Fusco of the Mets, wearing a cowboy hat and boots, remarked that Thornton's swing came too much from the heels; it generated home-run power but also left Thornton off balance, looking as if he was falling away from the plate.

Like most of the new scouts, Fusco, 28, had never played an inning of professional baseball. "I was coaching at Middle Tennessee and knew a guy," Fusco explained. "That's how I got to be a scout. Pro experience isn't necessary anymore. What's more important is knowing the game, being analytical, organized, mobile, able to do a lot of reporting. The scouting directors look for younger guys now because we can put up with all the travel, and maybe they figure we don't need money as bad. But that's why I want to work my way to the front office: less travel, more money."

Thornton homered in the fourth to put Baltimore ahead 9-0. Across the commons, Detroit and Columbus were tied 1-1 in the fifth. "Scout the player, not the game," I had been told all season, but I still needed a reasonably close contest in order to feel perceptive, and I went over to watch the other game. Just as the inning began, two girls hopped over the snow fence in right center field and trotted across centerfield. Umpire Juergen Mathes halted play and ran out to order them off the field, then discovered that they were his children.

Detroit broke the game open in that inning by parlaying singles, errors and two hit batsmen into five runs, and for the next hour I had to be satisfied just to watch a pitching masterpiece by Greg Brake, the Detroit lefthander. From the second to the eighth inning, Brake retired 19 consecutive batters, most of them with a snaky curveball that seemed to float up to the plate and then to accelerate as it darted to the knees. Gary Nickels of the Phillies graded the curve as a 71—above major league average. In the Phillies' system players are graded from 60 to 80. Steve Carlton's slider would be near an 80, with a 70 signifying major league quality.

"Brake throws it about 65 percent of the time," Nickels said. "It's a great curve, but he's a one-pitch pitcher. His fastball is way short for me, maybe a 67, and he's not going to get any faster, so it's hard to see him beyond college or the low minors. The pitcher to scout on this team is Bill Shuta." In the bottom of the eighth, Nickels decided that 68 was the right grade for Brake's control.

"The reports I make on this tournament," Nickels said, "will mostly be names of kids worth a 'follow' next spring. Then I'll write up a few players, but just with number grades. I think the grades are more important than the verbal part, because when I write out comments I find that I repeat myself. Like, 'This boy's an above-average runner.' Well, I've already told you that if I put a 71. The written stuff is really salesmanship to the front office; I call it putting the mustard on the hot dog."

Nickels is short and roundish, with a quick, enthusiastic manner. He can watch a game without reacting visibly, but his conversation is frank and open, affecting no cool scouting pose. At 34 he has already been in the baseball business for nine years. After pitching college ball at Illinois Wesleyan (the zenith of his playing career), he landed an internship in the Phillies' office and in 1974 became an assistant to Dallas Green, then the director of scouting and minor leagues. Four years later Nickels became a scout, mainly to acquire "seasoning." His real goal was to make it back to the office, this time in an executive role.

"What I thought scouting would be when I was in the office wasn't what scouting really is," he said. "In the first place, you have to push yourself. It's not a job where you punch in or where someone's always looking over your shoulder. You're on your own for a week, two weeks at a time, and it's up to you where you should go. It wouldn't be that hard, if you wanted to, to fool your boss with your reports and expense account, and if you weren't a self-motivated person you could slide by for a while.

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