It was my last organizational meetings with the Cubs … early 2012 … Mesa, Arizona.
The new regime was in its first year of running the Cubs. There were a lot of new faces in these meetings.
But at one point, Theo Epstein asked Billy Blitzer – one of the elder statesmen of the Cubs, having been in the organization since 1982 – to get up in front of the group and talk.
After an impassioned speech from the heart, “I put my left hand in the air and I said to everybody, ‘Look, no ring. I have nothing to show for this. I’ve been here 30 years; I have no ring on my finger,’” Blitzer said. “’You people have to help me put a ring on this finger and your own fingers, because I don’t have another 30 years to give.’ When I said that, the entire room exploded.”
The last time I wrote about Billy Blitzer, I might have accidentally lied to you.
My initial blueprint was to drop a few short nuggets about Billy – a scout in his 35th year with the Cubs – as an appetizer to an extended story about him.
The more I’ve thought about it, I realized it would be impossible for me to write a piece about Billy in the 2,500-word range – which is on the longer side for keeping someone’s attention. Heck, I can’t keep some of Billy’s stories to 2,500 words.
So I’m veering from my original plan, opting instead to writing several chapter-like pieces about Mr. Blitzer. This way, I can give his stories justice – and you’ll get a better opportunity to read about him and enjoy some of the tales about this man’s career and livelihood.
You can read the earlier story here: http://www.chuckblogerstrom.com/all-my-stories/it-coulda-happened-it-shoulda-happened-it-did.
I hope you enjoy reading about how Billy got his start in the game and with the Cubs.
The year was 1975. Like most students in college, Billy Blitzer was trying to figure out what he would be doing for his vocation.
He was a student at Hunter College – located in the Upper East Side of Manhattan – and he was playing baseball. He also was coaching a sandlot team that summer.
As fate would have it, one day, while coaching this sandlot team, a scout happened to come by and sat down next to Billy.
“I didn’t know who he was. He was just an old man sitting next to me,” Blitzer said. “I say old man, but I’m probably older now than he was then. But to me, he was an old man.
“We started chatting, and he says to me, ‘What are you doing here?’
“I said, ‘I’m going to coach the next game.’
“He said, ‘I’m going to watch.’
“OK. I didn’t care … he could watch. When the game was over, he came over to me while I was packing the equipment. He said, ‘I want to talk to you.’
“I said, ‘About what?’
“He says to me, ‘Well, my name is Ralph DiLullo, and I’m a scout with the Major League Scouting Bureau.’
“I said, ‘What’s that?’ That was the first year the Bureau started. I didn’t know what the Bureau was; nobody did. And he explained to me what it was. Then I said, ‘Oh, you want to talk to me about my shortstop?’ I said that because my shortstop ended up playing in the big leagues. He had a cup of coffee with the Brewers; his name was Willie Lozado.
“And he says, ‘No, I want to talk to you about you. You’re coaching kids your own age.’ I was only two years older than these kids. ‘You seem to know what you’re doing. I want you to give me your phone number. I’m going to call you. I’m going to find out when you’re playing next week, and we’re going to sit at a game together.’
“I said, ‘Why?’
“He said, ‘Don’t worry. Just give me your phone number. I’m going to call you.’
“I went home and told my parents what had happened. I said, ‘I don’t know if this guy is on the level or if he’s a nut or whatever.’
“He called me, I went down and met him, and he was pointing things out to me on the field … what to look for. And he said to me, ‘You’re going to run a tryout camp in Brooklyn. I’m going to run it, but you’re going to invite all the players. And then you’re going to help me in Jersey when I run my camps and this and that.’ That’s how I started.
“But the ironic part is … Ralph DiLullo, before he went to work for this new Major League Scouting Bureau, worked for the Chicago Cubs for 25 years. Ralphie signed Bruce Sutter and Joe Niekro. He was a very prominent scout.”
When DiLullo left to go to the Bureau, the Cubs didn’t hire anybody to serve as the amateur scout in the region, opting instead to use information provided by the Bureau scouts in that area – DiLullo and former Cub Lennie Merullo, who was based in New England. If a Bureau report indicated there was a player worth checking out, Cubs cross-checker Frank DeMoss would run up and down the East Coast.
DiLullo continued to mentor Blitzer – who went on to spend his first seven years of scouting with the Bureau. It gave him an opportunity to hone this craft at a young age – and to start to make a name for himself.
“A lot of scouts used to be afraid to come into New York City. They’d come in packs; they’d come in groups,” Blitzer said. “So I went to work for the Bureau. My first four years, I was an associate. Then they hired me under contract. I had New York, Long Island and Westchester. And in the short time I was under contract, I found Bobby Bonilla and Devon White and Johnny Franco and Frank Viola and B.J. Surhoff and Walter Weiss. There were others, but those were the big, big names. Scouting directors from different organizations started telling their scouts, ‘You better get into New York City. This kid is coming up with players.’
“When I came up with Weiss, I remember a scout from a club saying to me, ‘Where are you finding these guys? We never come up here.’
“I said, ‘You’ll be coming up here from here on in.’
For those of you not familiar with the Major League Scouting Bureau, Blitzer wasn’t the one who eventually signed those players. His job with the Bureau was akin to being a bird dog. He went into the trenches and flushed out the talent through his Bureau reports – which went to all the major league teams. It was up to individual teams to decide if they wanted to come in and see for themselves.
But the talent he was uncovering speaks for itself.
“You see, I wasn’t afraid to go into a lot of places, because I grew up in New York City,” Blitzer said. “And I played on a lot of these fields. And the team that I coached in the Youth Service League – that’s where Shawon Dunston was my bat boy when he was a kid, ironically; that’s how I had my in with the Dunston family when the Cubs were trying to sign him.
“But I wasn’t afraid to go into these places. A lot of these kids on my team played in these leagues in tough areas and they would tell their coaches, ‘Listen, Billy Blitzer is coming up. Make sure you keep an eye on him and nothing happens to him.’ You know, South Bronx, places like that back then were tough areas to go into. And I went in and I found players.”
And one of those players – Dunston – he literally watched grow up.
In 1982, the first year of the new Dallas Green regime, the Cubs had the No. 1 overall selection in the country.
With a new hierarchy in place, more scouts were added, and for the first time since the Ralph DiLullo years, the Cubs utilized a full-time area scout in the New York area named Gary Nickels.
Shawon Dunston, an infielder at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, was at the top of the Cubs’ draft list. As a senior, he batted .790 and went 37-for-37 in his steal attempts. The Cubs wanted all the background and makeup information they could get on him, and Blitzer became a valuable resource.
Blitzer was still working for the Major League Scouting Bureau that June, and, prior to the draft, the Cubs sent a letter to the Bureau asking for permission to have Blitzer go out with Nickels to negotiate a contract with Dunston and his family.
“Like I said, I knew Shawon since he was 11 years old,” Blitzer said. “Mel Zitter, who ran the Youth Service League, and I taught him how to play.
“When it came to negotiate the contract, I’ll never forget. Gary and I went into the house on the Saturday before to start to talk to them. The draft is Monday. Gary and I go in, it was a rainy kind of day, and the Dunstons had the old Game of the Week on NBC on – and who’s playing that day, the Chicago Cubs.
“Gary and I sat in the Dunston’s home and read the entire contract to them. It was the old standard contract, and we read it paragraph after paragraph and explained the entire thing. It took us a couple hours. At the end, Gary pretty much made an offer to the family – and they said that everything would be OK.”
These were definitely different times. Think about it. A high school kid who could go No. 1 overall in the draft, and the area scout was in the family’s home for a face-to-face money meeting.
“Because Shawon could be the No. 1 pick in the draft from the No. 1 media capital in the world, people were calling his home. People were calling my home to see if this was going to happen,” Blitzer said. “So what we did … Gary planned for all of us to go into Manhattan and stay in a Sheraton Hotel, and he registered the rooms under different names. Gary and I were in one room and the Dunstons had a suite.
“But on that Sunday morning, I pick up the New York Daily News, and Dick Young – who was the big columnist at the time – had quotes in his column from a scout by the name of Dutch Deutsch. Dutch was the scout who signed John Candelaria and Willie Randolph. Well, Dutch comes out in Dick Young’s column and says ‘Shawon Dunston is the best player to come out of the New York area since Carl Yastrzemski.’”
Yastrzemski, who was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989, was from Long Island.
“I see that in Sunday’s paper and I’m going, ‘Uh oh. We can be in trouble,’” Blitzer said. “I was supposed to meet Gary at a McDonald’s near the Dunston house, then we were going over to the house. Then Gary was going to go into the city and get the rooms, and I was going to wait in the Dunston house while his mother and his sister were going to the beauty parlor – because there was going to be a press conference on Monday at the commissioner’s office after he was drafted.
“Gary and I go into the house, and it was like we walked into a refrigerator. They were really cold, because they felt we were cheating them; we weren’t giving them enough money. And I could see there was a problem, so I said, ‘Mr. Dunston, let’s go into the other room. Just you and I. We need to talk.’
“Mr. Dunston and I went in and spoke, and I explained to him what was going on. I said, ‘You can’t listen to everything in the newspaper. You don’t realize how important it is that Shawon goes first in the country. If the Cubs don’t take him and he goes second or third, he might never be remembered. But he’ll always be remembered as the first pick. That will mean more for him down the line. Endorsements, things like that. It doesn’t mean anything right now.’ He agreed with me, and we walked out. He said to Gary, ‘OK, we still have a deal.’
“So Gary leaves to go into Manhattan. Now remember, there’s no cell phones. I’m hanging around the Dunston house, waiting until his mother and sister come back from the beauty parlor. I had a little Chevy Nova, and I drive all of them into Manhattan. I go to the Sheraton where I think that Gary is – because that’s where the Baseball Writers (Association of America) have their dinner. I drive in, I pay for the parking in the hotel. Before we had left, Gary had called the house and told us what room he was in. He had all the keys.
“So we go up to the room with our overnight bags, I knock on the door, and somebody who doesn’t speak English opens the door. I’m thinking, maybe he gave us the wrong room.
“So we all go down to the front desk, and I give them the assumed name that he checked in under. The guy at the front desk says, ‘There’s nobody at this hotel by that name.’ I said, ‘There has to be. He’s in the Sheraton. I spoke to him.’ He said, ‘There’s another Sheraton four or five blocks away. Let me call over there.’ Sure enough, that was it.
“Now I’m not taking my car out of this Sheraton because I’ve just paid for the parking. It’s not cheap in New York.
“So here we, the Dunstons and Billy Blitzer, walking down Broadway with our suitcases to go to the other Sheraton.
“The next day, Shawon was drafted – of course. We had the news conference; Gary handled everything. And the rest is history.”
Dunston made his major league debut in 1985 and played for 18 years, batting .269 in more than 1,800 games. He was a two-time National League all-star and went to the World Series in 2002 in his final big league season.
Does Blitzer ever think about what might have been if Ralph DiLullo hadn’t shown up that one day … or if Shawon Dunston was born a year older – making him draft-eligible before the Dallas Green era started in Chicago?
“Yes. I tell people Billy Blitzer wouldn’t exist in the world of baseball. I probably would have been a coach some place.
“People always say, ‘How did you get in? Usually it’s people that played.’ And I tell them, ‘The fickle finger of fate touched me on the shoulder.’ If Ralph DiLullo doesn’t sit next to me at that park, probably none of this ever happens. It was just something that was meant to me.”
As for being in the right place at the right time with Dunston, “That’s how I met Gary Nickels,” Blitzer said. “Who’s to say I wouldn’t have met him? But really, that’s how we got close. Gary had to do his homework and get as much information as he could about Shawon, and I was the perfect person.
“When we all went through this, there was no job promised to me or anything. That came after. They just saw the way I handled myself and they saw my track record. They read my reports from the Bureau. Here I was a young scout, but I had seven years’ experience already. I’m still a young man, and I had success. So I was the right person for Dallas’ group. He wanted a mix of young scouts and older scouts.”