I’m not going to lie … The stories I get the most feedback on – and the most page hits – are the stories about former Cubs players.
And I should get solid feedback on them. They’re recognizable names. They’re good people. They’re fun to write about.
But sometimes, what gets lost in the shuffle, are the people who were right there with these guys prior to the beginning of their professional careers. Baseball scouts are the lifeblood of the sport. These are the people who truly do their jobs because of their love of the game – although hotel points are a nice perk. It’s the ultimate no-frills job, in that it’s hard to quantify what “successful” is. You work long hours … in different towns every night … and you’re seemingly always away from home. It’s a nomadic existence, yet it’s one the game depends on. For anyone who wants to argue scouts vs. stats, there’s more to it than passing the eye test.
When you’re an amateur scout, you’re out looking at high school kids and college kids virtually year-round, trying to “discover” somebody and finding out everything there is to know about the kid. That includes uncovering the warts, and getting to know the parents, and trying to find red flags. You can sit on a kid you love seemingly forever; at the last moment, another club swoops in and drafts that kid before your organization had the chance to. Such is the life of a scout – lots of risk, and oftentimes no reward.
And when I say “discovered,” it’s hard to say Kerry Wood was “discovered” when Woody was the fourth overall selection in the draft – but a scout had to stick his neck on the line and make his case for a 17-year-old high school pitcher. Bill Capps had to do his homework and did just that. For every first-rounder like Wood who has a long career, there are players taken lower in the draft that indeed were “discovered” by scouts living the wandering life.
I was fortunate to be able to meet and listen to some of the great scouts in the game. My best “shut your mouth and open your ears” lessons came from listening to the people who truly did their jobs for the love of the game of baseball.
My introduction to scouts first came in my early Cubs days, when I had the awesome opportunity to just listen to some of the great storytellers who have long since passed away – scouts like Hugh “Uncle Hughie” Alexander and Gene Handley. I need to make it my mission to incorporate scout tales into my story rotation. For those of you who read my writing just because you can (Thank You!), I’m looking forward to introducing some of these baseball storytellers to you. For those of you who are former players and/or scouts, I look forward to sharing stories of your baseball brethren (Hint, Hint – I can be bribed to write about you! I like hotel points, too).
A quick “missed opportunity” for now, with plans for scout stories later in the summer after the draft.
I wish I had a tape recorder the first time I met Spider Jorgensen. Actually, I wish I knew the Spider Jorgensen story before I met him. I would have come armed with questions.
During one of my first seasons with the Cubs, there was a two-day retreat to some resort in the far western suburbs. It was one of those bonding experiences that HR people like for company morale. I’ve bit my tongue on the logic of in-season retreats for nearly 30 years, but that’s another story.
Anyway, a few scouts were basically ordered to be there. It was their “reward” for surviving another draft; they got to spend another couple days away from home – this time hanging out with mostly business-side people they didn’t know. Again, it was all in the name of bonding.
I worked at Wrigley Field with everyone at my table except for an older gentleman – and none of us had met him before. We all introduced ourselves, and he told us he was John “Spider” Jorgensen from Rancho Cucamonga, California – and he was an area scout. As a group, we asked him questions about the work he did, and he was very modest. He barely admitted that he had ever picked up a bat or glove. We never got much out of him about his life, other than he was a longtime scout and he loved what he was doing. He was just happy to find players who fell below the radar, and one of his guys was Mark Grace – a 24th round pick in 1985.
The next morning at breakfast, Gene Handley – a scout for, I’m guessing, 50 years – was telling stories from his baseball career. He had literally spent his entire career in baseball – and even spent a couple years in the majors.
I remember saying to him something along the lines of, “It’s too bad Spider didn’t get a chance to play in the majors. He seems like such a nice man.”
Gene looked at me, cocked his head, and said, “Son, he played all of you like a fox. You’re going to kick yourself when you go back to the office look him up.”
If I could have bruised my own back side, I would have. Not only had Spider Jorgensen played professionally for 16 seasons (not including time lost to World War II) – but he spent five years in the majors. Three of those campaigns were as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. And the kicker: Spider and Jackie Robinson both made their major league debuts the same day, with Spider playing third base and Jackie playing first.
I would have loved to have had the opportunity to tell his story. Thankfully, it’s tough to find quiet and unassuming scouts – so I’m looking forward to introducing you to some of them.