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The Legend of Harry Billie

Pittsburgh Pirates scout George Zuraw had seen the arm. He knew what was coming. As 20-year-old Harry Billie prepared to unleash a throw from right field at the Pirates’ spring training site in Fort Myers, Florida, Zuraw tried to warn the catcher, Sam Narron. “Be careful,” Zuraw yelled to Narron. Narron took the warning as an insult… 

Good Prospect, Bad X-ray

Veteran scouts describe the scouting profession as both collegial and competitive. It’s an exclusive club. Scouts often run into each other at ballparks across the country. Friendships develop. There are times when scouts from competing teams will help out a friend on a rival team. Former White Sox scout John Tumminia gives an example based on his experiences as a pro scout… 

Baseball Stories

The New York Mets drafted first baseman Marshall Brant in the fourth round of the 1975 amateur draft.  Standing 6’5″ and weighing 185 pounds, Brant was an excellent athlete capable of crushing monstrous home runs. He enjoyed success in the minor leagues, collecting 185 homers and batting .270 in nine seasons. However, he was never able to find a home on a major league roster. His major league experience was limited to eight games, three with the New York Yankees in 1980 and five with the Oakland Athletics in 1983. In those eight games, Brant went to bat 20 times and produced two hits, both singles… 

One Strikeout Away from the Majors

Harry Minor’s name does not appear in the Baseball Encyclopedia but, on paper at least, he made it to the major leagues.  In 1953, the Philadelphia Athletics recalled Minor toward the end of the season.  He was to join the Athletics as soon as his minor league team, the Savannah Indians, completed its games.

In the last game of Savannah’s regular season, Minor and his teammates took on the Jacksonville Braves, a team that featured future major leaguers Henry Aaron, Felix Mantilla, and Ray Crone.  A loss to the Braves would wrap up Savannah’s schedule and put Minor on a bus to the big leagues.  Late in the game, Savannah trailed Jacksonville by one run… 

How Did Roberto Do It?

Roberto Clemente played his last game in the major leagues on October 3, 1972. Nearly 50 years after Clemente’s final at-bat, Miami Marlins scout Joe Caro continues to marvel at how Clemente did it.

“How did Clemente make contact with the ball?” Caro asks.  Elaborating further, Caro notes that hitting coaches emphasize the need for batters to have a good foundation and to swing under control.  In contrast, he says… 

Joe Caro’s Greatest Story

As a high school pitcher, Miami Marlins scout Joe Caro thought he was on track to be the next Tom Seaver. A resident of Tampa , Florida, Caro transferred to Tampa Catholic High School for his senior year. The lure was not the school’s religious education program; at the time, Caro wasn’t even a practicing Catholic. He transferred because he wanted to play for the best baseball school he could find.

By the time Caro turned 21, his dream of playing professional baseball had ended. Caro turned to coaching. From 1980 to 1993, he was a head baseball coach at three different high schools, including his alma mater. During his time as coach at Tampa Catholic, Caro had the opportunity to work with a young pitcher named Carlos Reyes. Caro calls Reyes his “greatest story in baseball…” 

What Scouting Is All About

Sam Hughes, an area scout for the Chicago Cubs, liked outfielder Buck Coats from the start. Coats played for Valdosta High School in Valdosta, Georgia. He was not a known commodity; only Hughes had shown any interest. But, at six-foot-three and almost 200 pounds, Coats was athletic and well-built. In the days leading up to the 2000 draft, Hughes visited Coats and his mother in their home. Coats told Hughes that he was planning to attend Valdosta State College.

Hughes could see that Coats and his mother did not have an easy life…

A Rookie in Awe

C.J. Nitkowski knew his place. As a 22-year-old rookie with the Cincinnati Reds in 1995, Nitkowski didn’t talk much in the clubhouse. He tended not to speak unless someone spoke to him first. Cincinnati’s second baseman, Bret Boone, passed by Nitkowski’s locker one day and jokingly told him, “C.J., you need to shut up…” 

A Tale of Two Quarterbacks

The San Diego Padres had a notably poor draft in 1992.  Of the first 22 players that the Padres selected, only three—first baseman Todd Helton and pitchers Brett Laxton and Todd Erdos—would make it to the major leagues. Of the three, only Erdos signed with San Diego.  Both Helton and Laxton passed up offers from the Padres and, instead, enrolled in college.  For Padres general manager, Joe McIlvaine, the selection of Helton in the second round was particularly unsettling… 

Girardi’s Promise

Gary Nickels has had a role in drafting several notable big league ballplayers. His signees include pitchers Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley, and catcher A.J. Ellis, among others. However, it was the signing of catcher Joe Girardi that will always hold a special place among Nickels’ baseball memories.

When Girardi was 13 years old, his mother, Angela, was diagnosed with cancer. Her doctors told her that she had three to six months to live… 

Batting Woes

 The gentleman on the telephone was J.P. Ricciardi, former minor league infielder, former general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. He had played college ball at St. Leo College in Florida and then spent two years in the New York Mets organization.

A gritty player and smooth fielder during his playing days, Ricciardi found it difficult to convert effort into production at the plate. The talk turned to Augie Schmidt, a contemporary of Ricciardi, who had endured similar struggles as a minor leaguer with the Blue Jays. There was a comment that Schmidt would sometimes wake up in his hotel room at 2 a.m… 

Darrell Miller’s “Major Crush”

There was a time when Darrell Miller had his sights set on going to medical school.  Toward that end, in addition to the standard core of high school science classes, Miller took three years of Latin during his time at Ramona High School in Riverside, California.  In Miller’s junior year, he developed a “major crush” on Cindy Cohenour, the social chairwoman for the Class of 1975.

As luck would have it, Cindy occupied the seat immediately in front of Miller in Latin class.  One day during the class, perhaps in a bid to make an impression on Cindy, Miller began quietly singing Elton John’s hit song, Bennie and the Jets… 

A Different View of Chad Mottola

Ron Rizzi, special assistant to Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, has been involved in scouting, in one capacity or another, for more than 40 years. He grew up in the Bronx, where he attended Columbus High School. A pitcher and third baseman, Rizzi was the Public Schools Athletic League batting champion in 1964 and was named All-City in 1963 and 1964. He captained the baseball team at the City College of New York in the 1960s and once struck out 20 batters in a game against Manhattan College. After a rotator cuff injury in college ended Rizzi’s aspirations of playing pro ball, he turned to scouting… 

Bo Jackson, Derek Jeter, Kyle Schwarber, Roberto Clemente, and Carlos Reyes.

Legend of Harry Billie

Pittsburgh Pirates scout George Zuraw had seen the arm. He knew what was coming. As 20-year-old Harry Billie prepared to unleash a throw from right field at the Pirates’ spring training site in Fort Myers, Florida, Zuraw tried to warn the catcher, Sam Narron. “Be careful,” Zuraw yelled to Narron. Narron took the warning as an insult. He had been a catcher with the 1935 St. Louis Cardinals, when Dizzy Dean was in his prime. He had caught some of the best arms in baseball. Then the throw came whizzing in from right field. Narron handled it cleanly, but it left an impact. Zuraw heard Narron exclaim, “Wow!”

There was a time when Harry Billie prompted a similar reaction from coaches, scouts and fellow players alike. He was a full-blooded Seminole who had grown up on the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation near Everglades City, Florida. He stood five-feet-eleven and 180 pounds but played much bigger, a man among boys. He was listed as a shortstop, third baseman, and catcher but he could play every position on the diamond. He also excelled in football and basketball.

Zuraw once saw Billie play in a game for the Naples High School football team. A flanker, Billie leaped for a pass that had been overthrown. As he jumped, Billie tipped the ball over the defender with his right hand. Still in the air, he caught the ball with his left hand and went in for the touchdown. For Zuraw, it was the greatest play he had ever seen at any level of football.

In 1964, Billie signed with the Pirates. In spring training that year, he hit against Virgil Trucks, who had retired a few years earlier after a 17-year major league career. Trucks threw 15 balls. Billie hit ten of them out of the park. Billie spent four years in the Pirates’ organization, mostly in the low minors. He never hit well, compiling a .230 batting average over the four seasons. Some say that Billie never had a chance, that he was unable to adjust to living off the reservation and in a “white man’s world.”

There were reports that he had bounced some checks. Whatever problems Billie may have had with the law, Zuraw termed his conduct “harmless.” More than fifty years after first seeing Billie play baseball, Zuraw insists that he had “as good a set of tools as anybody I have ever seen.”

Good Prospect, Bad X-Ray

Veteran scouts describe the scouting profession as both collegial and competitive. It’s an exclusive club. Scouts often run into each other at ballparks across the country. Friendships develop. There are times when scouts from competing teams will help out a friend on a rival team. Former White Sox scout John Tumminia gives an example based on his experiences as a pro scout. Tumminia says that if a scout is lacking information on a certain player, opposing scouts who have become friends will provide data to fill in the gaps.

For Tumminia, it was always a small group that he would trust, perhaps no more than six or seven. While the friendships formed among rival scouts are lasting, the job is distinctly competitive. Tumminia shared a close bond with Billy Blitzer of the Chicago Cubs, but he never wanted to see Blitzer get a player for the Cubs whom Tumminia liked. “I want to get that player at a higher pick than the Cubs,” Tumminia says.

Tumminia spent 32 years as a scout. For roughly half of his career, he scouted amateur players at the high school and college levels. He spent the latter sixteen years scouting professional players at all levels, from rookie ball to the majors. From his years scouting amateur players, Tumminia fondly recalls the excitement that developed as the teams prepared for the amateur draft each June. “When it comes to the draft,” Tumminia says, “that’s a special couple of days where your name is attached to a player — and there’s a lot of pride and ego involved in this too — there’s a lot of pride in getting a player.” Over the years, the “pride and ego” that Tumminia experienced in getting a player — and, indeed, the very competitive nature of the business — has led scouts to employ an assortment of tricks to ward off rival scouts.

Veteran Dodgers scout Carl Loewenstine started in scouting in 1973. He was assigned to cover the Midwestern states. For Loewenstine, when he came across a legitimate prospect in the Midwest, it was something special.” “You can go a couple of weeks in the Midwest before you see a hotshot prospect,” Loewenstine says, whereas in areas like California, Florida or Texas, “they see hotshots twice a week.”

In the late 1970s, at a time when Loewenstine was still very much in the learning stages of his career, he became enthralled with a pitcher from the University of Kentucky. Loewenstine found it difficult to contain his excitement. One day while the prospect was pitching, Cincinnati Reds scout Gene Bennett, a wily veteran, approached Loewenstine, pointed to the mound and said, “He’s a pretty good pitcher, isn’t he, Carl?” Loewenstine responded, “Man, I tell you what, Gene, he looks pretty good to me. I really like him.”

Bennett replied, “The only thing wrong is, it’s a shame about his back.”  I said, “What are you talking about, Gene?” Bennett then pulled out a radiology film from his briefcase. Loewenstine recalls, “the flim showed a man’s spine and it’s got two or three screws in it.” Bennett held the film up to the sun and you could see the screws and all the patch jobs on the spine. “That’s his x-ray there,” Bennett said. “His back isn’t very good.”

Only years later did Loewenstine learn that Bennett had often pulled out the same x-ray for any number of pitchers, trying to run other scouts off a prized prospect.

Baseball Stories

The New York Mets drafted first baseman Marshall Brant in the fourth round of the 1975 amateur draft. Standing 6'5" and weighing 185 pounds, Brant was an excellent athlete capable of crushing monstrous home runs. He enjoyed success in the minor leagues, collecting 185 homers and batting .270 in nine seasons. However, he was never able to find a home on a major league roster. His major league experience was limited to eight games, three with the New York Yankees in 1980 and five with the Oakland Athletics in 1983. In those eight games, Brant went to bat 20 times and produced two hits, both singles.

Midway through Brant’s baseball career, he spent three seasons with the Triple-A Columbus Clippers, during which he hit 79 home runs and drove in 283 runs. Brant was so productive and so popular in Columbus that, after his tenure with the Clippers ended, the team retired his uniform number 33—the only number ever to be retired in the history of the franchise. Not even future Hall-of-Famer Derek Jeter, who played shortstop for Columbus for two seasons in the 1990s, earned that honor.

“People ask me about my baseball career,” Brant once said. “I don’t have great stories to share. The next step never happened for me. But when I do talk, it’s always about Columbus.”

For Danny Graham, also a journeyman ballplayer, the experience of playing baseball brought both greater success at the major league level and more stories.

One Strikeout Away from the Majors

Harry Minor’s name does not appear in the Baseball Encyclopedia but, on paper at least, he made it to the major leagues.  In 1953, the Philadelphia Athletics recalled Minor toward the end of the season.  He was to join the Athletics as soon as his minor league team, the Savannah Indians, completed its games.

In the last game of Savannah’s regular season, Minor and his teammates took on the Jacksonville Braves, a team that featured future major leaguers Henry Aaron, Felix Mantilla, and Ray Crone.  A loss to the Braves would wrap up Savannah’s schedule and put Minor on a bus to the big leagues.  Late in the game, Savannah trailed Jacksonville by one run.  Savannah had a runner on second base but was down to its last out.  Crone, winner of 19 games that season, was on the mound for Jacksonville.  In 253 innings, he had yielded only seven home runs.  With the game on the line, Harry Minor strode to the plate.  Minor worked the count to two balls and two strikes.  Crone let loose with a pitch but Minor did not bite.  Confident the pitch had found the plate, Crone began to walk off the field.  The umpire, however, yelled “ball,” prolonging Savannah’s season for one more pitch. With the count at 3-2, Crone went back to work.  On the next pitch,  Minor took a hearty cut and connected.  As the broadcasters are inclined to say, “the ball wasn’t coming back.”  Minor circled the bases and crossed the plate with the winning run.

Minor’s blast allowed Savannah to finish one game ahead of the Macon Peaches, earning the Indians a spot in the South Atlantic League playoffs. Savannah then embarked on an extended march through the playoffs. Weeks later, Savannah’s season ended.  Minor promptly called the Athletics to tell them he was on his way.  By then, however, the Athletics were on their final road trip of the season, with two games against the Yankees in New York and a season-ending series against the Senators in Washington. Philadelphia told Minor not to bother making the trip. “We’ll do it next year,” the front office said.

For Minor, “next year” never came.  He again had a productive  season in 1954 but, at the age of 26, time was not on his side. Minor played pro ball for seven more years but never again came within striking distance of the major leagues. His career took him south to Birmingham and west to Little Rock and Salinas but never north to the majors. In the ultimate irony, Minor’s home run deprived him of his ticket to the big leagues. “If I had struck out,” he would say wistfully, “we wouldn’t have been in the playoffs, but you don’t think about those things.”

How Did Roberto Do It?

Roberto Clemente played his last game in the major leagues on October 3, 1972. Nearly 50 years after Clemente’s final at-bat, Miami Marlins scout Joe Caro continues to marvel at how Clemente did it.

“How did Clemente make contact with the ball?” Caro asks. Elaborating further, Caro notes that hitting coaches emphasize the need for batters to have a good foundation and to swing under control. In contrast, he says, “it looked like Roberto was on a skateboard when he was hitting. No foundation.” Employing only a small measure of hyperbole, Caro says, “He’s stepping in the bucket, his rear end is in the dugout, it looks like he’s on a pair of skates.”

Like many observers, Caro was mystified. “You wondered how he could get to the balls that he got to, but he did,” says Caro. “He would hit baseballs that were at his neck and breaking balls that bounced in the dirt.”

The truly amazing part for Caro is that, “Three thousand hits later, the guy is in the Hall of Fame.”

Joe Caro’s Greatest Story

As a high school pitcher, Miami Marlins scout Joe Caro thought he was on track to be the next Tom Seaver. A resident of Tampa , Florida, Caro transferred to Tampa Catholic High School for his senior year. The lure was not the school’s religious education program; at the time, Caro wasn’t even a practicing Catholic. He transferred because he wanted to play for the best baseball school he could find.

By the time Caro turned 21, his dream of playing professional baseball had ended. Caro turned to coaching. From 1980 to 1993, he was a head baseball coach at three different high schools, including his alma mater. During his time as coach at Tampa Catholic, Caro had the opportunity to work with a young pitcher named Carlos Reyes. Caro calls Reyes his “greatest story in baseball.”

Reyes went undrafted out of college but signed with the Atlanta Braves as a free agent in June 1991. In three minor league seasons, he held opponents to an average of 2.53 runs per nine innings. His performance drew the attention of the Oakland Athletics, who acquired Reyes prior to the 1994 season. Reyes made his major league debut on April 7, 1994. In the hours before the game, when Reyes learned that he was headed to the big leagues, he telephoned Caro to convey the news. Caro immediately broke into tears. Reyes, he explained, is “my surrogate son.”

Caro never quite understood the reason for Reyes’s success. He doubts that Reyes’ fastball ever reached 88 miles an hour. “He never ever should have pitched in the big leagues,” Caro says, “but he was the opening day starter for the Oakland Athletics [in 1996]. It’s the most unbelievable story I have ever personally heard of.”

For Caro, the key to Reyes’s success lay in his intangibles. Caro marveled at Reyes’ pitching instincts. Reyes, he says, “was blessed with a brilliant pitching mind, knowing how to change speeds and being able to move the ball around and read the swings of hitters.”

Reyes pitched for eight seasons in the big leagues, appeared in 293 games, and won 20 games against 36 losses, with a 4.66 earned run average.

What Scouting Is All About

Sam Hughes, an area scout for the Chicago Cubs, liked outfielder Buck Coats from the start. Coats played for Valdosta High School in Valdosta, Georgia. He was not a known commodity; only Hughes had shown any interest. But, at six-foot-three and almost 200 pounds, Coats was athletic and well-built. In the days leading up to the 2000 draft, Hughes visited Coats and his mother in their home. Coats told Hughes that he was planning to attend Valdosta State College.

Hughes could see that Coats and his mother did not have an easy life. He tried to be helpful. Hughes told Coats that if he enrolled at Valdosta State, the Cubs would follow his progress and keep him in mind for the draft after his junior year. Another option, the scout suggested, was for Coats to play at a junior college team coached by a friend of Hughes. Hughes also mentioned a third option—if Coats wanted to turn pro, the Cubs could draft him, but Hughes would not be able to offer any more than $37,000.

After meeting with Coats, Hughes drove from Valdosta back to Atlanta. When Hughes got back to Atlanta, he found that Coats had left a voice mail message on Hughes’s landline phone. The message said, “Mr. Hughes, call me as soon as you get this message.” Hughes returned the call. Coats told Hughes, “I want to sign. I wanted to hurry up and call you because I didn’t want you to change your mind. I really wanted to run you down in the parking lot of my apartment.”

The Cubs selected Coats in the 18th round of the 2000 draft. Four days after the draft, he signed for $37,000. Coats made it to the major leagues in 2006.  Though never a household name, he spent parts of three seasons in the majors with the Cubs, Reds and Blue Jays. He hit his only major league home run in his rookie season off Aaron Harang.

Hughes has always felt a special affinity for Coats. He says, “That’s what it is all about—to get a phone call from a kid who didn’t have much in Valdosta, Georgia and who didn’t sign for much and yet grinded his way through our system and then you get that phone call from him and he tells you that he’s been called up to the big leagues. That’s what scouting is all about, finding those diamonds in the rough, the ones who aren’t as sexy as others but you saw something in them and you feel like you, as the scout, are in the same boat with the player and then they make it all the way up.”

A Rookie in Awe

C.J. Nitkowski knew his place. As a 22-year-old rookie with the Cincinnati Reds in 1995, Nitkowski didn’t talk much in the clubhouse. He tended not to speak unless someone spoke to him first. Cincinnati’s second baseman, Bret Boone, passed by Nitkowski’s locker one day and jokingly told him, “C.J., you need to shut up.”

Nitkowski’s first major league appearance came on June 3, 1995 against the St. Louis Cardinals. He was wearing uniform number 49, the same number worn by his boyhood hero, New York Yankees pitcher Ron Guidry. Called on as a relief pitcher in the seventh inning, Nitkowski faced four batters, threw 17 pitches, and gave up one hit but no runs. Nitkowski vividly remembers walking off the mound after getting the third out. “I was sweating like crazy,” he says, “and thinking, ‘What just happened?’”

He had just thrown a shutout inning in the major leagues. Barry Larkin had caught the third out. A year earlier, Nitkowski was playing for the Chattanooga Lookouts in the Southern League and using Larkin on his video game.

When reflecting on the speed at which things happen at the major league level, Nitkowski says, “It can go really fast. It’s really helpful to be surrounded by good people who can talk you through that stuff.”

A Tale of Two Quarterbacks

The San Diego Padres had a notably poor draft in 1992. Of the first 22 players that the Padres selected, only three—first baseman Todd Helton and pitchers Brett Laxton and Todd Erdos—would make it to the major leagues. Of the three, only Erdos signed with San Diego. Both Helton and Laxton passed up offers from the Padres and, instead, enrolled in college. For Padres general manager, Joe McIlvaine, the selection of Helton in the second round was particularly unsettling.

Helton had starred in both baseball and football at Central High School in his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. As a senior, Helton, a quarterback, accounted for 2,772 combined  yards passing and rushing. He was even better in baseball, hitting 12 home runs and posting a batting average of .655. McIlvaine had always been wary of drafting high school players from the South who had played football. “Football is just so dominant in the South,” he says, “there is so much that goes along with being a football star in the South.”

Before the Padres made the decision to draft Helton, McIlvaine grilled Reggie Waller, the Padres director of scouting. Waller assured McIlvaine that Helton would forego college and sign with the Padres. Three times McIlvaine asked Waller, “Are you sure?” Each time, Waller assured McIlvaine that Helton was going to sign. After the draft, when the Padres attempted to negotiate with Helton, he turned the team down. His heart was set on playing football for the University of Tennessee. In McIlvaine’s view, it was as if Helton didn’t have a choice. “He felt like he had an obligation,” McIlvaine concluded, “that he had to go to the University.” Years later, when reflecting on Helton’s decision, McIlvaine remarked, “it was all because of the mentality of Southern boys about football.”

At the college level, Helton proved to be better in baseball than football. He never gained the starting quarterback position at Tennessee. He served as the backup to Heath Shuler for two seasons and then was second string to Peyton Manning for one year. Helton spent three years at Tennessee before being drafted by the Colorado Rockies in the first round in 1995. He went on to play 17 seasons in the majors, all with the Rockies.

By 2001, McIlvaine had moved on to the Minnesota Twins as a special assistant to general manager Terry Ryan. The Twins had the first overall pick in the draft that year. Early on, the Twins identified high school catcher Joe Mauer as the player they wanted. Mauer was a hometown kid, born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. Like Helton, Mauer had been an outstanding football player in high school. According to McIlvaine, Mauer might have been the best high school quarterback in the country. Unlike Helton, however, McIlvaine had no doubt that Mauer intended to play pro baseball.

In the days before the 2001 draft, a scout for the Twins had visited Mauer at his home. During the visit, Mauer and the scout talked in Mauer’s bedroom. After the visit, the scout reported back to the Twins that all of the pictures on Mauer’s bedroom wall were baseball pictures. “This is the difference between a Northern kid and a Southern kid,” McIlvaine says. “A Southern kid would have all football pictures on his bedroom wall. A Northern kid tends to be much more open to baseball.”

Girardi’s Promise

Gary Nickels has had a role in drafting several notable big league ballplayers. His signees include pitchers Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley, and catcher A.J. Ellis, among others. However, it was the signing of catcher Joe Girardi that will always hold a special place among Nickels’ baseball memories.

When Girardi was 13 years old, his mother, Angela, was diagnosed with cancer. Her doctors told her that she had three to six months to live. Angela ended up surviving for six years, succumbing in 1984. Girardi tells people that his mother was a woman of faith. “At the end,” he says, “she had a vision the Lord had his arms open for her, and it was time for her to come home.” In the time before Angela died, Girardi made a promise to his mother that he would continue in school and earn his college degree.

At the time of Angela’s death, Girardi was a sophomore at Northwestern University and a fixture at catcher for the university’s baseball team. Nickels, then scouting for the Chicago Cubs, had followed Girardi during his college career and believed he possessed major league potential. When Girardi became eligible for the major league draft in 1985, after his junior year, Nickels briefly gave thought to recommending that the Cubs draft him. However, Girardi had made it clear to Nickels that he intended to fulfill his promise to his mother and would remain at Northwestern for his senior year.

The Cubs passed on Girardi in 1985. He received his degree the following year, and the Cubs then drafted him with their fifth round pick in June 1986. Three years later, Girardi was catching for the Cubs.

Always high on Girardi, Nickels became even more convinced that Girardi would go far in baseball when he saw his determination to fulfill the promise he had made. Nickels says, “It meant a lot to me that he would make that decision. He was going to honor his commitment to his mother.”

Years later, Nickels still cherishes his experience with Girardi. “That was a pleasant one,” he says, “because he had a long career as a catcher and a very good career as a manager and has had quite an impact on the game over the last 30 years.”

Batting Woes

The gentleman on the telephone was J.P. Ricciardi, former minor league infielder, former general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. He had played college ball at St. Leo College in Florida and then spent two years in the New York Mets organization.

A gritty player and smooth fielder during his playing days, Ricciardi found it difficult to convert effort into production at the plate. The talk turned to Augie Schmidt, a contemporary of Ricciardi, who had endured similar struggles as a minor leaguer with the Blue Jays. There was a comment that Schmidt would sometimes wake up in his hotel room at 2 a.m. to work on his swing. Ricciardi said, “If Augie was up one night a week swinging his bat, I was probably up seven nights a week swinging my bat.”

Ricciardi related that he once was traveling from Florida to his home in Massachusetts with two of his college teammates. Traveling on Interstate 95, the three students encountered engine troubles in Connecticut. They stopped at a truck rest area for repairs. With nothing better to do, Ricciardi took out his baseball bat and started swinging. A Mayflower van passed by. The driver tooted his horn. Ricciardi continued swinging.

Fifteen minutes later, the same Mayflower truck pulled into the rest area. The driver had known Ricciardi from his time at Worcester State College. Ricciardi and the driver exchanged greetings. The driver told Ricciardi, “I knew there would only be one nut swinging a bat on I-95 at this truck stop. I knew it had to be you.”

Ricciardi concluded the story with a ballplayer’s observation: “You never stop trying to get better. And when you don’t have success, you never stop trying to figure out why and how.”

Darrell Miller’s “Major Crush”

There was a time when Darrell Miller had his sights set on going to medical school.  Toward that end, in addition to the standard core of high school science classes, Miller took three years of Latin during his time at Ramona High School in Riverside, California.  In Miller’s junior year, he developed a “major crush” on Cindy Cohenour, the social chairwoman for the Class of 1975.

As luck would have it, Cindy occupied the seat immediately in front of Miller in Latin class.  One day during the class, perhaps in a bid to make an impression on Cindy, Miller began quietly singing Elton John’s hit song, Bennie and the Jets.  Miller admits to having butchered the lyrics.  “What are you singing?” Cindy asked over her shoulder.  “Bennie and the Jets,” Miller replied.  “Those aren’t the words,” Cindy chided him.  She quickly scribbled the correct lyrics on a piece of paper and passed the words to Miller.  Properly humbled, Miller sang no more.  “Wow!” he could only think, “who knows the lyrics?”

More adept at baseball than he was at singing, Miller proved to be a solid hitter and an agile catcher throughout his high school career and began drawing the attention of major league teams.  He continued his education at California Polytechnic State University in Pomona, where he gained a reputation as an excellent defensive catcher and a clutch hitter.

The local California Angels, among other teams, were paying close attention.  One day while Miller was playing for Cal Poly, an Angels scout introduced himself.  “Lou Cohenour,” the scout said.  Miller immediately recognized the name.  The scout was, of course, Cindy’s father.  The Angels ended up drafting Miller in the 9th round of the 1979 amateur draft. It was Lou Cohenour who signed Miller to his first professional contract.

In 1984, Miller’s sixth year in pro ball, he hit .326 for Triple-A Edmonton, earning a promotion to the Angels. Miller would spend the next five seasons in the majors as a reserve outfielder and catcher, hitting .241 in 224 games.

A Different View of Chad Mottola

Ron Rizzi, special assistant to Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, has been involved in scouting, in one capacity or another, for more than 40 years. He grew up in the Bronx, where he attended Columbus High School. A pitcher and third baseman, Rizzi was the Public Schools Athletic League batting champion in 1964 and was named All-City in 1963 and 1964. He captained the baseball team at the City College of New York in the 1960s and once struck out 20 batters in a game against Manhattan College. After a rotator cuff injury in college ended Rizzi’s aspirations of playing pro ball, he turned to scouting.

In his youth, Rizzi was an ardent fan of the New York Yankees. He has indelible memories of seeing 24-year-old outfielder Bill Robinson struggle to get acclimated to the major leagues. Robinson, whom the Yankees had hoped would succeed Mickey Mantle as the team’s next great center fielder, hit a paltry .206 in three seasons in New York. He then spent the next two years in the minors, where he worked to regain both his confidence and his hitting stroke. In 1972, at the age of 29, Robinson made it back to the major leagues for good with the Philadelphia Phillies. Over the next eleven seasons, with both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Robinson hit .274 with 142 home runs and 527 runs batted in.

Some players, Ron Rizzi says, just take time to develop. Bill Robinson is a prime example. Rizzi maintains that Chad Mottola, the first-round pick of the Cincinnati Reds in 1992, is another example. Mottola failed in his first exposure to the major leagues in 1996, batting only .215 for Cincinnati in 35 games. Overall, in 59 games in the major leagues, Mottola had a cumulative batting average of .200. However, Mottola’s minor league record depicts a vastly different player.

In five minor league seasons from 1997 to 2001, Mottola hit above .300 three times. In those five seasons, Mottola never hit below .295. In 1999, while playing for Triple-A Charlotte, he hit .321 with 20 home runs. In 2000, with Triple-A Syracuse, he hit .309 with 33 home runs. Mottola’s career progression seems to have been limited not by a lack of talent so much as by the stigma of his early failure with Cincinnati.

Over the course of eleven major league seasons and more than 3,000 at-bats, Bill Robinson proved his talent. Over parts of five major league seasons and only 125 at-bats, Chad Mottola comes across as a severe disappointment. The difference may lie only in the fact that Robinson had the benefit of a bona fide second chance whereas Mottola never received that opportunity.