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Mudville: April 20, 2024 10:09 am PDT

Bob Fontaine, Jr.

"I had a lot of friends tell me I should write about what it is like to have been a traditional scout, because we’re disappearing quickly."

If you have been following along on BallNine, you know that we love baseball scouts.

The new generation of employees in player development come with an Ivy League education, which can be incredibly useful in certain professions. But when it comes to baseball, we’ll take those who got their education at ballparks across America and beyond.

Perhaps no scout in the past 50 years has gained as much real-life experience as Bob Fontaine Jr., and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.

Fontaine can trace his baseball roots back to his dad, who was minor league teammates with Jackie Robinson before becoming Branch Rickey’s longtime most trusted scout. With an educational background like that, it’s no wonder Fontaine Jr. had the success he did.

The list of players he signed is downright jaw-dropping. It’s highlighted by Ozzie Smith, Tony Gwynn and Randy Johnson, three Hall of Famers who Fontaine drafted outside of the first round and is filled out with stars like Jim Edmonds, John Kruk, Ozzie Guillen, Garret Anderson and plenty of others.

Fontaine has a new book out, In Search of Millionaires: The Life of a Baseball Gypsy, and it’s a must-read for those who love true baseball stories. There’s an old axiom of being better off not seeing how the sausage is made, which we generally adhere to, but Fontaine’s book is the baseball version of a VIP tour of the sausage factory.

It’s a fascinating look at so many behind-the-scenes aspects about scouting, drafting and player development as well as Fontaine’s personal story.

In Search of Millionaires names names too. For example, Fontaine discusses how the Padres narrowed their 1981 draft choices down to Joe Carter, Kevin McReynolds and Bobby Meachem, before drafting McReynolds. Likewise, he discusses how the Angels were focused on pitching in the 1988 draft and how they sifted through Steve Avery, Andy Benes, Gregg Olson and Pat Combs before landing on Jim Abbott.

It’s truly captivating stuff and it just scrapes the surface of Fontaine’s experience.

If you’re one of those fans who has baseball history coursing their veins, join us as we go Spitballin’ with Bob Fontaine Jr.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Fontaine. Your scouting and front office career is so incredible that I don’t even know where to start. Let’s go back to your childhood first. Growing up, did you play baseball and were you a fan of any teams or players?

Growing up in a baseball family, my favorite team was whoever my father was working for at the time. Most of my formative years he was in Pittsburgh and also on the West Coast. Literally, ever since I can remember, I was at a ballpark and baseball got in my blood in a hurry. I knew right away this was the kind of life I wanted for myself. My father used to run a team in what was called the winter Peninsula League in the San Francisco Bay Area. They were mostly minor league players from the area. You put them in a league and kept them in shape before they went to Spring Training. I was the bat boy on a team and the first player who really spent time with me was Willie Stargell. To this day, he is still my idol. He took me under his wing, made sure I never got hurt, sat next to me and spent time talking with me. His influence in my life was unbelievable and carries on to now.

I’m glad you mentioned your dad. I wanted to ask a couple of questions about him. First, I saw that he was on the 1946 Montreal Royals, one of the best minor league teams ever assembled and also the only minor league team that Jackie Robinson played for. Can you tell us about that?

I tried my best to follow in my father’s footsteps and luckily, I was able to do some of the things he did. My dad grew up in that era with Jackie Robinson and he was good friends with Spider Jorgensen. My father always talked about his admiration for Jackie Robinson and not just how he handled everything. He talked about what a truly great player he was. My father was in an early picture with him in Spring Training and he was very proud of that. One thing that I didn’t learn until my father passed away was that the first game the Montreal club played in Montreal in ’46, my father was the starting pitcher. That’s not just a historical baseball time, that’s a historical time for our country.

“I’ve always felt there’s a place for numbers. Statistics have been around forever. But when it comes down to it, numbers or formulas don’t care if you win or lose.”

You got your start with the Padres in 1973 and they were still a young franchise. Could you talk about your experience getting started in San Diego?

We had no money, but just because we didn’t have money didn’t mean we couldn’t develop great players. We had great scouts and instructors, but the best thing we could offer was opportunity. Players could get to the Big Leagues in a hurry compared to other clubs. If you look through the history of the Padres in the early years, there were so many incredible players developed. I was brought up the “Branch Rickey Way.” My father started with Branch Rickey as a scout and then he taught me, so I learned what was called the “tools” approach. We looked for athletes. We tried to figure out what can and can’t be helped. That’s how I started and that’s how I evaluated every year I was in the game and I believed in it, because I saw it work so many times.

The first two things I looked for were feet and hands. Everything in baseball starts with the feet and ends with the hands. If your feet work, your hands have a chance to be at their best. You can’t teach someone to have fast feet. You could help them, but you can’t teach that. You have to be able to stay with the pace of the game too. A high school game isn’t as fast as a college game and a college game isn’t as fast as a Major League game. You have to find players who you know can stay with the pace of the game as they go through the different levels and the feet and hands play a big role in that.

Who has better hands and feet than Ozzie Smith, a guy you scouted and signed? I actually came across your scouting report for him when I was researching this interview. Can you talk about your experience with him?

Ozzie had been around the Southern California area for quite a while. You know, someone on the internet ripped me to pieces for that report. I started laughing. If it was such a bad report, how come I was the one who signed him and he went in the fourth round? I said that he was a great infielder with great foot movement. I thought if he hit, he would play every day and if he didn’t, he’d still be in the Big Leagues for a long time. I don’t know what would have been considered off about that at that time. He went in the fourth round because there were some “ifs” around him. If everyone knew he was gonna hit in the Big Leagues, he would have went 1-1. The first person who thought Ozzie Smith could hit in the Big Leagues was Ozzie.

Ozzie had the greatest first step that I ever saw, even in college. His hands were so smooth, and his release of the ball was so quick. Ozzie wasn’t an exceptionally fast runner when you went by time. He didn’t have an exceptionally strong arm either. But what he did have was that incredible first step that allowed him to steal so many bases in the Big Leagues. He had great arm action and had the quickness in his arm and wrists that allowed him to throw out everyone from the fastest runner to the slowest runner by a foot. He played with a joy too. Ozzie also made himself into a good hitter too. I’ve never seen a defender like him.

That’s amazing insight. What was your experience like scouting Tony Gwynn?

He came out late in the year for baseball because of basketball and hadn’t played as much baseball as other kids. He was teammates in college with Bobby Meacham, who was a first round pick. Scouting for San Diego, we got a chance to see a lot of him. Myself, Jack McKeon, Bob Miller, Cliff Ditto and Gary Sutherland were around there a lot. Tony grew on you. He wasn’t refined as a baseball player yet, but you saw him getting better. His balance at the plate was exceptional. He had such quick hands and did things with the bat that looked easy. We always figured we were gonna draft him because we knew him better than everyone else. The guys did a good job of understanding where he was gonna go in the draft because a lot of people thought he was going to choose basketball instead.

He’s another guy like Ozzie Smith. He loved to play and loved being at the ballpark. He always had a smile on his face. It’s funny, you look back at the great ones, guys like Derek Jeter, Mickey Mantle. They know they’re great and they love to be there. Tony and Ozzie were certainly like that.

I think the message in all of that is that you can’t devalue the human element when it comes to scouting. From what I can tell, the human element is being taken out of all aspects of the game by the people in charge today. Do you see that in modern scouting?

I’ve always felt there’s a place for numbers. Statistics have been around forever. But when it comes down to it, numbers or formulas don’t care if you win or lose. But the person who puts the emotion and reference into a decision wants to win. He or she wants to be right. There’s that inner passion you get, that gut feel; that says this is a person.

You can have three prospects who all grade exactly the same. Does that mean they’ll turn out to be the same player? No. One of them is probably going to get better, one might stay the same and one might get worse. It’s the human element that is going to tell you what’s going to happen with a human. You’ve watched a lot of baseball and so have I. How many guys do you see that have defied the numbers and defied what people have told them what they can and can’t do? That happens a lot.

I could ask about these players all day long, but I’ll just ask about one more. Can you talk about your experience with Jim Abbott?

I have more feelings about that selection than anyone I have ever been involved with. Jim Abbott had a great career but was he the best player I have ever been associated with? No. But, did he have as big an impact of anyone I have ever been involved with? I’d say yes. When he was draft eligible, we were looking desperately for a college pitcher. When you saw him throw, you came away saying this was a guy we had to consider. But for obvious reasons, there were questions about being able to field his position and do some other things. Our staff all liked him, but they weren’t unanimous in taking him first. But they were unanimous in thinking that he can field his position. He not only turned out to be a good fielder, but he was one of our best fielders.

I have to believe he was another guy where the human element played a huge role.

Even in college, when Jimmy was on the mound, the guys around him played better. I don’t have anything to back it up, it’s just a personal observation that guys raised their level of play when he pitched. He had one hand, but never had an excuse, so what excuse could you have? He won 12 games as a rookie, pitched a no-hitter. He never complained because he just wanted to play baseball. The year before he joined us in California, we had a decent club with some good players, but we finished in last place. When Jimmy joined us as a rookie, we just about had the same team and won 92 games. Now, it’s not all because of Jim Abbott, but I’ll tell you that he had a lot to do with it because of the way he approached the game. Look at the effect he had on fans too. I know because I can speak for myself. He made me feel good about the game of baseball again. The reception that he got around the country was phenomenal. He lifted up a lot of people and lifted up the game of baseball.

What was it like for you watching Jim Abbott have such immediate success?

Jimmy was supposed to go to Midland, which was our AA team in the Texas League. He went to Spring Training and every outing, he just kept getting better and better. I’ll never forget this. I was driving back to California from Arizona. We were playing the Padres and I was listening on the radio. About the seventh inning, Jimmy comes into the game and was pitching to Tony Gwynn and struck him out! Tony doesn’t strike out a whole lot, even in Spring Training. I was thinking to myself, “Oh my God, this guy might really have a chance.” A couple days later, Mike Port and Doug Rader called me and said he was gonna make the club. It was a big thrill.

Jim Abbott.

I read that more than half of the Angels 2002 World Series roster were Bob Fontaine Jr. signings. What was that like watching them win the World Series?

To be honest, it was bittersweet for Bill Bavasi and I. We were together there for 13 years and tried to stay with our plan, but a time came for us to go and I understand that’s part of the game. I was very appreciative to [General Manager] Bill Stoneman. When I left, I told him that there are a lot of people who don’t think we have players here, but there really are a lot of good young players. To his credit, he didn’t make any moves until he went around and saw what we had.

He made one major move and that was trading Jim Edmonds for Kent Bottenfield and Adam Kennedy, which were pieces they needed. Mike Scioscia did a great job of fitting it all together. So you feel great for those guys because they won, but you also feel bad for the people who helped build it who weren’t there anymore. I look back on it now with a smile, because not only were they great players, but they were great kids who came up through the system. They were great to Bill Bavasi and I and I thought Bill Stoneman and Mike Scioscia did a fantastic job finishing it off with a World Series.

I read that you endeavored to scout in Russia. How did that come about?

It was something we were trying to be ahead of the curve on and it was a great experience. With the Angels, we didn’t spend a lot of money in the Caribbean, so we were always looking for creative ways to find players. Bill Bavasi and I used to talk a lot about it. The Soviet Union, which was still Communist at the time, sent a team over to the Goodwill Games in Seattle. I know that when Russia decided to put together a hockey and basketball teams, they were in championship games on the world’s stage in a hurry. It really intrigued me that they were going to try baseball. I went to Tacoma and looked at them. They only had been a team for two years and they couldn’t compete with the top teams in the world, but they didn’t embarrass themselves. There’s a difference between being beaten and embarrassed. They were just two years in and competing well against our best college kids.

Were you able to find any Russian players?

About two years later, the Soviet Union fell. All of a sudden, a light bulb went on. Maybe we could get these guys early, build an academy and maybe start a foundation there. We couldn’t get in the country except that Peter Bavasi’s wife was teaching school at Moscow State and she got me an invitation to get into Russia. All of a sudden, I’m here in Moscow by myself with no cell phone. I’m riding buses and subways around. Nobody knew where I was, including me. We worked out a bunch of players, I signed a shortstop, third baseman and left-handed pitcher. This was all with the idea that we bring them back to the states to play and learn here as long as they can, then go back to Russia as Angels scouts.

Everything was going good, but then we couldn’t get the funding from our club. One other thing too, when the Soviet Union was in place, they could get all the money they needed to fund teams. When the government fell, they didn’t have the money. There are a still some efforts there and their amateur baseball is really getting popular. I do believe that if we were able to do what we wanted to do, we would have had a Russian player in the Majors in the early 2000s. Their strength, dedication and work ethic was incredible and they were great teammates with our American kids.

That’s absolutely fascinating and I completely understand why you wrote your book. The book is called In Search of Millionaires: The Life of a Baseball Gypsy. What made you want to write these incredible stories?

This book was written for my kids. My life was spent on the road and even though you do your best, you miss so much of their lives. As you get older, your guilt starts seeping in more and more. I missed so much of my kids’ lives, but they never complained. They got to go to Big League games and go to some other things, but I missed a lot. When you really enjoy doing something, those around you may like it too, but they don’t share that same enjoyment you have. I wanted to have documentation for my kids as to why I missed so much. This is why a high school graduate was able to provide for the family.

As time went on, I had a lot of friends tell me I should write about what it is like to have been a traditional scout, because we’re disappearing quickly. The young writer I worked with, Taylor Blake Ward, did a tremendous job. His fact-checking was perfect and he spent hours upon hours doing that. He’s a baseball nut like us. I wrote this book with my kids in mind, but I hope everyone can enjoy the baseball stories that I shared. F

Bob Fontaine’s book, In Search of Millionaires: The Life of a Baseball Gypsy, is available now through all outlets. Written with Taylor Blake Ward, the book is a fascinating look behind the scenes of Major League Baseball scouting, drafting, player development and roster construction. Bob Fontaine Jr. spent 48 plus years as a baseball scout, traveling the world to find the next superstars of the sport. From drafting a one-handed pitcher to building the foundation of a World Series roster, Fontaine’s success of looking for projection on amateur players in near unmatched within the baseball scouting business. 

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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