Scouts tell great stories. Veteran scouts tell really great stories. When you scout for as long as Gary Hughes has, you move into that elite category – Master Storyteller.
Boomer, as he is affectionately called, has been a scout since 1967 – making this year 50 in the profession for him. These days, he’s a major league scout with the Boston Red Sox. I had the joy of working with him for nearly a decade with the Cubs – as he was one of Jim Hendry’s top lieutenants. I always liked to think of myself as Mr. Hendry’s big toe; if that was actually true, then Boomer was Jim’s right hand.
There aren’t too many grownups out there who go by Boomer – heck, out of deference, I usually call him Mr. Hughes. We caught up a couple days ago, and I asked for the refresher on how he got his nickname.
“When I first started with the New York Yankees,” Mr. Hughes recalled, “I was with our scouting director who was also the player development director. His name was Jack Butterfield. We were in Oakland, and I was just an area scout, and we had a guy who was going to crosscheck my players who lived in Southern California. He was an ex-big league player named Bob Nieman. And Bob was a big guy for nicknames. Burly Bob Nieman. So I walked in with Jack Butterfield. And as Bob’s getting up, he looks at me and he goes, ‘Wally’ – since I had a mustache.
“I said ‘No.’ I knew what he was doing. I didn’t have any idea that he was a nickname guy or any of that stuff, but I did know he was trying to call me Wally based on my mustache. Wally the Walrus, or whatever. So then he says, ‘How about Boomer?’ I said that would be fine. And that’s where it all started.”
I could always count on Mr. Hughes … OK, Boomer … to help me out whenever I was in need of assistance. He’s been a big supporter of my budding writing career, and he was there for me as usual when I called him the other day.
I wanted to hear his version of a famous story about Fig Newtons. I also wanted to learn more about his friendship with Jim Hendry. They have been through the baseball wars together – spending three years in the Florida Marlins’ organization (1992-1994) and nearly 10 full seasons with the Cubs.
When Jim had his heart-related issues at the Orlando winter meetings in December 2006, we all looked to Boomer for guidance.
“That’s one of the scariest things I’ve been around,” he said. “I can say all these nice things about Jim, but he’s pigheaded, too. He’s there and he’s working on a free agent signing of Ted Lilly. He thought all of that stuff was way more important than his health.
“He told me, ‘I’m not feeling good. I haven’t slept much.’
“I said, ‘You’ve got to go to the doctor. Let’s go. You’ve got to get there.’
“He said, ‘No, I have too much to do.’ But he didn’t have too much to do. And he probably wouldn’t have had anything to do if a doctor hadn’t gotten involved in it.
“He went to the hospital. He’s sitting on a gurney with tubes stuck in him. And he’s talking to Ted Lilly’s agent finalizing the free agent acquisition. And here he is in a hospital gown with all kinds of tubes sticking out of him, and the last thing he was worried about was himself.”
I asked Boomer what the initial impetus was for him to hire Jim for his first professional job – as a scout and minor league manager with the Marlins in 1992. Boomer talked about it mostly being Jim’s personality, but that he had been intrigued with Jim’s handling of his Creighton University baseball teams.
“I didn’t know him that well when I brought him over to the Marlins,” he said. “My Number 1 scout, Orrin Freeman, knew Jim a lot better than I did and he recommended him. And I had always been very, very impressed when I’d seen his teams play. We were acquaintances at the time; we weren’t really good friends. But obviously, it developed into a very good friendship.”
And it was during their early years together when the friendship developed – and following story took place. Sit back and – using your eyes – listen to a scout spin a yarn. I have heard Jim’s version of this story many times. But this was Boomer’s time to tell his side of the story.
“The first year I brought him in for the draft … I think it was the 1993 draft … I only brought three guys in, and they were my crosscheckers. And we would make calls to all of the area scouts, and they’d give them time on the phone – and we’d interview the scouts about the players. But I never brought in any of the area scouts.
“Jim was the area scout and, by that time, it was becoming pretty apparent that he was special. He was the area scout in south Florida, so I brought him in just to give him a little work to do. I told him just be in the room. If we have something for you to do – like move around the names on the board – we’ll tell you. But you’re not allowed to talk or say anything unless we ask you something. And we’re not going to be asking you a lot of questions.
“So he was in the room, and he was there for four or five days prior to the draft. David Dombrowski was the general manager. And that was at a time when we were trying to get everybody in better physical condition.
“So now the draft is going on, and it’s come to a round where he has a lot of players up on the board. He was sitting in the back of the room where we told him to sit. If we need you, we’ll let you know.
“I call him up to the front of the room. The time in the draft is coming up where he thinks he’s going to get one of his players. He’s thinking I’m going to ask him about one of his guys.
“So he comes up to the front, and he thinks I’m asking about a player. Instead, I told him, ‘I hate to do this, but all of us are busy doing stuff, and you’ve become the guy we can send out if we need anything, and we’re out of cookies.’ Again, it was a healthy thing, we were eating fat-free Fig Newtons.
“So I said, ‘Jim, will you please go down to the store and pick up some more of those fat-free Fig Newtons? The guys like them, and you’re the only guy here we can send out.’
“He said ‘Sure,’ being the good soldier that he was.
“Around that time, he had a chance to go back into college ball. Miami had lost its head coach, Ron Fraser – who was a legendary guy – and they talked to Jim about coaching there. Jim had said no, he wanted to stay in scouting and in professional baseball. He thought there was potential there for him, which obviously there was.
“Anyway, now he’s walking around a Publix supermarket with a grocery cart full of fat-free Fig Newtons. He was madder than heck at me for having him do it. He never once showed that he was upset or mad about it or anything like that. He came back, and everybody got the fat-free Fig Newtons.
“It was years later before he ever complained to me about it.
“I remember him saying, ‘Do you know what you did to me? You sent me out there for cookies.’ ”
“And I said, ‘Well … we needed them.’ ”