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On The Trail of Hot Stove League Baseball: From Las Vegas to Hazelton, Pa. (updated and corrected)

I had never been to Las Vegas until I journeyed to baseball’s winter meetings earlier this December. I am not eager to go back but at least I can say that I walked some of The Strip - which I’d call Coney Island on steroids. I saw facsimiles of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building as well as a huge modern office building now called the Waldorf-Astoria.

As for the baseball meetings themselves, there were none of the major trades and free agent signings that used to be regular events at these gatherings. Historically, the focus of these meetings used to be on the minor leagues - the National Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, to be exact.

Hardly any press coverage was given minor league events but I've always been attracted to grass roots baseball. The most rewarding event for me occurred on the final night of the meetings.

It was The Scout of the Year presentations that honored four very worthy scouts who had paid their dues over the decades.
The Colorado Rockies’ Danny Montgomery, East Coast winner;
The Red Sox’s Brad Sloan, Midwest winner;
The Yankees’ Damon Oppenheimer, West Coast winner;
The Phillies’ Sal Agostinelli, International Scout winner.

Danny Montgomery has scouted in various capacities for the Colorado Rockies since 1992. He was instrumental in signing future major league outfielders Dexter Fowler and current Rockies stalwart Charlie Blackmon.

Montgomery has also been active in keeping alive the memory of legendary AfAm scout and coach Buck O’Neil. He is Vice-President of the Professional Baseball Scouts and Coaches Association, a group affiliated with Resilience Partners NFP in Chicago.

Montgomery is an inspiring speaker. Among his nuggets were: "It doesn't cost anything to be personable and to listen to people." Drawing perhaps on Dr. Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, he noted that he has found out that "the ones who truly want to change the world and those who cannot wait to get into it."

Brad Sloan finally won a World Series winner’s ring this season while scouting for the 2018 Red Sox (he had been with the 1998 San Diego Padres swept by the Yankees). I’ve always loved his simple explanation of a scout’s job - to bring “good players and good people” into the game.

Damon Oppenheimer also has a Padres connection, starting out as a 16-year-old peanut vendor at Jack Murphy Stadium (a park incidentally named for the sportswriter and brother of Mets’ legendary broadcaster Bob Murphy). Proudly watching the ceremony was Damon’s mother Priscilla, who served many years as director of the Padres’ minor league operations department.

Yankee gm Brian Cashman introduced Oppenheimer, lauding the scout's work since he joined the franchise in 2003. Cashman also gave homage to prior Yankee talent hunters and developers Bill Livesey and Brian Sabean (who went on to great success as San Francisco gm). He said they never got the credit they deserved for building the Yankee dynasty of the late 90s/early 2000s.

(Oppenheimer will also be one of the honorees on Saturday January 12 at Dennis Gilbert’s Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation “In The Spirit of the Game” dinner in Beverly Hills.)

Last but not least among the winners on Wed. Dec. 12 was irrepressible Bronx-born Sal Agostinelli. Originally signed by the Cardinals by former 1950s catcher-turned-scout Tim Thompson in a late 20s round of the draft, Sal was traded to Philadelphia in a minor league deal and has worked for the Phillies ever since.

Sal’s acceptance speech combined great mirth and genuine emotion. Away from his family more than half the year scouting, Sal quipped that after he was home for a while, his family asked, “When are you leaving?” He also made reference to a batting academy he runs with the slogan, “Even you can hit .222.”

Turning serious, Agostinelli gave heartfelt thanks to the Latin American community for making him feel so welcome. He expressed scouting’s collegial spirit at its best when he said, “There’s enough to go around - if I can’t get a player I hope you do.”

He added that it was “so rewarding to see Carlos Ruiz catch the last pitch” of the Phillies’ 2008 World Series victory over the Tampa Rays (on a strikeout from Brad Lidge). Agostinelli had signed Ruiz out of Davi, Panama for $8000.

The Scout of the Year organization is a longtime labor of love of Roberta Mazur. Born outside Pittsburgh, Roberta was an avid Pirates fan in the Roberto Clemente years. She continued her love for baseball when she went to work as secretary for California Angels executive Larry Himes. In the early 1990s she moved to West Palm Beach, Florida and worked for the Expos and has remained there since the Expos' 2004 demise.

She was on the ground floor of the Scout of the Year organization when it was founded in 1984 by scouting legends Hugh Alexander, Tony Pacheco, and Jim Russo. Kudos to Roberta Mazur for keeping this tradition alive for 35 years. Here’s to many many more.

ANOTHER LAS VEGAS HIGHLIGHT
I was fortunate earlier in the winter meetings to sit in on sessions sponsored by the on-line scouting school run by Sports Management World Wide. Rick White, successor to the late Joe Klein as president of the independent Atlantic League, spelled out in great detail the kind of 24/7 life an aspiring baseball executive can look forward to.

He gave some fascinating advice to job-seekers. Groundskeepers, scouts, and concession employees are the least consulted people at the ballparks. Contact them and pick their minds, he advised, and build your networks immediately and efficiently.


My adventures last week ended at the annual dinner benefit for Joe Maddon’s hometown Hazelton Integration Project (HIP). Joe Namath flew in for the occasion from Florida. Though he didn’t stay too long, he signed autographs and mingled with some of the attendees.

In an interview with the local Standard-Speaker newspaper, Namath expressed his love of baseball. He paid tribute to the late Tim Thompson, another Pennsylvania native and his roommate at the University of Alabama. Thompson pitched for the Crimson Tide and in the minor leagues before a career in coaching and scouting. (Namath’s Tim Thompson was no relation to the scout of the same name that inked Sal Agostinelli.)

On the Saturday after the benefit dinner, I was able to see HIP in operation at the abandoned Catholic school that has been turned into a vibrant community center.
It was State Police Day and the officers came in with pizzas to share with the largely Dominican community.

In the six years since HIP’s center opened, it has done remarkable work providing language classes, arts and music education as well as many athletic activities. HIP recently won a Renewal award from the Atlantic Monthly magazine, beating out many larger cities in a national competition.

Kudos to Joe Maddon, his first cousin Elaine Maddon Curry and longtime friends John Stahura and Bob Curry and HIP athletic director Daniel Jorge for the outstanding work they are doing. For more information check out hazeltonintegrationproject.com

One last item to mention in my rewarding last weeks of 2018. On a Sunday in late November I took part in a New York Sports Tour. It is a new project that takes participants on a luxury van tour past sports landmarks in midtown Manhattan.

I was able to tell stories of my life as a midtown Manhattanite born a block from Carnegie Hall and barely a half mile from Madison Square Garden and St. Nicholas Arena. The group also watched videotaped tales of sports in the city narrated by tennis great/commentator Mary Carrillo and baseball scorer Jordan Sprechman.

The adventure ended with a scrumptious meal at Keen’s Steak House, established in 1885 and still standing on W 36th Street just east of 6th Avenue. Not coincidentally, Keen’s is located two blocks north of the McAlpin Hotel where Jackie Robinson lived during the first months of his historic rookie of the year 1947 season.

For more information, check out newyorksports.tours

That’s all for 2018. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all. Back to you early in 2019. In the meantime always remember:
Take it easy but take it!
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Another Report From NYC Baseball Banquet Circuit + Preliminary Thoughts on Mets' New Acquisitions

I love the refreshing piney smell of Christmas trees that are now piling up on the sidewalks of Broadway in my Upper West Side NYC neighborhood. For a few moments, it makes me love the changing of seasons and forget that spring training is still several weeks away.

An even better antidote for the No-Baseball Blues is to attend a gathering of players, coaches, scouts, and fans as I did last week. For the first time I attended the Annual Raymond E. Church Service to Youth Baseball Awards Dinner at Russo’s On The Bay restaurant on Cross Bay Boulevard in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens not far from JFK Airport.

The function was sponsored by the Greater New York Sandlot Athletic Association (GNYSAA). My appetite for this event was whetted when I learned that the GNYSAA grew out of the New York Journal American/Hearst newspapers high school all-star game that was an annual event in NYC from 1946 through 1965.

88 future major leaguers played in a game that was held most of the time at the Polo Grounds. Among the future MLB stars that played in this game were Tommy Davis, Al Kaline, Harvey Kuenn, Bill Skowron, and Joe Torre. Kuenn played in it during its first years from 1946-1950 when it was billed as a New York versus The World competition. (Thanks to fellow SABR member Alan Cohen for this info.)

More storied names from the past were brought up by Frank Del George, one of the evening’s coaching excellence award winners. A product of the Brooklyn housing projects, Del George is currently head coach of St. Francis Prep and once was a star shortstop for St. Francis College of Brooklyn.

Del George remembered warmly that he had played for Frank Tepedino Sr. - father of future Yankee outfielder-first baseman Frank Tepedino - for the American Legion Cummings Brothers team. His double play partner? Future Yankee second baseman and Met manager Willie Randolph.

Guest speaker Nelson Figueroa, former Mets pitcher and current Mets cable TV commentator, also spoke very movingly about his roots of his career. He pointed out in the audience Anthony Iapoce, newly appointed Cubs batting coach, and noted that he and Iapoce had played for a USA Baseball 12-and-under team in Japan 32 years ago.

Nelson was under five feet and less than 100 pounds. But he made the team, one of 16 chosen out of 600 competing. He paid tribute to his Abraham Lincoln HS coach Joe Malone who believed in him despite his small stature. He thanked Malone for having him throw only fastballs and change-ups at that tender age.

Figueroa also saluted the longtime Youth Service coach Mel Zitter, mentor of Manny Ramirez and Shawon Dunston among others. Before “tough love” was a cliche, Zitter epitomized the no-nonsense coach who drove his charges very hard in early a.m. practices. He also made sure, Figueroa noted, that the Parade Grounds field was properly maintained so no one got hurt.

Zitter was in the audience, having made the long drive from his home in North Carolina to show his devotion to NYC grass roots baseball. Figueroa thanked Zitter for taking him to a youth tournament in Waltham, Mass where he made contacts with Brandeis University coaches.

He listed himself as 6 3 and over 150 pounds. but he was barely 6 feet and much lighter. Figueroa quipped that people often asked, “Where’s the rest of you?” Yet he went on to an outstanding college career, capped in 2015 by his election to the Brandeis University Athletic Hall of Fame, a honor worthy of the school’s only major leaguer.

An elegiac moment near the end of the evening was provided by Brother Robert Kent who was honored for his 50 years of service at St. Francis Prep as baseball coach, athletic director, and history teacher. Bemoaning that on the site where Ebbets Field once stood there is now a sign, “No Ball Playing Allowed,” he urged that we work towards a time when “more Willies, Mickeys, and Dukes” are developed in our area.

Next up on the NYC baseball banquet circuit is the grand-daddy of them all, the 54th annual New York Pro Scouts Hot Stove League dinner at Leonard’s at Great Neck on Northern Boulevard.

It will be held Friday January 25 starting at 630p. No tickets will be sold at the door but information can be obtained by contacting longtime Chicago Cubs scout Billy Blitzer at BBSCOUT1@aol.com

I’m off to baseball winter meetings in Las Vegas from Dec. 9-13. I will be back here with tales from those days of wheeling and dealing. Am not exactly thrilled that Jeff McNeil, the surprise of late last season for the Mets, will now be reduced to utility status with the acquisition of aging Robinson Cano from Seattle.

Another new acquisition 24-year-old Edwin Diaz, who led all of baseball with 57 saves, should help. But one never knows what happens to players in a new environment, especially in a pressure-cooker environment like New York. (See under Gray, Sonny.)

It will really be hand-wringing time if the Mets trade Noah Syndergaard. Woe to any baseball organization that feels because the MLB TV network will be providing 24/7 coverage of the meetings you must do "something." But good advice is always not to get too distraught about things that haven’t happened yet and that we have no control over.

So the best advice always remains: Take it easy but take it!  Read More 
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