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Reports from the Banquet Circuit, Part 2: Portsmouth Ohio and Great Neck NY

January 27, 2014

Tags: Portsmouth Flood Wall Murals, Branch B. Rickey, Robert Dafford, Ron Guidry, John Lorentz's "Beyond These Walls, " Al Oliver, Terry Craft, Greg Gibson, Gene Bennett, Don Gullett, Barry Larkin, Tom Browning, Johnnie Lemaster, Wheelersburg Ohio HS Baseball Champs, NY Pro Scouts, Jim Quigley, Ed Randall, Gene Michael, Ray Fagnant, Matt Hyde

On Wednesday night January 15, 2014 I attended the 10th annual Portsmouth Murals Banquet in Portsmouth, the Scioto County seat in southern Ohio, the home area of Branch Rickey. The man I called the Ferocious Gentleman in my biography may have left this earth nearly 50 years ago, but the memory of his achievements is fresh in Scioto County. I was tremendously pleased when there was an overflow line of people wanting to buy my biography.

Rickey is featured on a few of the murals on the Flood Wall that adjoins the Ohio River in downtown Portsmouth. They are a remarkable series numbering nearly a hundred that celebrate the history and notable people who came out of the region. All were painted by the talented artist Robert Dafford from Lafayette, Louisiana, hometown of the great Yankee southpaw Ron Guidry. Always looking for connections, I once asked Dafford if he knew Guidry and he said, “I ran track with him in high school . . . far behind him.”

Program Note: On Sunday night Feb 16 on PBS stations in Ohio, John Lorentz's documentary about the murals, "Beyond These Walls," will air. Later this year most national PBS stations will broadcast this outstanding piece of work.

Branch Barrett Rickey, president of the Pacific Coast League and grandson of the immortal executive, was the featured speaker this year and I had the pleasure of introducing him. Many in the audience of nearly 400 remarked later that if they closed their eyes, they thought it was grandfather Rickey himself speaking.

Young Branch told many good stories about his life as a baseball scout before he became a top minor league executive. One of them concerned an early assignment for the Pittsburgh Pirates (where his grandfather was general manager in the 1950s and his father Branch Rickey Jr. served as farm director.)

Young Branch was given the unenviable task in spring training of breaking the bad news to minor leaguers that they had been released. Fortunately, the first player accepted the bad news philosophically. “I need to start on my career after baseball,” said the player, an infielder that planned to go to law school. He got his degree but returned to baseball and made his mark as a manager. His name? Tony LaRussa elected into the Hall of Fame earlier this month.

It is remarkable that a small and not very prosperous county like Scioto (pronounced Si-OH-ta) has produced so many great baseball people. “It must be because of the water,” Al Oliver likes to say. A former outstanding outfielder/first baseman with the Pirates and Texas Rangers, Oliver is now a pastor in Portsmouth and always delivers the opening banquet prayer.

He is featured on one mural along with Twins and Brewers outfielder Larry Hisle and three time-World Series-winning catcher/first baseman Gene Tenace. All three played on the same American Legion team in 1964. A high school classmate of theirs was Kathleen Battle, the renowned opera singer.

Other notable Scioto County baseball personages include southpaw Don Gullett whose possible Hall of Fame career was cut short by injury and Pat Borders, Toronto Blue Jays World Series-winning catcher. Two umpires also hail from the Portsmouth area, the active Greg Gibson and the retired Terry Craft, both of whom spoke effectively at the banquet.

Don Gullett also spoke well as did the legendary scout Gene Bennett who signed him and Hall of Famer Barry Larkin. Introduced in the audience were former Reds southpaw Tom Browning ("the only pitcher ever to throw a perfect game on Astroturf," he told me) and shortstop Johnnie Lemaster the only player ever to hit an inside-the-park home run on his first major league at-bat.

Also honored were the two-time HS baseball champs from Wheelersburg, a Scioto County town of barely 2000 people. Gene Bennett suggested that a great Little League program over the last half-century has served as an excellent feeder system for the high school.

It was a memorable night that lasted over four hours and didn't feel half as long. I think a special plaudit must go to the Ribber, a local restaurant that provided superior ribs and chicken for the affair.

MORE BANQUET NEWS:
On Friday night Jan 24 I attended the 49th annual New York Pro Scouts Hot Stove League dinner at Leonard’s restaurant in Great Neck just outside the NYC borough of Queens. The Friday night traffic was more horrendous than usual with slippery conditions to deal with from the recent snow and subsequent cold snap.

It was still well worth making the trek to an event I would never miss, especially since the devoted scouts honored me four years ago with their Jim Quigley Service to Baseball Award. (Quigley was a late scout and coach who never tired of working out and encouraging young players who wanted to follow their dream of playing baseball at the highest level.)

Emcee Ed Randall, the veteran broadcaster and tireless advocate for prostate cancer awareness, delivered as usual some memorable one-liners. Perhaps the best came from a T-shirt he swears he saw on a Cubs fan at the FanFest last July before the All-Star Game at CitiField: On the front it read: “WHAT DID JESUS SAY TO THE CHICAGO CUBS?” On the back came the answer: “DON’T DO ANYTHING UNTIL I COME BACK.”

Red Sox scout Ray Fagnant won the prestigious Turk Karam award as scout of the year.
It was a deserving honor for a longtime Bosox talent hunter who signed such future major leaguers as Lou Merloni and Carl Pavano. After all, the Red Sox (along with the Texas Rangers) have become a state-of-the-art organization in finding and developing talent.

Fagnant also deserves credit along with the Yankees' scout Matt Hyde for hosting every year a summer program for draft-eligible high school players from all over the country. They play games in both the Boston and New York areas with the highlight being a
a game at Yankee Stadium - the thrill of a lifetime for the youngsters.

Gene Michael was this year's featured speaker. He delivered thoughtful remarks in praise of the usually unacknowledged work of the scouts. “They are the life blood of the game,” he said more than once. He praised the work of the grassroots scouts who must project into the future the capabilities of amateur players who may always look good against inferior competition.

"How will they do against better competition?" That is the $64,000 Question. Michael said that a big key was looking for players that concentrated all the time and developed pitch recognition.

Michael himself scouted after his career as a shortstop primarily with the Pirates and Yankees. Then he became a manager and general manager under the volatile reign of George Steinbrenner. He can laugh about those days now because he has a less stressful job serving as a special assistant under the far less volatile Yankee general manager Brian Cashman. The audience laughed along with Michael as he shared some stories of The Boss’s imperial wackiness.

Next year will be the Golden Anniversary of the NY Pro Scouts Hot Stove League dinner. It is usually the next-to-last Friday in January. Mark it down.

These banquets always mark for me the start of the baseball season – a tremendous tonic along with the increasing daylight reminding us that baseball is on the way back.

I do feel a little unease about how the Yankees and the Dodgers are throwing around unfathomable amounts of money at free agents. I still believe that you cannot buy a pennant, but dishing out big dollars certainly can help a team get a leg up at contention.
Let’s hope that a surprise team or two will emerge in 2014 to make for another season of exciting unpredictable pennant races.

And always remember: Take it easy but take it.

The Return of Kerrane's "Dollar Sign on the Muscle"

January 6, 2014

Tags: Baseball scouting, Kevin Kerrane, Baseball Prospectus, Ben Lindbergh, Branch Rickey, Tim Collins, Mike Toomey, Leon Hamilton

Lovers of baseball and a good read will be thrilled to learn that after a quarter-century a new expanded edition of Kevin Kerrane’s classic "Dollar Sign on the Muscle: The World of Baseball Scouting" has been released. The title comes from the ever-quotable Branch Rickey who coined that phrase to describe the key moment when a talent evaluator and his superiors must decide how much a baseball prospect is worth.

That the book has been re-issued by Baseball Prospectus in its first foray into book publishing is more good news because BP has built its reputation concentrating too often for my taste on nearly incomprehensible “advanced metrics.” It is nice to see that they are also appreciating the importance of traditional scouting. In fact, its editor Ben Lindbergh recently attended and graduated from MLB's Scout School in Arizona and wrote excellent pieces on the experience for grantland.com

Originally published in 1984, Kerrane brought to the table a splendid mix of skills as a University of Delaware literature professor (he still teaches at the Newark campus) and as a onetime amateur baseball player. For "Dollar Sign" Kerrane enjoyed unprecedented access to baseball scouts during what turned out to be the first major in-season baseball strike in 1981. Kerrane was even able to sit in on some of the Philadelphia Phillies’ pre-draft discussions.

A widely published author of several literary anthologies, Kerrane has a great ear for the vivid language of scouts. “He runs like he’s waitin’ for his blockers,” snorts one after observing an athlete who had more success as a football player than a baseball player. “Looks like Tarzan. Runs like Jane,” pipes up another. Another scout declares definitively, “87 per cent of baseball is played beneath the waist.”

A fascinating ongoing discussion in the book concerns the importance or irrelevance of “the good face,” an old scouting term about an athlete who exudes aggressiveness and confidence. The book also features a searching examination of the methods by which Branch Rickey built his great farm system.

The handsome new edition comes with a color cover photo of Tim Collins, the Kansas City Royals’ diminutive flame-throwing reliever that KC scout Mike Toomey helped pluck out of a minor league organization. Kerrane has also added two new chapters based on his recent scouting expeditions and conversations with football as well as baseball scouts.

My only criticism is that some of the minor historical errors in the original edition were not corrected. Branch Rickey did not leave the Dodgers in 1949 but after the 1950 season. It was catcher Mickey Owen, not Owens, and brilliant scouting analyst Jim McLaughlin was bounced out of the Orioles organization before the 1961 season not 1962.

Nothing should stop you, though, from getting this new edition of the best book to date on scouting and one of the very best on baseball in general. It combines insight with passion and as winter continues its inexorable path early in 2014 it will warm your baseball-loving hot stove league fires.

As colorful scout Leon Hamilton told Kerrane, “I love baseball. I hope to die, when my time comes, in a ballpark. And I just hope that I don’t fall on the guy next to me when the tyin’ and winnin’ run is on base and keep him from seein’ in.“

That’s all for now. Just remember always: Take it easy but take it!

Featured Work

History
Story of baseball's reserve system and the men who fought to change it
Biography/Sports
“Lowenfish’s take is detailed and nuanced.... he doesn’t look for simple answers; despite his own abiding admiration, he never sugarcoats or presents Rickey in anything other than a three-dimensional light.”
–David Ulin, Los Angeles Times