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COMPETITORS AND COLLEAGUES: BASEBALL SCOUTING AT ITS BEST

The profile of John Tumminia that follows this introduction originally appeared on Johanna Wagner's lovemyteam.com website. I have been contributing monthly scout profiles to the site and veteran White Sox scout John Tumminia has a lot to say about his profession. Previously I profiled Billy Blitzer of the Cubs, Mel Didier currently with the Blue Jays and Mike Toomey currently with the Royals.

A lot of my summer commentary on baseball has also appeared on the booktrib.com website.

Scouting and player development are more essential than ever for baseball but the quick fixes of free agency and late-season trades get most of the headlines in an atmosphere of near-hysteria. Too bad. Baseball rewards the patient and those who understand the ebbs and flows of the game.

Longtime baseball executive Pat Gillick, who was a minor league southpaw in the Orioles organization before they became the Woerioles of recent years, talked
eloquently in his Hall of Fame induction speech at Cooperstown last month about his colleagues and rivals and their "respect for shared bonds greater than anyone of us."

In that spirit hope you enjoy this portrait of John Tumminia. See you later in the season. Am going to Branch Rickey Day in Portsmouth, Ohio on Sunday August 28 at 4pm. They will rededicate the flood wall mural of Rickey and Jackie Robinson by artist Robert Dafford. How appropriate because 66 years earlier in 1945 was the occasion of the historic first meeting of Rickey and Robinson. And now meet . . .

“John Tumminia, The Collegial Competitor”
A few years ago in accepting the prestigious Turk Karam award as Scout of the Year from the New York Professional Baseball Scouts Hot Stove League, veteran White Sox scout John Tumminia paid homage to his profession as one where you can enjoy being both a competitor and a colleague. He still feels that way despite the incessant demands of travel and the long hours at the ballpark.

Tumminia comes from the old school of scouting that will pay any price to get the job done. He wants to observe the expressions and carriage of the players when they get off the bus. He laments the demise of infield drills before a game that enables a scout to assess the condition and crispness of the athletes’ arms. He is not pleased that the new ballparks, both in the minors and the majors, make it difficult to get close to pitchers warming up in the bullpen, thus making evaluation harder.

“We have a lot of time all day and we have to get it right,” Tumminia told me the other day via cell phone from Norfolk, Virginia where he would soon watch the Phillies Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs farm club do battle with the Norfolk Tides, the Orioles affiliate in the International League. Like their parent club, the Tides are buried in the basement but like their parent club, the high-flying Phillies, the Iron Pigs are fighting for a pennant and have prospects that might be enticing to the White Sox in a future trade.

Tumminia was devoting special attention to Scott Mathieson, the Phillies’s promising young righthander who has survived two Tommy John elbow operations and has already pitched in Philadelphia this season. Though Tumminia considers himself a traditionalist, he has embraced the new technology and shared with me by e-mail a Flip camera shot of Mathieson warming up. The scout has also hired a photographer to take still camera shots of other prospects from opposing organizations to share with the main office in Chicago.

Tumminia feels gratified that in his work as pro scout three of his trade recommendations are now key parts of the 2011 White Sox: starting pitcher Gavin Floyd, who the Chicagoans obtained in a 2007 trade with the Phillies; speedy infielder-outfielder Brent Lillibridge, acquired from the Braves in 2009 and whom Yankee fans will ruefully remember for his spectacular ninth inning right field catches earlier this season at Yankee Stadium; and most recently, young righthander Zach Stewart who was obtained just before the July 31 trading deadline in the major deal that sent center fielder Colby Rasmus to Toronto and righthander Edwin Jackson (who seemingly is traded every year) to St. Louis.

Stewart pitched six solid innings in a winning debut with the Chisox last week, making the scout feel that his appraisals were valued enough that Chicago’s aggressive general manager Kenny Williams was willing to make the deal.

For most of his career Tumminia worked as an area scout in the Northeast and that work is rarely immediately rewarding. When he was enshrined two years ago in the Hudson Valley wing of the Professional Scouts Hall of Fame at Duchess County Stadium in Fishkill, New York (a project of the Goldklang group of minor league franchises whose development and marketing maven is the scout’s daughter Tyler Tumminia), his plaque paid homage to two pitchers who the White Sox drafted but never played in Chicago:

Eric Gagne, a 24th round draft choice who Tumminia had projected positively since high school but went on to success with the Dodgers and the Rangers, and Josh Rupe, a third-round draft choice who never made his mark in the majors and was recently released by the Orioles.

It is the process of discovery that keeps him excited about and devoted to his job. “You’re always finding things out,” Tumminia declares, adding that you must adjust your evaluations with new evidence. He has never forgotten the words of wisdom from Roland Hemond, his onetime White Sox colleague who last month won Cooperstown’s prestigious Buck O’Neil Service to Baseball award: “Learn how to change your report.” Don’t fall in love with a prospect so deeply that you cannot see his flaws.

Tumminia’s first mentor Al Goldis, who hired him as a birddog for the Angels in 1986 and shortly thereafter hired him as a full-time White Sox area scout, always encouraged Tumminia to ask basic questions about the game. For instance, “When does the batter begin to hit?” It is not in the batter’s box but in the dugout and on the way to the on-deck circle as he prepares for the formidable task of hitting a baseball.

Another Tumminia mentor, the late George Bradley, who passed away much too young at 58 in 2001, used to ask about evaluating pitchers: “What happens when the ball crosses the plate?” The numbers on the radar gun are not the determinative factor but rather how did the pitch move? Did it sink? Did it sail? And how did the batter react to the ball? What kind of swing did he take? What part of the bat met the ball?

Tumminia is one of those scouts who believes that the real test of an evaluator’s mettle is finding the hidden talents buried in the middle and last rounds of the amateur free agent draft. He lavishes great praise on his New York area colleague the Cardinals’ Joe Rigoli who signed Jason Motte, a former Iona of New Rochelle college catcher, in the 19th round in 2003 and is now a key component of Tony LaRussa’s bullpen. In 1991 Rigoli awed Tumminia by inking another righthanded pitcher John Frascatore who emerged from the 24th round to enjoy a seven-year major league career. (Rigoli told me that his favorite signing was “Super” Joe McEwing who rose from the 28th round in 1992 to contribute significantly at the major league level for the Cardinals and Mets and now manages the Charlotte Knights, the White Sox Triple-A affiliate in the International League.)

Tumminia, an intense yet poetic man, once said, “You must give your whole arteries to the game” because there is nothing half-way about either scouting or playing. However, to conserve his passion, he makes it a point to meditate every day, usually between 1 and 3 pm before he heads to the ballpark. Tom “T-Bone” Giordano, the legendary octogenarian scout (who once outhomered Hank Aaron in a minor league season and is still a trusted consultant for the Rangers), strongly urged the practice as relaxation therapy.

Having once seriously considered studying for the priesthood, Tumminia welcomed the chance to “think of nothing” and recharge his batteries for the adventure of the next game. And if you are lucky – as I was nearly 25 years ago when I met him when we were running for shelter during a rainstorm before a minor league game - you may encounter John Tumminia at that next game, assessing, evaluating and projecting what the future might bring.






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