02/11/2003 12:24 pm ET
An inside look at scout school
Christine Destefano attended the Major League Scouting Bureau's first "scout school" in the Dominican Republic for a week and a half. She wrote daily reports on her experiences as she attended the school as a student, learning how to properly scout and evaluate international baseball talent.
How many times have you been at a game, or even a sports bar, where there's that guy sitting next to you talking about which players should be fielding French fry orders instead of fielding grounders? What makes him qualified to judge baseball talent? Likely, not much. But what about the people who do this for a living -- baseball scouts. How do they learn to do this? Probably not from watching games on TV in sports bars. With this daily report, I hope to share what I find out about how to properly scout baseball players.
For several years now, the Major League Scouting Bureau has held "scout schools" where Major League organizations can send employees with an interest in player development to learn to scout. Often they are former players who still want to work in baseball or an employee with an interest in becoming a farm or scouting director. The most famous graduate of the school is current White Sox General Manager Kenny Williams, but it's interesting to note that more than 70 percent of the 400-plus students who have been through one of these camps, is working in baseball in some capacity. Once held in Florida, they are now held in Arizona each fall and this year is the first time one is being held internationally, in the Dominican Republic.
I will be filing a report each day on the things we learn at class and at the baseball field -- we'll be attending several Winter League games -- and hope to shed some light on this often overlooked profession. Within the next few days I hope to accomplish the following objectives:
- Describe how to scout -- What to look for (hint: it's mechanics, not performance); where to sit; how to rate players; how to write an effective scouting report.
- Show what it's like to learn -- Since I will be going through the school myself instead of just observing, I'll be able to share my experiences learning to watch the game and players in a new way.
- Provide international aspect -- Scouting players in the Dominican, where they can be signed at 17 and often come from poverty, is a lot different than scouting U.S. and Canadian high school and college players.
The rest of the students arrive on Saturday, so Friday was spent getting ready for their arrival, which meant doing a dry run of all the ballparks we were going to visit. As you are likely aware, several Major League clubs have "academies" down here, including the Cardinals, Marlins, A's, Rockies and Diamondbacks, who share facilities, and the Dodgers, who have perhaps the gold standard in baseball academies.
After our group of 10 loaded the bus, we hit the road for the Cardinals' facility. Driving in the Dominican is an adventure, as the streets are usually dotted with potholes, with street signs not often posted.
We arrive at the Cardinals facility, Estadio Manuel Espinosa, which is, as all ballparks are that I have seen so far, right in the middle of a residential neighborhood. We walk in through a gate and watch some BP. Every player is in some sort of Cardinals gear, some of the red shorts are sun-faded to a pale pink. The players at these Major League winter camps range in age from 17-20, and most play in the Dominican Summer League. Although their season doesn't start until June, Spring Training starts in January, and the season lasts until September, which gives them about two months off per year. A small, skinny player with deep-set dark brown eyes smiles, walks past me and says hello with the flick of his glove.
Frank Marcos, Director of the Major League Scouting Bureau (MLSB), notes the chatter on the field during practice amongst the players -- something you don't see a lot of at the Major League level. The players live in dormitories near the field from Sunday to Friday each week, getting Friday night and Saturday off to go home to their families. They play the game every day. "I wish American kids loved to play as much as these guys do," said scout Rick Arnold.
Just past a cornfield, a pen of goats and a horse on a rope leash, we arrive at the Rockies/Diamondbacks complex. More plush than the Cardinals field, this practice area features four yards -- two for practice, two for games -- with lush green trees outlining the cement outfield wall. Rockies players are in the field on the left, wearing white Rockies T-shirts and white or pinstriped pants. The D-Backs players on the right-side field get numbered purple practice jerseys.
A player hitting pop-up after pop-up in the cage is gently brought aside to work on leveling out his swing. After the instructor leaves him, the player stays and swings ... and swings. Two D-Backs players jog around the perimeter of the practice field, just near the cows behind the left-field fence. At the Rockies' practice field -- the one not in use -- a crew is grooming the field without the use of fancy rider lawn mowers.
We head back to the bus and find a player getting dressed in the parking lot, out of the trunk of his car -- kind of like when you put your ski gear on in the parking lot after a long drive to the mountain. He hurries off to the field tucking in his shirt as his mitt balances on his head.
Now we're off to the "Beverly Hills of baseball academies," the Campo Las Palmas for the Dodgers. Modeled after their Spring Training complex, Dodgertown, in Vero Beach, Fla., this complex is lined in palm trees and Dodger blue. The complex is so sprawling one scout says pitchers can run the trails here for nine miles without running the same path twice.
The main practice yard -- Manny Mota Field -- features a game with the Rockies, as several Dodgers players not in the game surround the field and watch. One sits behind home plate charting pitches and another has a radar gun. About half of the players are in retro-cool practice jerseys, the pullovers with the white trim. There's a scoreboard in right field and a big satellite dish behind the stands. The game features two umpires, both in faded red shirts.
A visit inside the main office features the photos of Dodgers stars to have spent time at the academy: Mike Piazza, Ramon and Pedro Martinez, Ismael Valdes, Raul Mondesi, Jose Vizcaino, Adrian Beltre, Henry Blanco, Angel Pena, Stan Javier.
We take a walk through the rest of the campus and see the weight room, training room, cafeteria, and sheltered bullpens and batting cages for when it rains, and the sleeping porch where a lone player catches an afternoon nap.
So why did the Dodgers seem to go all out here? The complex is 14 years old and no other Major League team is close to mimicking it.
"They saw the results from it, to bring it to this level of sophistication," said Don Pries, the former MLSB director who has worked in baseball for 57 years. "But other teams see other places where they want to spend money in the development of players -- places like California, Florida and Texas. Al Campanis and Walter O'Malley really were on to something here when they started this."
After heading back to the hotel, the scouts meet to discuss which students will follow under which instructor. The key is making sure there is an effective mix of English- and Spanish-speaking students and instructors. Several of the attendees are of Latin American descent, but wish to sharpen their skills in evaluating players and expressing those evaluations in English. Several of the instructors are bilingual.
The six instructors are assigned between three and four students apiece, which makes for an intimate student-to-teacher ratio. The rest of the students, my new classmates, arrive tomorrow and we will begin going over our 150-plus page program notebook, which sort of looks like a football playbook, before heading to the fields to start learning to evaluate this country's baseball talent.
In my next story I'll profile several of the instructors, as well as the students here, who range from a Canadian pitching coach to employees selected to attend by the Astros, White Sox, Red Sox, Marlins, Cubs, Angels, Yankees, Mets, Pirates, Royals, A's, Twins and Marlins.
Christine Destefano is executive producer of MLB.com.